Reflecting on her own recent experience of redundancy, one architect is sadly no longer surprised that there are so few registered woman architects.
I have recently come across women in the profession of architecture who have had to draw on their own inner strength, often at the most difficult times in their lives, to continue to work in their chosen profession – the profession in which they have spent at least 10, but more often 15 years to become registered architects.
I was at about that stage, after a few years establishing myself in a Melbourne architecture firm, when my time to have a family arrived. I congratulate myself on our timing, falling pregnant just after the Global Financial Crisis of 2008. I, along with a lot of my colleagues, volunteered to reduce my week to four days to ease the financial burden on the company. My maternity leave was good timing too. Things were still slow and I thought, isn’t this great for the firm, I am going on leave (unpaid of course) just when they need me to, and they have an experienced, registered architect still officially on staff who will return when things start to pick up again.
One year later, I returned to the firm and negotiated to return a few days a week as a trial. In that time, I prepared tender submissions and worked on a project that was the product of one these successful submissions. I saw this as a great opportunity to demonstrate my ability to project manage while in a part-time role.
At this time I started being strategic and looked at creating a position in the firm that would enable me to keep contributing my expertise and to manage this with my other role as a mother. I looked after all the marketing enquiries, archived existing publications, managed the website and continued to prepare tender submissions.
I am sure you can guess the next step — pregnancy number two happened slightly quicker than we had imagined and I headed off for maternity leave again. Once again things weren’t thriving in the practice, so it wasn’t such bad timing. This time I didn’t stay away for the whole year, conscious of the extended absences. I returned after half a year, and worked one day a week to continue looking after all those items I had set up prior to leaving. This enabled me to keep contributing as I eased back into my project architect role. Sounds like a plan, right? But then we had another downturn. This time everybody was put on notice. My days, which were then two and heading to three, were cut back to one day a week and, soon afterwards, I was told there was no longer a position for me in the company. I was calm as I was not surprised and I was not alone. A number of us were let go at the same time, half were women; half were men. So that seems fair doesn’t it? Except when you look closer. After the cuts, the firm had no female registered architects on staff (all the women that were let go were registered and mothers). Also, all were working part-time, so we had to go out into the marketplace and try to convince a new employer to hire us part-time; a pitch that is virtually impossible. Even in a recent interview, the director said that if they offered me a permanent position it would be full-time because they had a lot of women in the office.
Anecdotally I seem to have been one of the lucky ones in this situation; I did receive some severance pay, and I was at least told I was no longer required. Many women that go on maternity leave just never come back and a lot of firms are ignorant of the fact that they are still required to officially terminate employment and make any applicable redundancy payments.
I am no longer surprised that there are so few registered female architects in the profession; I am surprised there are any. If I worked in a ‘great firm’ where the directors were ‘family friendly’, how could they fail to see the impact of their decisions? Hopefully though, Parlour can start to turn this around; it can help, through education and exposure, to stop the overt and covert discrimination of women in the profession. A lawyer friend made a great observation for me to the effect that ’just because the business is going through tough times and they have had to make difficult decisions, it doesn’t change the fact that what they are doing is fundamentally unfair.’ If only I had remembered to say this as I left the building.
Editors note: This post is published anonymously to protect the author and the practice.
Jan 22, 2013
Wow that story is so familiar! Except that the GFC hit and I was let go while 4months into my first pregnancy. I managed to grab a temporary position and continue to do the odd job from home but never managed to worm my way into an office again. I 100% blame that on the fact that I am a mum who had a “career break” which left a gaping hole on my resume.
I am now launching my own business. WIth any luck from now on the men will start begging me for work!
Feb 25, 2013
Same here. Why can’t we name and shame? Anyone willing to be a Union canary? If the Australian government can subpoenaing Apple, MicroSoft and Adobe for unfair trade practices targeting over-a-barrel Australian consumers…
I asked my ex-employers at my “notice” meeting (held at a bustling cafe next door to the office – “One latte and redundancy notice please!”), whether they would consider part-time work opportunities for future employees when the economy picked up. I was interested to understand whether the reasons were genuinely economic or anti-parttime. The answer was an emphatic no – never again to part-time workers “it just doesn’t work.”
I didn’t have the strength to challenge the fairness. Melbourne is a very very very small town.
This employer was a male/female partnership – so you can’t just blame the men. Women do participate as well. Unfortunately some in those influential leadership roles play by the traditional old boy rules and may have no interest in (or empathy for) commitments outside outside of work. Infact, when you run your own business, your own business can become your baby and feel just as precious as a human one. No value judgment implied here. I can respect that. But the respect should come back the other way. It just doesn’t.
Consider this real conversation:
“Are you really happy here? I’ve seen so many talented women like you fall by the wayside.”
“Yes – it’s good. I understand what a rare position this is in our field – a part-time one.”
“But isn’t the work a little beneath you? Must be a bit of a come down doing dunny blocks in Deer Park.”
“I wouldn’t put it that way but that’s what you’ve given me and I on the positive side, I do the work and can pick up my kids on time and not worry about work after hours.”
“Well that’s exactly the attitude we don’t want. We want people committed to the practice.”
And she wonders why she’s seen “so many talented women fall”.
Amanda Cheetham says:
Feb 26, 2013
What if all the work force was part-time? Would that not create more positions for people to achieve that work-life balance, and create equity within the workforce. No-one then could be discriminated against because they are a mum or a dad everyone would be on an even playing field.
The idealism will never meet the reality. The responsibilities of being the primary carer of children, will always impact on the work life of that person whether male or female. I too can relate to the above story. After my first child two of the biggest barriers to returning back to work were 1. Getting a placement within a day care centre and 2. Finding part time work. Fortunately I was able to find work however, as all children get everything when they start day care, I soon spent weeks at home with a sick child. This occurred at least every change of season.
When I put on my employer’s hat, I can soon understand how hard it is for a project to run in the absence of a lead or senior staff member. As I was employed in a small office that left very little option for anyone else to pick up the project and fill the gap. The pressure this places on a practice and the potential costs to the business for the absences, I do not fully know if and how it could be measured. But I am sure, as mentioned, Part time staff are the first to be considered for their “full costs” to the business. Not just the administrative costs. In the wake of the GFC, (which seems to be still in effect), businesses turn to survival mode. Putting my business hat on, it makes logical sense for the survival of the business to eliminate cost risks and keep staff who offer my business a chance of breaking even in the least.
But then I put my career hat on and look at the costs to it. Now having had my second child and no employer to return back to, I constantly think about what am I going to do? Do I just throw away the career I have had & do something different? Do I try to start up my own Sole Practice & try to work this in around children? But my biggest concern is how do I stay relevant in an ever changing & evolving industry? Particularly when work is scarce, and the industry is still trying to re-group and move forward from the GFC. Professional Development courses are not enough to compensate for the skill sets that evolves with being in the work place. Study? Then I have to weigh up the costs (both financially & to the well being of my kids) of that to my family and the reality hits again. It all comes down to the costs out weighing risk.
Then what if I choose to stay “on leave” for an extended time? For example, until my youngest commences schooling. Where is the acknowledgment from the industry to have this choice? As part of re-registering each year, it’s not even acknowledged as an option to have leave of absence without ticking the box that says retired. Where are the programs to help re-skill and be job ready for this particular industry (without ending up as a trades person)? Not just for out of work mums, but overseas workers coming back or moving here for a potentially better opportunity.
Personally I think the answers need to come from all levels of the industry. From the personal right up to the the registration processes, through from our Institute to all levels of government to help create those programs for re-entering the industry and changing the work practices. However we need to change the mind-set of our industry and business models from something that is a full-time mentality only, to one where job sharing and part-time work, can work for all concerned in practices large and small. This however will take an element of risk. Can it out weigh the cost factor? Can Idealism become Reality?