Rebecca Graham of Prelude Design reflects on some of the barriers to remaining in the architecture profession – particularly for women – and on the support that she has given and received along the way.

It is not a new phenomenon – it’s something I have been aware of since the early days of architecture school – that once you get out into the architecture profession, you notice that the numbers of older women around you start to diminish. It is for this reason that very early on as a woman in architecture I felt a sisterly obligation to encourage my female colleagues and to help keep fellow women in the architecture profession.

When I started out I found myself being drawn to other women in the profession, seeking out mentors and making great friends in the process. As I got older and attained more senior roles I also felt responsibility to nurture and encourage younger women architects, to stand up for them and redress the gender imbalance in the profession. I always told myself that I wasn’t going to be one of those women that contributed to the statistics on the declining numbers of female architects. And I would continue to be an architect and do everything in my power to keep my name on that coveted register of architects. I didn’t mind being in a minority, as long as I kept doing good work. I also discovered that once you got out of the office, you ended up working with other smart women – as suppliers, consultants and clients.

What I never anticipated was that this issue could more directly affect me, and for a project architect used to having control and a handle on multiple things at any one time, I found this a very uncomfortable discovery. It was after being made redundant late last year that I had lots of time to think about it – about the next steps that were possible for me, while also looking after my two small children.

After a few missteps trying to find part-time work in a new practice I began to explore starting up my own business, as a way of keeping my hand in the profession, on my own terms. It was during this exploration that I encountered a series of barriers that I presume contribute greatly to the drop off of female architects in the profession, particularly those women in a similar position to mine.

Here are a few of the minimum requirements for architects in Victoria:

  • Registration fee with Architects Registration Board of Victoria (ARBV) — $250 per annum.
  • Professional Indemnity Insurance, a compulsory requirement to enable registration — a minimum of $1500 per annum.
  • Continuing Professional Development (CPD), not yet compulsory in Victoria but compulsory elsewhere in Australia — a minimum of 20 hours of CPD per registration year including 10 formal hours and 10 informal hours, and a minimum of 5 separate activities for formal hours with costs for these varying, depending on the provider.
  • The ARBV has no official provision for taking a period of parental leave from the register. The only available option is to nominate as non-practising architect ($100 per annum) for the period of absence from work. However, the draft Victorian CPD framework states that a non-practising architect is required to complete 20 hours of CPD as per the yearly requirement over a two-year period. The reality of this is that if you have more than one year of leave you may need to conduct your CPD while not earning an income.
  • Australian Institute of Architects membership, while not compulsory, enables access to what is happening in the industry, including to CPD events during the year — $222 per annum. The Institute has recognised the barriers for parents, of maintaining membership while they are taking leave, and have introduced more flexible membership options.

These expenses are on top of the usual expenses for starting up and running a small business. While they may not seem huge to someone working in an architecture practice, I believe they do become another real barrier to women maintaining their title as an architect. I believe the ARBV needs to introduce a special parental leave membership option to encourage and support architects to maintain their professional registration.

Despite all this depressing data though, and thanks to the timely availability of some university teaching work and a very supportive partner (not an architect), I have been able to set up my own small business. I am still an architect and am hoping to have the flexibility to be able to work around my children’s timetables for the next few years at least. I have been heartened by the support and encouragement I have received from all those friends, male and female, I have made along the way. Since losing my security blanket of employment it has been most encouraging to have the support of colleagues, including many who have faced similar predicaments. Contacts and job opportunities have been shared, along with hints of the few practices that accommodate part-time work. Social media has also been a savior, enabling connection with like-minded people and access to writing that discusses these issues, in Australia and beyond. This is not a new issue, yet now we have an opportunity to share our stories instantly, and to access an amazing wealth of shared knowledge.

So, as I write, I am still an architect and am hoping to be one for many years to come. But I can now see much more clearly why so many are not. I wonder, in the years to come, what I will say if my daughter comes to me and says, ‘Mummy I want to be an architect’.