Why aren’t there more female architects?
In the lead-up to International Women’s Day on March 8, the Ballast Point team reflects on why there are fewer women who are registered architects and in senior design roles than men in Australia
When it comes to the gender of people studying architecture in Australia, the division is around 50/50. Yet research shows fewer than a third of registered architects are women. Why is this? Dr Gill Matthewson, who is co-founder of Parlour, which advocates to improve gender equity in architecture, believes there are a number of reasons.
“We do know that there’s a much higher proportion of women graduating with architectural qualifications than there are in the business,” she says. “There’s a drop off. You find people work for two or three years in the industry and then decide there’s better ways to earn a living. That seems to happen to more women than men. There’s a lot of women who work in the architectural industry for large firms who don’t need to be registered, because the work goes through the partners, who are registered. We think a higher proportion of those are women. But that’s changing. There’s quite an emphasis these days on getting registered. Some people think it’s a good idea; some people think it’s old fashioned.”
According to the 2016 census, 31 per cent of architects were women — up from 28 per cent in 2011. Census data also shows that 80 per cent of architects work full-time, and 52 per cent work more than a 40-hour week. Dr Matthewson says there’s a mythology in architecture that you have to be absolutely devoted and dedicated to it. “That means if you have interests that go beyond architecture you might find yourself feeling at odds with what’s going on,” she says. “Often that will occur for women when they have children. But it’s not the only reason why people drop out. There are also a whole lot of issues around whether women get a fair go when it comes to good projects. Some architectural projects are really choice… they often seem to go to men rather than women. But it depends a lot on the practice and their architectural procedures.”
Research conducted by Parlour also found women had a harder time getting promoted beyond associate level to senior associate level. “You will also get some problems with the three C’s – clients, contractors and consultants – who have difficulty with women being in authority,” Dr Matthewson says. “It may not even be conscious, but you will get clients who really do not want to deal with a woman. But then you also get clients who do want to work with women. Once upon a time they thought women architects would design really good kitchens, then it changed to medical, health and education facilities – the social architecture – because it was assumed they had more of an affinity with it. We do like to put people into those gender boxes of what we think they can do.”
So, what can be done to help improve gender equality in architecture? Dr Matthewson says architectural companies should ensure they are equitable in their distribution of projects and promotions, and be conscious of supporting women. “If someone has a very bad experience with a contractor or consultant then you go into bat for them,” she says. Employers should also consider job share arrangements and be aware of long working hours. “In this industry, you stay late to get the job done,” Dr Matthewson says. “We all want to do a really good job, but it can be very, very, very disruptive of life outside of work.”
Ballast Point’s design team consists of six members – three male and three female. Of the two registered architects, both are male, while both its architectural assistants are female. Ballast Point director Mat Wilk says the company found that when it advertised for a senior designer recently, only 10 per cent of applicants were female. “But in terms of our hires, so far the women have been standouts,” he says. As well as feeling right and aligning with the company’s values as an equal opportunity employer, he says all the credible empirical evidence suggests that diversity improves team performance. “So it’s not just about ticking a box and feeling good – it’s actually good business strategy to aim to build a diverse team,” he says.
Ballast Point architectural designer Kristina Arutyunova says architecture has always felt like a male-dominated industry. “I have heard many times from well-respected men and women that men are the best chefs, doctors, architects and even hairdressers,” she says. “I deeply disagree, of course, but this is quite a popular opinion. I think it is because architecture is quite tough, and often requires the control of construction and builders.”
Kristina’s mum was also an architect, and growing up she recalls her working very hard. “I remember her coming home late at night, fighting with builders, and she was always exhausted,” she says. “Now she is running her own studio and mostly focusing on interior architecture and interior design, which is considered a more female field. She is more relaxed, and has a lot more ‘pleasant’ projects.”
Architectural assistant Stephanie Kennedy says it is well-known that there are a lot of female students and graduates, but those numbers don’t translate into registered architects. “Unfortunately, the profession still has pockets where the male-dominated culture of architecture persists,” she says. “There are plenty of female graduates, but in Australia you can’t call yourself an architect unless you are registered, and registration takes a lot of time. Women probably pursue other things in the time that men are pursuing registration, such as having a family. Architecture falls under the category of ‘built environment’, and I think other professions associated with this field are still male-dominated, like building and engineering, which might deter some women from being involved.” As well as work culture, Stephanie believes inflexibility and difficulty re-entering the profession after taking time away could be deterrents for women. She says more flexible pathways to registration may encourage more female architects to get registered. “The current system relies on completing a set number of hours in different categories over a two-to three-year period, which can be difficult for anyone to achieve!” she says.
Stephanie believes architecture is a good profession for anyone who enjoys problem solving and managing several moving parts at once. “Like much of our built world, the standard practices were established based on male measurements and ideal settings, such as how office buildings run air-conditioning at low temperatures because men are expected to wear suits, so the women freeze while the men are comfortable,” she says. “So, architecture is a good profession for women so they can influence and nuance design to suit not just men, who make up less than half the population.”
Stephanie feels that all staff at Ballast Point have an active and valued voice and perspective, which means that gender equity is an inherent part of how they work. “As we grow though, I think it will be important to keep gender equity at the forefront,” she says.
Fellow architectural assistant Jeannie Chan says there is a fairly even split between male and females at the University of NSW, where she is in her final year studying a Bachelor of Architecture. “In my experience in the workplace, there is also an equal split in male and female staff, though I recognise that this was not always the case, so times must be changing,” she says. “Ballast Point has a culture of acceptance and respect for everyone we come into contact with, and gender equity is a result of that overarching principal.” But she agrees there are challenges when it comes to sustaining this equity long-term. “Becoming a licensed and experienced architect requires time and dedication over a very long career and sometimes women may want to change careers in the middle of their journey and start a family, which takes time away from work,” she says. “I think as someone progresses in their career and has more responsibility on projects, a lot more time, commitment and effort is expected and required of them to succeed as an architect. Women pursuing this career probably would need to consider how they can balance the demands of the profession with their personal lives. From what I’ve heard, balancing both is quite a challenge.”
Jeannie believes architects need to have a certain personality type, which often encompasses typical feminine traits. “Architects need to be empathetic and creative,” she says. “But they also need to be methodical, organised and persistent in their design approach in order to generate innovative solutions whilst managing the rules and regulations imposed from a planning and construction perspective.”
Ballast Point is an integrated design and building company that works with discerning clients on high-quality projects, both big and small, in suburbs including Balmain, Balmain East, Birchgrove, Rozelle and throughout Sydney. If you’re planning to build or renovate, get in touch or book an online consultation.