Michael Smith is a member of the newly formed Australian Institute of Architects National Committee on Gender Equity. In preparing for this new role he has interviewed four key figures within the Institute about gender equity.


Parlour is very pleased to co-publish these interviews, which first appeared on Michael’s excellent blog, The Red and Black Architect.

Interview 1: Shelley Penn and the Red & Black Architect

With the completion of the ARC-funded research project Equity and Diversity in the Australian Architectural Profession, it is up to the profession to take the evidence on board and draw a new and more equitable future for itself. With this task ahead I took the opportunity to check in with some of the national leaders on this issue.

Leading Towards Gender Equity is a four-part series of interviews with some of the most widely regarded leaders of the architectural profession in Australia. The focus is on leadership, creating positive change within architecture and addressing the various issues surrounding gender equity.

First in the series is architect Shelley Penn. Shelley was the National President of the Australian Institute of Architects in 2012 and has also previously served on the National Council for many years. Shelley is also the Chair of the National Capital Authority and is a member of the newly formed Institute National Committee on Gender Equity. It is hard to find a better example of a sole practitioner architect having a massive impact on a national scale.

Red +Black Architect
How important is this issue to you as a leader of the architecture profession?

Shelley Penn
It is a fundamental. Half the population and more than 40% of architecture graduates are women! Yet they are underrepresented at senior and leadership positions in the profession. Greater diversity will enrich architectural practice and our ability to serve the diverse Australian community through relevant architecture.

R+BA What do you see as the greatest opportunity or benefit to come from this gender equity agenda?

SP More women leading in practice; more diverse architectural practice; more diverse architecture. For the Institute, a larger and broader member base.

R+BA The Parlour project seems to be having an impact nationally and even internationally, what feedback have you been getting?

SP All of the feedback has been fabulous.

R+BA Should we be looking at revising the Australian Institute of Architects election processes such that there is a minimum numbers of men and women on the national and state councils?

SP Possibly, though I feel the big change needed is cultural. With more women participating, more women members, and greater respect for diversity being demonstrated, the culture will shift and more women will stand and be elected. Have a look at the Victorian Chapter – there are more women than men on council. This is a first for the Institute. Having said that, the culture will change with a combination of policy, advocacy, and changes to the rules that support equity.

R+BA What measure of success should we be using to assess our progress towards gender equity?

SP I think there are several. One key one would be more women members of the Institute, and women who are active as leaders in the Institute. I hope this will shift quickly. Some other key measures would be increases in the number of women practice directors and associates, and in the number of registered women architects et cetera. Another more complex one might be how we measure professional credibility. For example recognition of the value of excellent practice that is conducted by part-time architects…

R+BA How long do you think it will be before we achieve this goal in the Australian architecture profession?

SP I think it will take quite a while.

R+BA What role do you see men having in the ongoing drive to achieve gender equity?

SP A critical role. It is about how we practice. There are benefits to all architects through recognising diverse ways of practicing and balancing of other parts of life, and there are benefits in terms of broader architectural outcomes.

R+BA What do you think about the ARC grant and Parlour project as a model for change? Could a similar process be used for tackling other issues or addressing equity in other industries?

SP ARC linkage grants are excellent vehicles for complex research and can be used with great success to generate positive change through evidence-based approaches. It’s critical that the Australian Government continues to support such research. Parlour is a clever, strategic and highly effective forum for exchange, dissemination of research outcomes and advocacy. A lot of its success is to do with how well it has been put together and how well it is moderated and managed, and the fact that it clearly responds to a real need.

R+BA What do you think about the Institute facilitating an ethical employment scheme? The idea of this scheme would be to publicly acknowledge ethical employers who agreeing to sign statutory declarations which enforced their adherence to a higher ethical standard. Is this a good idea and could it work?

SP Yes it is a great idea.

R+BA What advice would you give to a young and enthusiastic female architecture graduate, who is about to enter the workforce?

SP Do your best! Do it your way. Don’t be cowed by the perceived ‘norms’. You can be an architect in whatever way you want and that’s ok. If you want to be a good architect you have to work hard, with integrity. Reflect and always aim to do better, be ambitious in aiming to make good work, but beyond that do it part-time, full-time, alone or with others, big or small practice, whatever…Your way is ok.

R+BA Thanks for your time