What does the 17% graduate gender pay gap in architecture and building mean? Justine Clark teases out the numbers and the issues.

Australian architecture got an unwanted New Year surprise last week, with the release of the WGEA GradStats Starting Salaries Fact Sheet on gender equity on 3 January. This identified that, once again, architecture and building has the worst graduate pay gap of any industry. The median salary for male graduates was $52,000 whereas it was $43,000 for female graduates. Even more shocking, the gap has increased to 17% – up from 14% in 2011, and 12% in 2010.1

Architecture prides itself on making a difference in the community – there is ample evidence that well-designed spaces and places can improve health and learning outcomes, for example – and many architects work very hard to make a positive public contribution. But it seems that as a profession we don’t look after our own. This needs to change.

The graduate gender pay gap raises a lot of questions – the most pressing are: What exactly does this 17% figure mean?, Why does it happen? and What might we do about it? I’ll start teasing out the first two questions below. Another post will look at the third.

What does it mean?

At its most blunt, the 17% statistic suggests that young women graduating from university with degrees in architecture, building and allied built environment disciplines enter a broad industry in which their work is currently valued on average at 83% of their male colleagues. This has an obvious impact on earning potential – such inequity is unlikely to disappear over time and will likely have a cumulative effect over the course of a career. As Anne Summers points out in relation to the overall pay gap, the outcome is that women are subsidising the economy.

“It amounts to a gender tax, with women making a disproportionate contribution to the national economy.”2

In our own case, it would seem that women are financially subsidising the architecture and building industry.

Pay inequity also translates, directly and indirectly, into other kinds of imbalance in terms of confidence, power, influence and the wherewithal to even stay in the industry. This pay gap is particularly alarming as these figures come from the Australian Graduate Survey of  the ‘traditional cohort’ of graduates – that is, those 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).

What is not likely, however, is that the statistic means that a woman architecture graduate is earning 17% less than the young man sitting next to her in the an office. All those young architects who began the week feeling outraged and then a little bemused because the figure didn’t seem ‘quite right’ (and on the high side in terms of salaries for any graduate in architecture) are probably correct. It is worth looking at that figure more closely.

The 17% gap is for architecture AND building. Delving deeper we find that this includes a mixed bag of disciplines – architecture, landscape architecture, environmental and industrial design, urban and regional planning, building, and quantity surveying. Surprisingly, it doesn’t seem to include interior architecture – although it is not clear where this does sit, if anywhere.3 Engineering has its own category, and women graduates fare much better here – in 2012 they were paid 1.6% more than their male colleagues. Engineering is also one of only two areas where women graduates have been consistently paid the same or slightly more than their male colleagues from 1977 until 2011. All  other areas, including architecture and building, have fluctuated significantly over this period.4

The 2012 GradStats report, which was used to compile the WGEA Fact Sheet, does not give a more detailed breakdown of the figures. However, further information is available for previous years in  the Graduate Salaries Reports and Postgraduate Destinations Reports and the extra tables and figures that accompany them. Examining this data gives some indication of complexities that are likely to also attend to the 2012 data.

This suggests that the graduate gender pay gap for architecture and building, as a combined industry, is different to the gap in these areas separately. The 2011 Postgraduate Destinations Tables and Figures separates the figures into three categories – architecture, building, and urban planning.

The numbers for the coursework masters programs in each of these fields are the most relevant. These tells us that in 2011 the median salary for male graduates of architecture was $48,000 and for female $45,000 – a gap of 6.25%. Urban and regional planning was $65,000 for men and $60,000 for women – a gap of 8%. The figures for graduates in building are particularly alarming at $75,000 for men and $54,000 for women – a gap of 30.8%.5 The figures for 2010 and 2009 are similar – and exactly the same for architecture.6 Note that female and male architects are both paid substantially less than their colleagues in other built environment discipline, men and women. More on that later.

We might assume that the gap in the 2012 data for architects will break down in a similar manner. Although, given that the architecture-and-construction industry-wide graduate gender pay gap has increased by 3 % in 2012, and that the economic situation for architects in general has declined, they may be worse. We await more detailed figures.

We should also note the the 2010 and 2009 figures for architecture and building are statistically significant to 1%. This means that there is “a less than one-in-a-hundred chance that a difference observed in the Australian Graduate Survey sample does not also occur in the overall graduate population.”

At the moment, what this all suggests is that a young woman architectural graduate today is paid, on average, 6.25%  less than her male counterpart – and that her contemporaries have been in a similar situation for some years. This may not be as shocking as the 17% architecture-and-building industry-wide figure, but it is still unacceptable. Taken separately, if the architecture figure has not changed since 2011 and 2010, architecture would still rank as having the fifth worst pay gap of all the industries surveyed by Graduate Careers Australia in 2012.

Why does it happen?

There is no single straightforward answer to why architecture performs so badly, but we can be fairly sure that a lack of equity in graduate salaries kicks off a whole career of inequity. Data from the Australian Institute of Architects Graduate Salary Survey indicates that this pay gap persists over the twelve years following graduation. There is no other data available on pay gaps in architecture that we know of. We are reduced to anecdote – and that is pretty damning too. For example, 47% of the respondents to the AJ Women in Architecture Survey said they thought they would be paid more if they were men, and 44% claimed that “male colleagues who do the same or a similar job at their practice earned more than them”.

Following the huge amount of publicity around the WGEA Fact Sheet, the GCA released a press release which disputed the WGEA interpretation of the overall pay gap figure and the GCA’s Bruce Guthrie has been widely quoted as saying “I think it’s really unlikely there is any responsible graduate recruiter who is paying a different salary to males and females.”

We would all hope that this is the case, but both anecdote and speculation based on research in other fields suggest that things are not quite so straightforward. We can’t rest easy just yet.

We don’t have enough research or data to clearly explain the situation in architecture. There are multiple factors at work, and these have different effects in different circumstances. These factors may include the following:

Different roles and areas of work.

Graduate Careers Australia (GCA) identifies one of the major reasons for overall pay gap being the fact that women are overrepresented in the lower earning areas and underrepresented in the higher earning areas (architecture and building counts as a low-earning industry).7 This helps us make sense of the 17% gap in architecture and building, where men are overrepresented in the higher-paying building and planning fields, but it is less relevant when we are looking at the 6.25% gap in architecture alone, where women are graduating in roughly equal numbers, many after doing very well at architecture school.

“If you don’t ask you don’t get”.

We’ve been told anecdotally by architectural employers that, on the whole, young women  ask for less or accept what is offered – unlike many young men, who negotiate up. This chimes with research in other fields (although I am wary that this might sound like blaming the individual woman for complex, systemic problems). But when the employer goes on to comment that they are running a business, so why would they pay more than they need to, we are left asking about the ethical obligations of employers, not to mention their legal responsibilities. It seems that in some practices a young woman might indeed be being paid less than the young man sitting next to her. And what happens if that employee stumbles on payroll information on the photocopier? How does that effect her morale, loyalty, productivity and even willingness to stay in the profession?

Practices need to be more aware of the issues. We do also need to encourage young women to negotiate, and arm them with the skills to do so. But this will not fix everything either – research from Catalyst suggests that women who do ask for more run the risk of being dismissed as ‘pushy’ or agressive.8 Negotiation needs to be handled with care – links to some material on negotiating can be found here.

Difference in pay between architectural practices.

We also hear anecdotally that there are pay gaps between practices of different sizes so, even though there may be no disparity within a firm, there may be may be significant differences between practices. This may have an effect on the graduate gender pay gap, but to date there is little to suggest that women graduates are more likely to work for smaller practices. However, small practice are very common in architecture. Almost half of the architecture coursework masters graduates surveyed by the GCA in 2011 worked for organisations employing 2–9 people (48.4%). Of the remainder, 26.4% were employed in medium-sized organisations (20–99 people) and 25.4% in large organisations (100 or more).9 It would be interesting to see a gender breakdown of these figures, but this is not currently available.

Lack of HR expertise.

Architecture is full of many small practices. These are often run by hard-working architects trying to juggle a huge amount within many constraints, and now facing a very difficult economic climate. But these practices have no HR training or experience, and nor do many of the medium-sized practices. Writing in the BRW Michael Bleby suggests that this may be one of the reasons for the architecture graduate pay gap being significantly higher than it is for engineers, even though there are many fewer women in engineering. He refers to comments from Engineers Australia chief executive Stephen Durkin: “one reason for a greater parity in wages between men and women is that engineering employers are more likely to be larger firms, with the resulting HR functions and protocols. This helps reduce pay disparities.” Engineers Australia has also had serious programs aimed at increasing the number of women for some years, and Women in Engineering has been very active since the early 1990s.

Salary confidentiality.

It is common for salary confidentiality to be a condition of employment, which means many graduates (and many other employees) have no idea if they are being paid equitably or not. There is also very little salary data available more broadly. It is difficult to assess situations in an information vacuum.

Unconscious bias.

In addition to industry-specific matters, young women graduates in architecture also face the unconscious bias that permeates our broader culture. Most of us would like to think we treat others in a fair and equitable manner, but this is not always how it turns out, despite our intentions. In previous years the GCA has acknowledged that this might be a factor. In an article in the Australian Financial Review on the 2009 report, GCA senior research associate David Carroll is quoted as saying:

“The pay discrepancy is suggestive that some managers are perhaps more likely to hire male graduates for roles which carry more responsibility and hence more pay, while relegating female graduates to lower-paying roles within the same broad field of employment …

Some managers may discriminate against female graduates either consciously or unconsciously when negotiating salaries or awarding things like bonuses and allowances.”10

There is a growing body of research in this area. For now I would point to one study from science, which contains sobering lessons for us all. This explored bias in the sciences. In a randomised, double-blind trial a group of scientists (men and women) were asked to rate their perceptions of a job application for a laboratory manager position. Identical applications were randomly assigned male or female names. Half the scientists were given the ‘male’ applications and half the ‘female’. The scientists rated the ‘male’ application as “significantly more competent and hireable than the (identical) female applicant”. The male applicant was offered a higher starting salary and more career mentoring, while the ‘female’ applicant was seen as less competent and therefore less likely to be hired.11

This points out that we all need to be mindful and vigilant. Inequity can creep in very easily even when we think we are being fair. This is why pay audits and other systems and structures are important tools for companies to assess exactly what is going on. Links to pay equity audits and other information can be found here.

The bigger context

The 6% pay gap within architecture is alarming, as is the industry-wide gap of 17%. But there is more to come. The various reports from Graduate Careers Australia also contain other worrying material, which indicates that gender pay equity is part of more widespread economic problems in the profession. In 2012, architecture and construction was 17 out of the 23 industries surveyed in graduate pay levels. Separate out architecture from the more highly paid building and planning – and assuming that architecture’s 2012 median graduate salary would be similar to the 2011 median of $45,000 – most architecture graduates would also be almost at the bottom of the list.

Even more sobering is the information on average salaries in the construction industry supplied by the careers website CareerOne. This indicates that architects’ average salaries are the lowest of any in the building industry.

The 2012 GradStats report also tells us that 36.1% of architecture graduates were still looking for full-time work (as compared to 16.9% of building graduates, 25.2% of urban planning graduates, and 23% of all graduates surveyed).

The Graduate Salary Reports also give median salaries for industries according to sector of employment. For Architecture and Building in 2011 these are as follows: government – $55,000, professional practice $38,000, industry and commerce $47,000. There is no gendered breakdown of this sector information, and it’s not quite clear what the sectors mean. Nonetheless, we might assume that many architectural graduates go into professional practice. At a $38,000 median salary in professional practice, things start to look even more grim. As Gill Matthewson comments, “architects seem to be at the bottom of the heap in all kinds of ways, with women at the bottom of the architecture pile”.

Architecture is a long degree, it involves a large commitment and a significant investment of energy, time and money. Valerie Caven writes of the intrinsic rewards (non-monetary) of architecture being very high.12 This is no doubt that is true, but such low salaries mean that architects often struggle to simply make ends meet and have little choice but to leave. Which raises a larger question: Who can afford to be an architect? If we want to have an effective profession we need a diverse profession too – not just those who have the private means to be able to be an architect.

The gender pay gap is a hugely significant issue, and there are things we can do to address it right now. But it is also part of larger, serious economic issues within the profession. The profession also needs to face up to these bigger issues, or, as Sarah Wigglesworth points out, we won’t have a profession left at all.13

I ended my last piece on gender, architecture and economics with a quote from Wigglesworth. It seems the most appropriate way to end this piece too.

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.13


This post has been developed through conversations with Tania Davidge and Gill Matthewson. Thanks!

If you have relevant experiences or expertise and would like to write about this topic yourself we would love to hear from you. Email us at hello@parlour.org.au

  1. These figures vary over time (there was no disparity in 2001, 1992 and 1979), but they do seem to be getting worse in recent years. Numbers dating back to 1977 are available in “Table 10 Median Starting Salaries for Female Graduates as a Percentage of Median Starting Salaries for Male Graduates Based on Bachelor Degree Graduates Aged Less Than 25 and in Their First Full-Time Employment, by Field of Education” in Graduate Careers Australia, Graduate Salaries 2012 report, p. 18.[]
  2. Anne Summers “Gender Pay Gap Still a Disgrace”, The Age, 5 January, 2015.[]
  3. Graduate Salaries 2011 Explanatory Notes.[]
  4. ”Table 10 Median Starting Salaries for Female Graduates as a Percentage of Median Starting Salaries for Male Graduates Based on Bachelor Degree Graduates Aged Less Than 25 and in Their First Full-Time Employment, by Field of Education”, Graduate Careers Australia Graduate Salaries 2012 report, p. 18.[]
  5. ”Table Q”  Median salaries for graduates in full-time employment by level of award, sex and field of education, 2011″, Graduate Careers Australia, 2011 Postgraduate Destinations Tables and Figures.[]
  6. In 2009 and 2010 there were not enough responses from women graduates of coursework masters degrees in building to draw statistically significant conclusions (less than 10 respondents). In 2011 there were 50.[]
  7. This is the basis on which the GCA disputes the WGEA’s interpretation of the overall 2012 pay gap data. However, even when factors like this are taken into account the GCA still had a 3% ‘unexplained’ overall pay gap in 2010.[]
  8. 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”.[]
  9. ”Table T: Size of full-time employer by level of award and by field of education”, 2011. Graduate Careers Australia, 2011 Postgraduate Destinations Tables and Figures.[]
  10. Rachel Leibehan “Grads’ gender pay gap opens” The Australian Financial Review, Friday 23 July 2010.[]
  11. Corinne A. Moss-Racusin, John F. Dovidio, Victoria L. Brescoll, Mark J. Graham and Jo Handelsman “Science faculty’s subtle gender biases favor male students“,  Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United State. This study is mentioned in Tara Moss “Our Beautiful Meritocracy” and Ilana Yurkiewicz “Study shows gender bias in science is real. Here’s why it matters” on the Scientific American blog.[]
  12. Valerie Caven and Marie Diop, “Architecture: A ‘Rewarding’ Career? An Anglo-French Comparative Study of Intrinsic Rewards in the Architecture Profession,” Construction Management and Economics 30, no. 7 (2012).[]
  13. Sarah Wigglesworth “Women in Practice Essay” Architects Journal.[][]