Gill Matthewson, Naomi Stead and Karen Burns presented the paper “Women and Leadership in the Australian Architecture Profession: Prelude to a Research Project” at the Women, Leadership and Democracy conference in Canberra in December 2011. This paper details the current research project – the version presented at the conference follows. A longer, refereed version will be available in the online proceedings shortly.

Plan for Canberra, Walter Burley Griffon and Marion Mahony Griffin. National Archives of Australia


Women have been an active part of architecture in Australia for more than a hundred years. By the late 1990s the rate of women entering the profession had reached an all-time high, leading to predictions that they would form 40% of the profession by 2018. However, in 2005, a survey of women architects by academic and architect Paula Whitman found that progress was much slower than anticipated. Women constituted just 14.2% of the profession in 2004 (as measured by registration) but, more critically, the study found that only 1% of company directors were women (in Queensland).

Such dramatic stratification and under-representation in professional leadership roles in architecture is not restricted to Australia: Canada, the US, New Zealand and the UK all report similar patterns – the results of a 2003 UK study were published under the blunt title ‘Why Do Women Leave Architecture?’. But the Whitman survey also found that women architects chose not to pursue high levels of seniority, and that a significant number of survey respondents had declined a promotion at some time in their career. While Whitman acknowledged the limitations of her own methodology and data, the question remains – just how much of a ‘choice’ is this choice?

In research on the architectural profession in Australia so far, there is a lack of work on the kinds of conditions that inform the choices women architects make. Such conditions clearly impose constraints and impediments that slow women’s progression to the highest and most influential levels of the architecture profession. These impediments are still poorly understood by both the profession and its representative bodies. As architectural academic Francesca Hughes has noted, “[t]he absence of women from the profession of architecture remains, despite the various theories, very difficult to explain and very slow to change”.1

In response to this ongoing issue, in 2010 a collaborative group of scholars from five universities across three states were successful in applying for an Australian Research Council Linkage grant for the project ‘Equity and Diversity in the Australian Architecture Profession: Women, Work, and Leadership,’ which formally began in April 2011 and will run until 2014. It has five Industry Partners: The Australian Institute of Architects (nationally, not one particular state); Architecture Media; BVN Architecture; Bates Smart; and PTW Architects. The project seeks to understand what is currently occurring to both aid and prevent women’s advancement and retention through the profession, and into senior and leadership positions. In this paper I will introduce some of the aims and background to the project, some of its initial findings and challenges, and some questions to be addressed as it proceeds.


There are three important sites of architectural production. The building site is where architects most clearly see the production of architecture. The architectural media in all its diverse forms is where the representation and discussion of architects and buildings sets terms of definition, judgment, circulation of buildings and profile. The architectural office is far less visible: but since it houses, structures and organizes architectural labour, processes of decision making, communication and negotiation – we argue that it is a crucial site of production and representation.

And so the project will work with three large architectural practices who are both partners and case studies for the investigation. Using the culture of these offices as a study, we seek to understand how gender and workplace intersect in positive ways and in ways that may slow women’s career progression. We aim to map women’s participation in the profession and to understand why women are under-represented in senior management. We will look at both barriers and good employment practice. Finally, we aim to argue the case for the social, economic and architectural benefits of a gender-diverse workforce.

The situation

In 2002, the Whitman survey notes that women were 43% of architecture students in Australia but only 14.2% of the profession. In 2010 those numbers are 44% of students, and around 20% of registered architects.2 This marked disparity between education and the profession is noted in other countries (2010 figures for New Zealand are 48% of students and 17.3% of registered architects). While the proportion of women in the profession is indeed increasing, it is a very slow increment. Patricia Conway, in her foreword to a 1996 North American anthology of architectural history and theory The Sex of Architecture observed:

For the last two decades, they [women] have constituted nearly half the enrolment in this country’s most prestigious architecture programs – programs from which they consistently graduated at the tops of their classes. Yet in 1995, only 8.9% of registered architects and 8.7% of tenured faculty in the United States were women.3

Fifteen years later in 2010, women comprised 17% of US registered architects. A significant increase yet still very low considering thirty-five years of near equal numbers of male and female architecture students.

The statistics from the architecture profession confirm a broader social trend within professions and business. Many of these areas report a gap between women’s access to education and subsequent professional achievement and disparities of seniority. For instance the Victorian Women Lawyers association reports that across 2008 and 2009, almost 50% of barristers signing the law rolls are women. However, women form only 22% of lawyers at the bar. As widely reported earlier this year, in Australia in 2010 women represent 9.8% of directors in the top two hundred company boards.4

Another discovery from the statistical data is that women earn less. The Royal Architectural Institute of Canada 2003 Report records that full-time women architectural workers earn 82% of the salary of full-time male workers in architecture, and part-time women architectural workers earn 62% of the salary of part-time male workers in architecture. Comparative professions also report the earning equality gap. Full-time women civil engineers earn 80% of male salaries, general practitioners earn 70%, dentists earn 66% and lawyers/notaries earn 68%. The reasons for this gap are complex but surely involve the over-representation of women at more junior levels of professions and management, which means lesser earnings.

There is also a gendered difference in the extent of labour market participation. Women are over-represented in the part-time workforce in architecture, and this limits earnings and career opportunities. A 2004 UK architectural survey reported that two-thirds of women in architecture had worked part-time at some stage.5

Once again labour patterns in architecture can be contextualised within broader social trends. In 2010, a University of Melbourne  longitudinal study of graduates now aged in their mid-thirties found “only 38.4% of women with university degrees worked full-time, compared to 90% of university educated Gen X men.”6 Again the reasons for women’s over-representation in part-time work are complex. It has been argued that women move between full-time and part-time work over the course of their lives “according to their work histories and positions in the family life cycle.”7 From the statistical data alone we can note women’s greater representation in different work experiences: across retention rates, lesser earnings, more junior positions and the part-time work force.

No job, occupation or profession is gender-neutral

Thus the slow progress and stratification of women seen in the architectural profession is shared with other occupations and professions. Extensive social science research has revealed how concepts of gender are implicated in structuring society, including especially work culture. The 2010 Monash University ‘Social inclusion at Monash: gender equity strategy 2010–2015’ report notes three things as gendered norms: linear employment, long hours and the absolute prioritizing of work. These form the ‘ideal worker’; someone who is available ‘anytime, anywhere’.8 Such availability implies a worker with no commitments or obligations outside of their job; traditionally, this is the ‘man the breadwinner’ with a wife at home. Despite more ‘wives’ in the workforce this model of the ideal worker still persists. And because, even in the twenty-first century, women still take on more of the responsibilities of the domestic world than men, this ideal worker model constitutes a structural disadvantage for women.9

Stereotypes based on gender sometimes act prescriptively (an assumption that women or men should conform to a gender stereotype) or descriptively (a presumption that women or men will conform to a gender stereotype).10 Stereotypes are not so much what individual women and men are like, but what they are allowed to be like and perceived to be like.

But it is not just traditional ideas of family structure and women’s role operating here. US professor of psychology, Virginia Valian has developed a concept of gender schemas and consequent accumulation of advantage to explain other ways in which gender impacts in the workplace. Gender (along with race, age, clothing, etc) is a way of short-cutting our assessment of people, it makes social life more manageable. 11 Gender schemas are approximations and are not necessarily sexist, but “sexism steps in when values are attached or when prescriptions imposed.”12 Valian cites numerous studies that show that despite stated beliefs in ‘equality’, in general, people underestimate women and overestimate men.13 Although such estimates may be quite small and certainly often unconscious, they add up over time such that men’s accumulated advantages ease their careers.

The professions

These issues become compounded in the professions. Professions are generally considered to involve a specialised knowledge base gained through a relatively lengthy period of tertiary education followed by vocational training and experience.14 Achievement of this knowledge base is formally tested. In English speaking countries such as Australia, membership of a profession is strictly controlled by the rules of the education system, legal licensing and a professional body, and “these rules work to protect the incomes and social status of professionals through the exclusion of lay persons”.15 Thus, a profession sets the boundaries of a market for services. Along with economic benefit there is also a class dimension where an occupation is lifted from lower class manual work into the middle class and subsequent status.

Certainly there were multiple barriers to women’s participation in all professions until shifts in education and opportunity throughout the twentieth century enabled freer entry.

Sociologist Julia Evetts argues that once defined as a ‘professional’ there are no acceptable limits, the needs of others become paramount.16 As such arguing for better working conditions or considerations within a profession is seen as ‘unprofessional’. A professional person is then a more intense version of the ideal worker.

Underlying the ideology of the professions is the idea that their work is of high value to society. Because of the long period of training involved, an intensive commitment is required and there is an expectation (even as a ‘need’) to live and breathe the profession.17 Thus a professional works less for the money than within an ethical framework which prizes altruism, integrity and sacrifice. Architect and academic Debra Coleman notes that many women have thought this ideal of integrity in the professions would prevent gender-based inequity and argues that in a gendered world it is still no guarantee.18

 The architectural profession

We hypothesise that the nature of the architectural profession compounds the issue further. Fowler and Wilson report that young women leave the architectural profession due to lengthy hours, slow career progression and low pay. A 2000 Canadian study produced one of the few comparative accounts of male and female exits from architecture and discovered that men departed for the same reasons, including low salaries and economic downturn.19 However, this information acquires more complex detail when we examine the list of fifteen reasons given by the RIBA 2003 report ‘Why Do Women Leave Architecture?’:

  • Low pay
  • Unequal pay
  • Long working hours
  • Inflexible/un-family-friendly work hours
  • Sidelining
  • Stressful working conditions
  • Protective paternalism preventing development of experience
  • Limited area of work
  • Glass ceiling
  • Macho culture
  • Sexism
  • Redundancy and/or dismissal
  • High litigation risk and high insurance costs
  • Lack of returnee training
  • More job satisfaction elsewhere

Of these fifteen reasons, seven deal with forms of gender discrimination that limit work experience and advancement opportunities. A further three deal with the family/work balance, which includes the issue of long hours and lack of returnee training. Thus two thirds of the reasons collated by the report given for women’s exit from the profession are gender-based. Separately, a third could be considered particular to architecture: paternalism, macho culture (usually due to the highly masculinised nature of the building industry overall), litigation issues, with stressful working conditions and redundancy indicative of the volatile nature of the building industry which is subject to extreme booms and busts.

Architecture has sometimes been called an ‘idiosyncratic’ profession that combines (or attempts to combine) the creative and building industries, art and business, creativity and technology. It does not conform to the template of the ‘classic’ professions of law and medicine. Sociologist Judith Blau argues that it is different from these professions in a number of aspects.20 Firstly, its importance to the public is much less than medicine and law, both of which claim to protect the individual in direct ways.21 Architecture is also more deeply aligned with corporate elites, providing services to the rich and powerful (who can afford to build) and so its claim to altruism is more suspect.22 Whilst the knowledge bases of medicine and law are added to more or less incrementally, architecture is subjected to radical changes as ideas about design, function, etc are re-evaluated on a regular basis and therefore its education is much less uniform.23 Finally, Blau notes that architecture has resisted specialisation whereas for the other professions specialisation is seen as an assurance of their complex knowledge base.24

Consequently, the architecture profession has been described as being in crisis by commentators for at least the last fifty years, if not longer.25 The roots of the crisis are usually described as a series of almost irreconcilable tensions within architecture. Professor of architecture and sociologist, Dana Cuff, describes a series of dialectic dualities structuring practice: the individual against the collective; art versus business; design as decision-making versus design as making sense of a situation; and architect as specialist or qualified generalist.26

Andrew Saint considers the most significant of these tensions as that between architecture as an art, and architecture as a business.27 Blau agrees that in architectural practice where creativity/art is ranged against a complex socio-economic environment, inconsistencies and inescapable dilemmas are generated.28

In either formulation, architecture holds particular difficulties for women. As a business, architecture places the same difficulties for women becoming leaders as other businesses noted above. As an art, architecture triggers a whole other series of problems for women’s place and advancement.

The project

So as we can see, there are multiple factors that impact on the longevity of women’s participation in the architectural profession, their relative invisibility despite significant and historical contributions, and their under-representation at senior levels. In our project, testing how these factors operate will be the task of the case studies investigating workplace culture.

A number of the recent studies (including Whitman and De Graft) have used surveys as the basis of their analysis providing primarily quantitative information limited by both the questions asked and who elects to answer them. This project’s research methodology is to build on quantitative information using qualitative methodologies, including in-depth interviews, participant observation in the work environment, and visual documentation of the practice.

There are a number of reasons for choosing large practices to study. Firstly, big offices are large enough to study women’s ascent through the career ladder. Secondly, they also have not been well-surveyed in the past. For the Whitman survey information was gathered from a self-selected group accessed through membership of the Australian Institute of Architects. Employed architects in large practices are much less likely to be members of the AIA to the extent that in December 2009 the Institute brought in a new category of membership to accommodate such people more easily.29

Thirdly, women’s involvement in the architecture environment is not easily accessible by standard quantitative means. A straight count of registered architects and members of the Australian Institute of Architects gives numbers and percentages that are low and therefore concerning, as noted earlier. There is, however, strong evidence that such counts do not properly measure or reflect women’s participation in the profession, as one can be working as an architect (particularly in a large practice) and be neither registered nor a member of the Institute. In this respect, architecture as a profession differs markedly from medicine and law where one must be registered to practice.

Robert Gutman calculated in 1988 that just over 75% of the 90,000 architectural practitioners in the USA were registered.30 Canadian research in 2000 likewise discovered that registration and membership of Institutes of Architecture were poor measures.31 They concluded that “[t]he exclusion of the unregistered professional from any discussion of architectural practice neglects a wide range of women’s contributions, while misrepresenting, to a lesser extent, the presence of men”.32 The 2006 Australian census gives a higher figure of 23.3% for women who coded their occupation ‘architect’ than the registered count in 2004 of 14.2%.

In addition to the case studies, comparative studies of how the profession operates in other countries will be conducted with particular attention to the policy frameworks under which architecture operates. One of the projects’ key outcomes will be a draft national policy on equity and diversity in the architecture profession for the Australian Institute of Architects. Australia’s lack, unique among comparable countries, of an overarching Institute policy on equity and diversity requires rectification. The policy is expected to include how to design and implement strategies to redress and improve women’s workforce participation and to determine best practice models to foster greater opportunity for the advancement of women architects into senior management positions. It will be informed by other countries’ practices and the information gleaned from the case studies.

The other key outcome of the project is communication. Communication of our findings will also raise the visibility of women in office practice and contribute to scholarship. Developing a best-practice model from the research results offers a blueprint for Australian architectural business seeking to be in step with corporate and government clients on issues of social inclusion and well-rounded employees.

  1. Francesca Hughes, The Architect: Reconstructing Her Practice (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1996), x.
  2. Australian Institute of Architects, “Architecture Schools of Australasia 2011” (Barton, ACT: Australian Institute of Architects, National Office, 2011).
  3. Noted in the foreword by Patricia Conway in Diana I. Agrest, Leslie Kanes Weisman, and Patricia Conway, The Sex of Architecture (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1996), 10.
  4. The Age, 19 September 2011
  5. Bridget Fowler and Fiona Wilson, “Women Architects and Their Discontents,” Sociology 38, no. 1 (2004).
  6. “Gen X Women Graduates”, Graduate School of Education, Melbourne University 2011; The Age, 11 July 2010.
  7. See Janet Walsh, “Myths and Counter-Myths: An Analysis of Part-Time Female Employees and Their Orientations to Work and Working Hours,” Work, Employment and Society 13, no. 2 (1999). A study of the banking industry.
  8. Georges Desvaux, Sandrine Devillard, and Sandra Sancier-Sultan, “Women Matter: Women at the Top of Corporations: Making It Happen,” (McKinsey & Company, 2010), 6.
  9. See Arlie Russell Hochschild and Anne Machung, The Second Shift: Working Parents and the Revolution at Home (New York: Viking, 1989); Arlie Russell Hochschild, The Time Bind: When Work Becomes Home and Home Becomes Work (New York: Metropolitan Books, 1997).
  10. Joan C. Williams, “The Glass Ceiling and the Maternal Wall in Academia,” New Directions for Higher Education 2005, no. 130 (2005): 92.
  11. Barbara Risman cited in Amy S. Wharton, The Sociology of Gender: An Introduction to Theory and Research (Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub, 2005), 68.
  12. Virginia Valian, “Beyond Gender Schemas: Improving the Advancement of Women in Academia,” Hypatia 20, no. 3 (2005): 199.
  13. Virginia Valian, “Sex, Schemas, and Success: What’s Keeping Women Back?,” Academe 84, no. 5 (1998): 53.
  14. Julia Evetts, “Sociological Analysis of Professionalism: Past, Present and Future,” Comparative Sociology 10, no. 1 (2011): 5.
  15. Thomas B. Lawrence, “Rituals and Resistance: Membership Dynamics in Professional Fields,” Human Relations 57, no. 2 (2004): 116.
  16. Evetts, “Sociological Analysis of Professionalism,” 13.
  17. Evetts, “Sociological Analysis of Professionalism,” 13.
  18. Debra Coleman, “Introduction,” in Architecture and Feminism: Yale Publications on Architecture, ed. Carol Henderson, et al. (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1996).
  19. Annmarie Adams and Peta Tancred, Designing Women: Gender and the Architectural Profession (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2000).
  20. Judith R. Blau, Architects and Firms: A Sociological Perspective on Architectural Practice (Cambridge, Mass ; London: MIT Press, 1984).
  21. Blau, Architects and Firms, 135.
  22. Blau, Architects and Firms, 134.
  23. Blau, Architects and Firms, 134.
  24. Blau, Architects and Firms, 141.
  25. See Malcolm MacEwen, Crisis in Architecture (London: RIBA Publications, 1974); Andrew Saint, The Image of the Architect (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983).
  26. Dana Cuff, Architecture: The Story of Practice (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1991), 11.
  27. Andrew Saint, The Image of the Architect, 6.
  28. Blau, Architects and Firms, ix.
  29. A+ membership is for all members of a practice and is cheaper than individual membership fees.
  30. Cited in Cuff, Architecture: The Story of Practice, 44.
  31. Adams and Tancred, Designing Women. This study used census figures and found a nearly two-fold discrepancy: registered architects 10.1% women but in the Census 19.6%.
  32. Adams and Tancred, Designing Women: Gender and the Architectural Profession, 35.