“I look forward to attending an industry event and not being asked if I am a receptionist or an interior designer.” Bronwyn Marshall reflects on the effect of the boys’ club in architectural culture and workplaces.

Still from Mad Men, season 4.

I am humbled to call myself an architect, surrounded by peers who genuinely believe that through design we can build better worlds. I am excited to be part of a profession that fuses artist and builder, creator and thinker, innovator and placemaker. I am not excited, however, about the realistic battle ahead – that is, the push for cultural change needed before the profession’s “boys’ club” will vanish into the ether.

The energy required to constantly battle against this “club” is exhausting. It doesn’t breed productivity and nor does it encourage inspired design outcomes. And I would hate to see women continuing to feel stifled and leaving the profession because we haven’t managed to shift the underlying beliefs and behaviours that shore up the “boys club”.

In my brief time in architectural practice I have witnessed a wide spectrum of treatment of women. And I am grateful for this. On the one hand, I have seen tokenistic promotion of female colleagues as a reaction to an external audit on management structure bias – I believe this is referred to as ‘ticking the boxes’ On the other hand, I have been privileged to work with some incredibly strong and talented female leaders who have set a progressive example for an entire office. I have also seen great male leaders. What sits uncomfortably though, is my observation that it seems almost mandatory for these women leaders to display a kind of “virility” and rigidity to be deemed ‘leaders’. It is almost as if the profession turns women into men. Yet the men in the “boys club” don’t seem to feel the same pressure to change. I have trouble grasping why this is and what it means.

The statistics are also alarming – as Gill Matthewson points out, ‘despite near gender parity at architecture schools and in graduation numbers, women still constitute just 20% of registered architects in Australia in 2012”. As a young professional, these figures don’t bode well for my future or that of my colleagues.

Matthewson comments, ‘Gender is, of course, inevitable – it’s a critical part of our identities. As soon as we meet someone we make assumptions about who they are’. I wonder if we also form assumptions about their capabilities? About their ability to lead, counsel, design and make decisions?

The Bain Brief, What Stops Women From Reaching the Top? Confronting the Tough Issues, suggests that this is indeed the case. The study – which aimed to identify key factors preventing cultural change in Australian business, and to outline ways to overcome them – point out that there is “a wide gap remains between intention and outcome”. It observes that ‘Women and men do not have materially different levels of ambition’ and yet “[w]omen represent 26% of recent board appointments in ASX 200 companies and 13% of total director positions:. So what happens to all the women?

The report identifies two main reasons for women not achieving leadership positions. The first is about leadership – both the differences in women’s leadership styles and the perceptions of women’s ability to lead. The second is work/life – that is women prioritising family over work, and choosing a “balanced” lifestyle over career progression. Interestingly, a large proportion of the more senior women surveyed identified issues around leadership style as the key factor, while work/life factors were seen as more significant by a larger proportion of men, and by younger women in more junior positions. This suggests that leadership styles factors are not even apparent to many of those who are actually making decisions about women’s careers.

The survey finds that a key factor contributing to the lower number of women in senior leadership roles is the tendency of senior men to appoint or promote someone with a style similar to their own. This has serious consequences: “If women approach their work with a different style from most men, and if men in leadership prefer working with others whose style is similar to their own, it becomes challenging for a woman to convince her superior that she is the right person for the promotion.” Another factor is women underselling their experience and capabilities, and the fact that women are also “less likely to have an appropriate sponsor or promoter” at management level.”

The research also finds that while men and women are viewed as equally effective at delivering outcomes for their organisations, men and women both agree that they achieve this with quite different styles. Women are seen as “collaborators” who encourage the team, while men are seen as more likely to promote their own work (and in doing so themselves).

Although based in the business world, the findings of this study also seem very relevant to architecture.

I strongly believe that role models are crucial for any emerging professional. It’s important to be able to identify opportunities through aligning your own values with those you work with, to learn from and be mentored by people you admire and respect. This is not gender specific. Nor should it be. Ann Lau’s article ‘The questions to ask’ provides tactics to help young female graduates “approach their careers strategically”. She recommends ways that graduates can ensure that they gain employment and experience in a firm that supports them.

The unfortunate reality is that until things change, this might not be possible for everyone. As young professionals, female architects should be encouraged to gain experience in a firm that shares their design ethos, our philosophies, ideals and vision.

To achieve this, we need to encourage dialogue, open communication and the vocalising of ambition and direction within all firms. I would also encourage having hobbies and diversions outside of architecture, and advocate for professional development, engaging regularly with academia and the reward of milestones. As the Bain Brief outlines, we need to create “a culture that embraces diversity and career flexibility”, and to “ensure promotion is not open to bias” and “merit selection”. The knowledge that future situations are influenced by what has gone before raises the hope that, if we change our current condition, we can also change the future.

I am enormously grateful that my unbiased upbringing has made me believe that parity is a basic moral right, not a luxury only afforded to those lucky enough to be born into a progressive culture. I look forward to future discussions that encourage and value design leadership, innovation and diversity and constructive mentoring. These should be the key attributes that management rewards in promoting those who will be the architectural leaders of the future.

I look forward, with gusto, to attending an industry event and not being asked if I am a receptionist or an interior designer. In the meantime, I see this dialogue on professional, cultural and political change as vital to diluting the effect of the “boys’ club” in architecture.