Heather MacRae reflects on her work in Groote Eylandt, where she discovered unexpected strength and opportunity in being a woman architect in remote communities of far north Australia.

For the past five weeks, thanks to the COVID-19 crisis I have been working from home. While I miss the buzz of our lovely small studio, I have been able to reflect on my two and a half years working in remote communities in the Northern Territory. My experiences have ranged from facing some seriously sexist behaviour to finding and learning to honour the power of being a woman working as an architect. In the past, rather than share my experiences with colleagues, friends and family I have tended to keep them to myself as it was so far outside the reality of many in my network.

In 2017, I started work on a series of housing and community infrastructure projects in a number of remote communities in the Northern Territory, which saw me travelling monthly for over two years. All these places are incredibly complex social spaces with personalities and history that would take an age to fully comprehend. Communities are made up of fly-in fly-out workers, consultants, short (aka “they won’t last long”) and long-term resident workers. Most people are ‘from’ somewhere else and there tends to be a lot a “seagulls”: white folk who come in, make a mess and then fly away again.

Importantly, there is also the local Indigenous community – a complex, political layering of family and clan groups, Elders and Traditional Owners to name a few. Despite initial advice that many Indigenous communities are patriarchal and that I might need to take the back seat, the level of respect I felt was incredible and I never experienced an imbalance in the way I was treated. I came to learn about the different roles that men and women occupy within their community as a part of their culture. I saw how the ideas of family and gender were different to our western notion. I was continually amazed and inspired to see the sacrifices made for family, particularly in periods of grief or hardship.

I have spent my architectural career, both in education and practice, believing that my gender does not define me. I can say that for the majority of my professional career I have been very fortunate to not be significantly impacted by workplace bias or gender stereotypes. There have been occasions that my hand isn’t accepted as unreservedly for a handshake as my male colleagues, but I have always worked within teams that don’t accept that behaviour and have always been provided with support and encouragement. Transitioning to a remote environment, I was suddenly faced with a series of new challenges as a young female architect working in a white ‘hypermasculine’ space.

I have had older white men ask me why I am not married and I have been faced with unsolicited feedback as to why this is the case! I have been repeatedly called sweetheart, love and darling and, on occasion, have been bypassed for information or input on projects that I am managing. All of this behaviour has been directed to me by older white men – most in positions of authority!

The gender imbalance in the construction industry is compounded in these locations and I often found myself being the only woman in the room. Sometimes I felt like I was not being taken seriously. It seemed to me that some men were just not used to working with a woman professionally and were unsure of how to manage or adapt their communication skills in a situation new to them.

There was also a general feeling of unease. When staying in accommodation generally used to house FIFO workers (known as ‘single men’s quarters’ for good reason) I had to get used to inquisitive stares. Nothing untoward – there was just a sense that you are of interest for the wrong reasons. I found myself retreating to a position of being on guard and having to sit with the reality that it was going to be extra hard to push through gender bias.

I stood my ground as firmly as I could, but there were so many other factors at play that made it difficult to properly address the sexism that I faced. The pressure of deadlines, compartmentalising the traumatic third world conditions I found myself working in, extreme cultural differences – not to mention the intense heat and humidity.

The first trip I did alone, without my male director, was an eye opener. I was on guard, fearful that this could be the moment where comments and prejudices could tip me over the edge. But, surprisingly, something else opened up. The trip involved significant consultation around community housing and many conversations with local Indigenous women. Suddenly, I was privy to an environment that I hadn’t been previously, because I had always been in the company of a man. In this all-female group, women spoke to me in a way they had never done before.

The floodgates had opened. I felt incredibly humbled to be a part of their discussion; listening to their stories and sharing experiences. It was heartbreaking to hear their struggles and to realise I probably will never (hopefully and no doubt statistically) experience such adversity. It was not just the difficulties that came through but strength and compassion as well. For the first time, in this remote environment, I felt safe. I no longer had to be on guard or worry about not looking ‘professional’ or having to prove something or assertively stake my claim. As the background noises softened, I just had to be truthful and honour the mutual respect. It was refreshing.

I had been so used to striving towards a space where we can see beyond the gender roles in architecture – and then suddenly I am embracing them? This didn’t come naturally to me and I found myself resistant at first. There was a tension in thinking that I had to be a certain way to move past the sexism and bias to be recognised in my industry. This, of course, is a universal issue faced by many professional women striving to succeed in a male-dominated world.

It was only when I started to work in a space that required me to be so strongly connected to my gender, that I could clearly see the problems with this approach. I could see that in the process of gaining respect and professional standing in the male-dominated construction world, I was closing off opportunities and losing too much of myself. By learning to embrace my womanhood, opportunities opened up and my work improved. I acknowledged that it’s OK to be in a space where I am the person who needs to have a conversation with women about how their kitchen works, how they bathe babies, and what family life at home is like. If I couldn’t connect and gain the trust with the women I worked with, who would be there to listen to their stories and ensure designs respond accordingly?

Gender doesn’t define us but, as I have learnt, in certain environments there is strength and opportunity in being female. This experience has taught me that good relationships are founded on equity and mutual respect. Not just in the space of gender, but culture as well. My experience of working in remote communities has been both incredibly challenging and enriching. Despite all the sexist remarks and behaviour, I have developed some of the strongest relationships of my career. Working so closely with Indigenous communities has been personally fulfilling and gaining the respect of the non-Indigenous, predominantly male community has been a lesson in empowerment.

Heather MacRae is an Associate and registered architect at The Fulcrum Agency with experience delivering complex projects in metropolitan Perth as well as remote communities in the far north of Australia. Heather has a belief in architecture’s potential to enhance lives and empower communities. Through her leadership on a series of innovative housing and community infrastructure projects on Groote Eylandt in the Northern Territory, Heather has developed skills in consulting with diverse stakeholders and complex multi-disciplinary teams.

Photos: Bo Wong