Sexism in architecture: ‘He only wanted to know the boys’

The push is on to get women into leadership positions in architecture. By Caroline Zielinski.

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It all starts at university

Claudia Smith* first noticed the gender problem when she was at university.

She had just started architecture – joining the roughly 40 per cent cohort of female architect students today – and decided to enrol in a special summer subject that all her male friends raved about: a travel tour of ancient architectural spaces, including traditional Chinese gardens and buildings, that attracts hundreds of aspiring architects annually.

“I was told it was plenty of fun where you partied at night and worked hard during the day,” she says. “Everyone who took it got a distinction or high distinctions basically without lifting a finger.”

And this turned out to be true – but only if you were a male.

The teacher was an older professor mainly involved in research, and the class was his passion: travel, youth and mentoring future architectural leaders.

When you become a parent, you have to become a problem solver and you have to do it quickly.Emma Williamson

“From the beginning, there was very obvious favouritism for the male students,” Smith says. “The female students were pretty much invisible to the professor, and it was clear that he was only interested in getting to know the boys.”

To date, the class was the only credit Smith received during her degree. All the other students – bar the other female in the class – were awarded a minimum distinction.

“He also offered to pay, in full, for the trips of two male students afterwards, just to enjoy their company. The guys, who are my friends, found it a bit bizarre, this special treatment they were getting, and didn’t end up going,” Smith says.

An industry-wide problem

Gill Matthewson, an architect and a researcher based at Monash University, has long held an interest in equity. While researching her PhD on gender inequality in architecture, Matthewson found  many complex factors that continue to handicap women entering one of the world’s most prestigious careers.

“To succeed in the industry, you have to live and breathe architecture, which leaves very little room for anything else,” she says.

Matthewson says women are often given a hard time at building sites because of the perception that women don’t understand buildings and construction.

“Builders don’t really like architects in general and give them a hard time – the construction industry can be competitive, very aggressive and a bit unpleasant because it’s slammed for money,” she says.

“Combine that with an inherent prejudice against women  … and you don’t get the best outcome.”

For Naomi Stead, an associate professor at the University of Queensland, architecture itself doesn’t necessarily have a gender problem. Gender inequality is a problem that affects most women, no matter what their career.

She says the issue in architecture, however, is that women are underrepresented – especially at senior levels.

According to research  by Stead and Matthewson, about 44 per cent of architecture students in the last 30 years have been women.

Although women are creeping up that slippery career ladder, only 25 per cent become registered architects, and only 4 per cent become directors of firms or take on other senior positions.

Between 2011 and 2014, Stead, in collaboration with others, researched the industry’s gender inequality issue. Her report, “Equity and Diversity in the Australian Architecture Profession: Women, Work and Leadership” found that while women were graduating and entering the profession at nearly the same rate as men, once they reached their 30s, there was a trend towards women working from home on less prestigious,  but more flexible, projects, or leaving the industry.

The research has since spawned several progressive initiatives to improve women’s opportunities in the industry, such as the Australian Institute of Architects Gender Equality Committee; a male Champions of Change movement involving senior male architects and directors, launched in March 2015; and Parlour – a website led by another gender advocate and architect expert, Justine Clark in conjunction with Stead, Karen Burns and Matthewson, which acts as a guide for female architects and uses research from experts to discuss issues facing them.

Emma Williamson, a practicing architect, academic and chair of the Gender Equality Committee, understands better than most the issues that women architects have to put up with.

A co-director of her own practice, COTA, she has a staff of many women in their 20s.  She actively encourages and mentors them in a way most Australian practices are yet to do.

Williamson says that the requirement of registration is one of the biggest barriers women face, particular if they don’t get in early enough.

“The importance of registration is partly to do with tradition, and partly it’s the architects act which requires you to go through a registration process in order to call yourself an architect,” she says.

“So you can be an architecture graduate, but unless you go through that additional examination, you can’t actually call yourself an architect.”

Williamson says that for women, this extra step creates an additional hurdle.  To become registered,  you must have a certain amount of practice experience, such as working on large-scale projects, which usually means 45 to 60-hour weeks.

“Registration is a thing you probably need to get under your belt before you have children, because once you have a family, it becomes very hard,” she says.

The reality

For Smith, 26, architecture is where she wants to be. She  has worked for four practices, each with its own culture.

There are two issues related to gender inequality which stand out to Smith: that “women who have families and are not available 24/7 fall behind”, and that some older practice bosses still find it acceptable to treat their female employees as sexual objects.

“Some bosses just do not respect or understand priorities other than architecture; to them, it is inconceivable that a person is not willing to work 12 hours straight,” she says.

“My longest day was when I worked 19 hours straight.

“Although I earned my boss’ respect, it was just bizarre. At that age I had nothing holding me back, and if he wanted me to give up my life for the job I was able to do it at that stage.”

Smith has since left the job after realising the practice culture was incompatible with having a life, or a family.

In addition, her boss’ attention to her appearance – “he would comment on my outfits, such as skirts, and say, ‘wow Claudia, that skirt – you must be hitting the town tonight’ – was also a problem.

“He tried to be funny and witty … but I just wanted to tell him that flattery made me so uncomfortable. I just wanted to be noticed for my work.”

Change is coming… slowly

Stead says men at the top are slowly becoming literate in gender equality, while Williamson believes her committee is showing practice owners that hiring – and retaining – more women is not only an ethical choice, but an economic one.

She believes that parents, in particular, have much to contribute to architecture. “When you become a parent, you have to become a problem solver and you have to do it quickly,” Williamson says.

“The reality is, we want to get women into leadership positions in architecture – that’s the main thing. I feel hopeful that people will work in this space to make change, and there are changes already being made.”

*Name  has been changed