Justine Clark’s recent essay, published in Architecture Australia, May 2012, under the title “Engendering Architecture”, outlines the various intersections of gender, economics and architecture. The longer version of the articles follows.


Statistics about women’s participation in the architecture profession bring grim economic news both for the profession and for the women who are part of it.

These statistics, which point to the economic disadvantage of women as a group in architecture, provide a compelling social justice case for change. But there are also economic arguments for improving the situation of women in architecture. The “business case” for gender equity demonstrates that practices can improve their performance by becoming more inclusive workplaces, and points out the costs to the profession of losing a significant number of highly educated architects. But this ‘business case’ for gender equity comes with warnings attached. It is not enough to simply employ more women. The ‘business case’ cannot be disentangled from ethical and social justice issues – significant cultural change is needed if economic benefits are to flow. But more on that later.

Poster from Northern Sun Merchandising Offset, 1988, Minneapolis, Minnesota

First, here come the alarming stats. The most shocking data is contained in the 2010 Graduate Salaries Report, undertaken by Graduate Careers Australia. This reveals that women architecture and building graduates started on salaries that were, on average, 88% of male starting salaries. That is, on average, young women started out in architecture and building in 2010 on $5,000 a year less than their male counterparts. Even worse, this gap between men and women’s median graduate starting salaries in architecture and building is larger than any other industry surveyed (and only four industries showed a statistically significant difference). The report adds that these statistically significant differences are unlikely to have occurred by chance.[ref]Architecture and building also had the second largest differences in average working hours, with men working 3.1 more hours a week than women. This may account for some of the pay difference, although in architecture hours paid for doesn’t always reflect hours worked.[/ref]

Briefer data for 2011, contained in the 2011 Grad Stats report, tells us that last year architecture and building dropped to second place in the dubious honour of largest gender pay gap (earth sciences had the biggest), but that gap increased to $7000. That is a pay gap of 14%, up from 12%. So why is the discrepancy in architecture and building bigger than in other industries? We don’t know, but it is very worrying. Anecdotally, we hear that women as a group do very well in architecture school, so it’s unlikely to be a matter of skill difference. It seems that gender bias, unconscious or not, is at work.

Those surveyed are the ‘traditional’ cohort – that is, under 25 and in their first full-time employment. So these statistics reflect the situation before the standard impediments to career progression, and concomitant effects on salary, kick in for most women (taking time off to care for children or other family members, not being promoted to leadership positions, or not seeking such promotions and so on).

The easy response to such pay gap data is that “women don’t ask”. This may be partly true, but recent research also suggests that when women do ask they run the risk of being penalized for asking – and of being dismissed as “too aggressive”.[ref]See: Nancy M. Carter and Christine Silva, “The Myth of the Ideal Worker: Does Doing all the Right Things Really Get Women Ahead?” Catalyst research report 2010; Hannah Riley Bowles, Linda Babcock, Lei Lai, “Social incentives for gender differences in the propensity to initiate negotiations: Sometimes it does hurt to ask” Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 103 (2007) 84–103. Jennifer Ludden “Ask For A Raise? Most Women Hesitate”.[/ref] This is a cultural and societal issue, and we need to start consciously addressing it – both men and women.

There is no data available on gender pay gaps later in architectural careers, but the anecdotal evidence is not good.  For example, 48% of respondents to the recent UK survey Women in Architecture felt they would be paid more if they were male.[ref]Levels of participation of women in architecture in the UK are very similar to Australia.[/ref] Here in Australia, the general statistics on pay gaps are also sobering. The Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency’s factsheet, “An Overview of Pay Equity Statistics”, reports that the gender pay gap in construction for 2011 was 16.8%. It also shows that the overall gap in mean weekly earnings for full-time employees increases with age. (The pay gap for 20–24-year-olds is 7.4%, for 30–34 year olds it’s 11.5%, for 40–45-year-old it’s 22.8% and so on.)[ref]Gender pay gaps and interrupted “non-traditional” career paths also lead to large gender gaps in superannuation savings. Economic disadvantage accumulates over time.[/ref] Combined with the starting salary gap for architectural graduates, things don’t look good. Indeed, it starts to seem like the question is not “Why do women leave architecture?” but rather “Why do so many any stay?”


Currently we have only basic measures of women’s participation in architecture. The most up-to-date statistical analysis come from Gill Matthewson, who is in the midst of sorting and analyzing a large amount to data as part of her PhD research at the University of Queensland. The basic facts are:

  • Of the 10,385 members of the Australian Institute of Architects, 2,301 are women (22%).
  • Of the 11,090 registered architects in Australia, 2,290 are women (20.6%).

This is despite women graduating in almost equal numbers for the last three decades.

Each of these statistical measures contains multiple complexities and each gives an incomplete picture – and we know that many women actively involved in architecture don’t show up in any of these metrics.[ref]For example, registration numbers are complicated by the fact that Australian architects can be registered in more than one state.[/ref] Nonetheless, and despite such caveats, the statistics are worrying, particularly as these metrics also reflect the traditional means for measuring participation and for gaining recognition within the profession.

So, there is a clear ethical argument for addressing the economic disadvantage of women in architecture as a group (not to mention legal obligations regarding pay equity, which can incur significant penalties). But we should also consider what it means for the profession to lose such a significant proportion of its talent pool, especially at a time when the contexts in which we work are rapidly changing.  This attrition of highly educated and skilled architects who happen to be women diminishes architecture’s potential for change and renewal. If the profession is to adapt effectively to new environments we need more people who think in diverse ways, not fewer. As Sarah Wigglesworth writes, “As people who tend to have portfolio careers, juggle competing needs, diversify their experience and make do financially, women are well placed to invent … new forms of practice.” But she also warns, “Time is critical, for if we don’t do it soon, we may have no profession at all.” [ref]Sarah Wigglesworth “Women in Practice Essay” Architects Journal.[/ref]

The Australian profession needs to act collectively to address the woeful situation here. The ARC-funded research project currently underway, Equity and Diversity: Women, Work, Leadership and the Architectural Profession, is developing policy for the Australian Institute of Architects that will help the profession address this inequity and enable more women to participate to their fullest ability. It is heartening that the National Council clearly recognises the issue and is committed to change.[ref]We should remember that there have also been a number of such initiatives in the past. For example, Paula Whitman’s Going Places: the career progression of women in the architectural profession of 2005, the 1991 report “Towards a More Egalitarian Profession: Findings of the Royal Australian Institute of Architects Committee on the State of Women in Architecture”, and the 1986 report by the RAIA to the Human Rights Commission “Women in the Architectural Profession”.[/ref] The first step is a Statement of Principle on Gender Equity, currently being prepared. This is great news, but we can’t simply rely on the Institute to fix everything for us. Policy is important, but it won’t be effective in a vacuum. Change needs to come from all directions, top down, bottom up and spreading out from the middle. We all have a responsibility to keep moving things along – men and women, practitioners, academics, students, organisations, institutions and practices.

The ‘business case’

Individual practices, and leaders within them, must also play an important role, and this can be to the economic advantage of the practice and the profession. This brings me back to the ‘business case’ for gender equity. The basic argument, developed in other fields, is that a more diverse workforce, especially at senior levels, delivers better financial outcomes for a company for multiple reasons. Research suggests that diverse voices lead to creative approaches to problem-solving, better overall decisions, and hence better economic performance.[ref]Sujin Horwitz and Irwin Horwitz “The Effects of Team Diversity on Team Outcomes”, quoted in “Only Skin Deep: Re-examining the Business Case for Diversity” Deloitte Point of View Human Capital Australia, September 2011.[/ref] There is no research that I can find directly addressing the ‘business case’ in architecture, but many of the general findings are relevant to our discipline – creative problem-solving and better overall decisions are obvious assets in architectural practice. And if leadership and oversight from a diverse group improves outcomes at corporate board level, surely it can also be effective at the level of practice directors.

In terms of human resource management, there are financial gains to be made though retaining staff, with the attendant a return on investment in training and development costs, and the ability to attract and keep talented staff in difficult environments. Workplaces with well-managed, inclusive and flexible cultures show significant increases in productivity and in staff commitment and loyalty. Diversity in an architectural office can also shake things up in a positive way, and avoid ‘groupthink’. Architects have diverse clients, and design for an even more diverse body of building users. The makeup of the profession should reflect this as a matter or professional responsiveness and responsibility. Practices that do are at an increasing advantage in terms of both better client service/communication and a broader base of experience and viewpoints from which to design and deliver projects. So, the benefits include better buildings, as well as better economic performance. Lastly, there is the question of ‘brand’ and image – of being seen to be enlightened, forward-thinking and innovative. This is a double-edged sword – businesses that pursue diversity only for the ‘look’ tend not to reap the rewards. But those who make it work on multiple fronts also gain further benefit from positive external perceptions.

Genuine diversity and gender equity is a sign of a healthy organization, not merely an end in itself. And equity is not just a luxury for good economic times. As Chief Executive Women point out, the best decision-making and retaining the best staff is even more important in tough economic environments, as this allows a company to manage effective restructuring and means they will be well-placed to take advantage as economies recover.[ref]“The Business Case for Women as Leaders: One Woman is not Enough”, Chief Executive Women, 2009, referring to Watson Wyatt Worldwide, Financial Services response to the turbulent economy, November 2008.[/ref]

But for diversity initiatives to have real economic impact the workplace must be genuinely inclusive, diversity must be actively managed, and commitment and leadership must be visibly demonstrated by those at the top. The authors of “Only Skin Deep? Re-Examining the Business Case for Diversity” point out that “diversity means more than having a sprinkle of women and a dab of colour … the value of diversity lies in developing an inclusive workplace – and that means adaptation, not just assimilation and tolerance.” They continue, “The story is not about the increased representation of a particular demographic group bringing extra ‘sparkle’ to the workplace because of their special skills and talents. Rather the story is about organizations with a more diverse talent pool, especially at senior levels, manifesting a workplace culture of openness, merit and rational decision-making. At heart, the story is one of diversity and inclusion of all employees, so that a richer knowledge bank is fully leveraged and better business outcomes are achieved.”

To be effective, equity and diversity initiatives need to engage with the cultural contexts of specific workplaces.[ref]Inge Bleijenbergh, Pascale Peters and Erik Poutsma “Diversity Management Beyond the Business Case”, guest editorial, Equality, Diversity and Inclusion: An International Journal, Vol. 29 No. 5, 2010, pp. 413–421.[/ref] This means understanding/analysing how your own practice works and how its structure interacts with equity issues. Many architectural practices are small and without dedicated human resources staff. This does not mean the business case advantages do not apply, but it does mean working carefully through the particular situation and structure of the practice. To date there is little material on developing equitable workplaces within small companies, although guidelines about general practice in medicine offer some insight.[ref]“Moving On From One Size Fits All: Towards gender mainstreaming in medicine”, 2004[/ref] Architecture as a profession, with its large number of small practices, has the potential to show leadership and innovation here.

Workplace practices

But the question of culture also brings us slap up against the more problematic aspects of some architectural workplaces and business models – long hours (and the glorification of them), unpaid overtime, unrealistic deadlines, low pay, presenteeism, lack of flexibility, low fees and undercharging (especially for design work) and sometimes just plain bad management (like informing someone at 5pm of a drawing required for a meeting the next day at 10am).[ref]Those who think such working conditions are more mythic than real to might take a look at www.archleaks.com.[/ref] There is no evidence that these entrenched habits result in better architecture, or that they are in any way efficient. Such workplace culture is also one of the things that drive women out of architecture.[ref]Ann de Graft-Johnson, Sandra Manley and Clara Greed, “Why do women leave architecture?”[/ref] Moreover, fee cutting and the like undermine both the status and the economic viability of the profession. One could argue, as Sarah Wigglesworth does, that many of architecture’s business practices are so problematic that moves to improve things for women could also result in a more viable future for the profession. She writes:

As the large construction companies increasingly call the shots and architects are relegated to the role of expendable aesthetes, the search for a reinvigorated practice that incorporates women’s unique contribution to a realignment of the discipline, is especially important. One possible solution could be to fight to raise salary levels – which ultimately means fees. This might sound perverse, attacking the problem from the wrong end, but hear me out. Raising fee levels is a signifier of the value we place on ourselves and bring to others.To deserve higher fees means demonstrating clearly why architecture is worth it: and this means becoming political. Higher fees would not only help improve architecture’s status, but crucially, provide choice. For women practitioners in particular, this would allow them to play a full part in shaping the future profession in new ways.[ref]Sarah Wigglesworth “Women in Practice Essay” Architects Journal.[/ref]

The good news is that there is a lot of very fine material out there for those who do want to make a difference ­– research, toolkits, assessment matrices, action plans, guidelines and specialist consultants all provide valuable knowledge and experience. As part of the ARC research grant we are establishing a website to disseminate research, gain input and generate discussion. This will include links to many of the relevant resources. The research currently underway, particularly Gill Matthewson’s work with Bates Smart, BVN Architecture and Peddle Thorp and Walker, will provide valuable insights into the particular circumstances of architectural profession.

To reiterate, we all share the responsibility, and the opportunity, to address gender inequity in architectural workplaces through small and large actions every day. And who knows, architecture might be the better for it.