Michael Smith interviews Paul Berkemeier in the second of his Leading Towards Gender Equity series.


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

Interview 2: Paul Berkemeier 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.

R+BA How important is this issue to you as a leader of the architecture profession?

PB It is very important. As architects we design projects that will be used by everyone in our diverse community. It is imperative that the architectural profession itself reflects this diversity.  Despite the great changes I have seen in the place of women in the profession during my own career, we are still well behind where we should be. The ARC Equity and Diversity study gives us solid evidence of the need to effect change.  The Institute must lead.

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

PB It will improve the range of architectural practice, promote difference and will improve the quality of projects that we can provide for the community. It will also improve the culture of practice and encourage more flexible work practices that will benefit male practitioners as well as female. Architecture is ideally placed as a profession to use technologies and flexible work practices to suit the needs of work-life balance.

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

PB The feedback has been really great. As National President for the past year, I travelled broadly and engaged with international colleagues, Institutes and related organisations. I made a particular point of discussing gender balance at many international meetings and forums, and promoted Parlour and the associated Equity and Diversity research project. The project struck a particular chord in the USA, where the new president Helene Coombes Dreiling and her successor in 2015, Elizabeth Chu Richter, are very keen to work with us, share initiatives, and build on each other’s work.  There is similar interest from around the world, from Africa, Asia, the Americas and Europe. The time is right.

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

PB This is a tough one, as it is tricky to reconcile our need to allow all members a voice in electing state and national representatives, while at the same time mandating diversity and gender balance. I am not in favour of quotas across the board, unless we cannot bring about change without them.

Our National Council should reflect the gender and cultural mix of our nation, at present it fails to do so. It succeeds however in achieving a reasonable balance of representation from all states and territories. We need to find ways of achieving both.

Our Chapter Councils, committees and task groups vary in their member diversity, from very good to very unbalanced.

I think we should consider a multi-pronged approach to change, including:

  • A requirement for reasonable balance of gender, age and background on all our committees and task groups. These are appointed from the membership and change is readily achievable in the short term.
  • Secondly we must encourage and nominate good female candidates to Chapter Council elections. We must also encourage members to vote – the current percentages are very low, both at Chapter and National level. A clear strategy in Victoria this year delivered a Council with female majority. NSW had a very different outcome, with a strong male dominance – this is very disappointing and 2015 must be different.
  • National Council must represent the interests of Chapters and members around the nation, along with SONA and EmAGN members. It should achieve this with good gender balance and diversity. We must encourage good women candidates to stand as Chapter Presidents and for nationally elected positions on Council. We should develop clear targets for achieving a balance in candidates who nominate. If necessary we could consider other strategies, such as mandating half of the four nationally elected positions be for women and half for men – an idea floated recently by incoming President David Karotkin. Such a move could well fit with the intent of these positions to bring a better balance to the National Council.
  • We need to see more women on the stage at all our awards presentations. I’ve been around the country over the last couple of years and am getting weary of seeing so many bald or grey haired blokes in black making the acceptance speeches, while the women are in the background. Let’s take notice and change the culture.

I have great confidence in the newly formed National Gender Equity Committee and the advice it will bring to National Council.

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

PB Change has been on the radar for many years. Paula Whitman’s work was ground breaking, but a decade on, not enough has altered. The ARC study is an important milestone but must be followed by clear strategies and action. We must now define our targets, have annual reporting to National Council, conduct detailed audits on a three or four year cycle and report regularly to the membership.

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

PB I’m an optimist, many things can be achieved quickly if we work together, particularly in the composition of our councils and committees.  The full scope of cultural shift within practice will take longer, perhaps one or two decades. I studied in the 1970s when the gender balance in architecture programs was approaching 50/50, but it has taken 40 years to see appreciable change in practice. The important thing is that we take real action, keep our eyes on the targets, and measure positive change from year to year. We must believe in change and keep driving it.

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

PB Fundamental: To help initiate, to convince colleagues about the need for equity, to facilitate new work practices, to mentor and to find and promote as many other ways as possible.

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?

PB I think Parlour has had a tremendous impact. It has been guided by Justine Clark and the team with relentless enthusiasm. Parlour and the ARC research project have been driven with a particular passion by the team and their collaborators in the profession, universities and the Institute. Other projects can learn from the model but will need similar support, drive and broad-based funding to achieve comparable results.

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?

PB I’m not sure. Some practices are demonstrating real leadership and I would prefer to promote them as exemplars. I may change my mind if I have not seen appreciable change in the next five years. An alternative approach could be to develop a model charter for equity and diversity in practice.  This could be very useful in helping practices understand what they should be targeting.

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

PB Believe in your skills, have a clear voice and be confident in what you can achieve. Raise issues of discrimination when you see them, and do so in a way that will help get improvement. Develop a good balance of private and work life, and remain committed to architecture – it is a great vocation and what we can do really matters.

R+BA Thanks again for the time you have taken to respond to the questions.