Feminism and architecture in 2012

Architecture is for everyone! That is my position on architecture the art form and it is also my position on architecture the industry. Yet traditionally some have seen it as the domain exclusively of men. Fortunately the dinosaurs with this viewpoint are virtually extinct, however that doesn’t mean that women architects have achieved equality.

One of the big talking points both in architecture circles and in the Australian community throughout 2012 has been feminism. To investigate this I approached my colleague and good friend Sonia Sarangi for her views and ideas about feminism and Architecture in 2012.

R+BA – 2012 seems to have been a watershed year for women in architecture, would you agree?

SS – I think 2012 has been particularly interesting in that never before have I seen (in the media anyway) so much discussion about women in architecture.  2012 also marks the return of a female president of the AIA. So I would say 2012 has  been very interesting for woman architects.

On a more personal level 2012 also marks my full-time return to architecture after having my first child.

R+BA – Do you believe we are close to achieving gender equality in the Australian Architecture industry?

SS – In my experience, I have rarely faced an instance where anyone treated me differently  because I was a woman. This also applies to the limited on-site experiences I’ve had. Perhaps some people may have been overly courteous out of some old fashioned sense of chivalry, but certainly nothing that undermined my abilities.

But the recent findings of the Graduate Survey were depressing. It showed to me in particular how women tend to drop off the radar after 5 years in the industry (coinciding with the early thirties child-bearing ages?) But by making our work practices in general very inflexible, we are inadvertently putting a STOP sign in front of many women architects.

If I didn’t have professional and personal support to help me transition back, I could only imagine too easily how I could have become part of that statistic.

R+BA – What advice would you give to architecture students or recent graduates to help them from becoming part of that statistic?

SS – Take every opportunity to lead that you can. I think women aren’t usually the first to grab a leadership opportunity. Yes, it can be hard to put up one’s hand when don’t feel confident and it means a greater workload in the short term-  but think of it as an investment in your career longevity. And its not actually about technical skills, but responsibility. An employer is more likely to offer the flexibility we need, if they feel you are an asset to the firm as a whole.

R+BA – The 2012 Graduate survey also produced some data the percentage of graduates who have become registered architects. What are your thoughts on the registration process and what can be done to balance this?

SS – Get registered as soon as you can or as soon as you feel confident. I know a few women architects whose careers feel as if they are in limbo post-baby – because they hadn’t put themselves through registration earlier. And study time is a rare commodity when you have a child.

Also I think if you go through the whole process, you have this sense of being part of the larger profession and it may make it harder to leave – who wants all that reading and hard work to go to waste!

Having said that, I think the registration requirements may need a bit of a reality check. Fewer and fewer graduates are getting a shot at undertaking contract administration and I think the current logbook requirements may need an update. The board needs to take into consideration that many of us who work for smaller practices cannot fit into the same mold as someone documenting a large public building in a large practice for a year.

A few of my friends have despondently mentioned that they think they ‘will never meet’ the requirements of the logbook! That is like being in purgatory, where do you go from there?

R+BA – There certainly appears to be stronger leadership by women in recent times both within and outside of the architectural profession. One only needs to look at federal politics to see how women are making a big difference. Within the industry, who are the people you most look up to?

SS – Kerstin Thompson. And that’s not just because I live in Melbourne. I have heard her speak about her work on a few occasions. It is both her body of work as well as her approach that I look up to.  The fact that each of her projects are unique (and not just ‘her style’) and she is not part of a husband & wife team too adds to her aura.

I distinctly remember when I was in my early years of Architecture education, most of the high profile women architects I would come across were part of a personal / professional partnership. So, in that sense too, I think Kerstin is an example that things are slowly stepping up in the leadership stakes.

R+BA – What are the biggest issues facing women in the industry at the moment?

SS – I feel the recent discussion about women architects was overdue… but the fact is that once you have worked in the industry for a few years, the female presence slowly gets less and less. Over time, even the women who remain stop thinking about why they are still there. Surviving in the industry as a woman is hard enough, who has time to think about the bigger picture?

Personally, I feel the biggest issue for women in the industry is how to juggle the needs of work and family. This is a fairly demanding profession. While I am very fortunate to have fixed working hours and a boss who has been very supportive of my gradual transition back to  full-time responsibilities, I realize this is not a common story.( I think Andrew Maynard has highlighted the issues well in Work-Life-Work Balance).

But I have done the crazy-long-hours-and-work-on-weekends-thing in my early years. And I can say from experience it is not at all compatible with having a baby. Yes, every woman doesn’t want or have children- but the majority do and it is usually this majority that forms the ‘missing’ female architects category. But surely my love for my profession should not force me to choose between continuing to have a career and having a child?

And as Andrew Maynard highlighted simply ‘going it alone’ is not the easy route to still maintaining our careers. That is a hard and painful choice too.

So many women do not get the flexibility that they badly need in the early years of their child’s life. The first year of parenting is very very intense. It can be hard in the beginning to imagine how one can ever return to normal working role. But once the pre-school and school years commence, things get easier in terms of juggling a more ‘normal’ role with the needs of parenting. But some employers are unwilling to stay the course with us in those early years. If only they could see all that they have invested in us and the knowledge that we embody. They need to look past the short-term disruption. And I agree it isn’t easy to convince some employers with this argument.

R+BA – Thinking back to your university days, did you perceive any gender inequality in terms of architecture student numbers or other aspects of student life?

SS – We were a 60-40 distribution between women & men when I started! And strangely by the final term the number of women had gotten fewer and fewer….

But one thing stayed the same right from the start, it was very rare to see practicing women architects at the crits.

R+BA – 2012 also saw the development of the website ‘Parlour: women, equity, architecture’ which provides extensive articles and information written by women for women in architecture

SS – When I first came across Parlour, it was a godsend. I voraciously read every article! That’s another thing that had gone out the window after I had Sana –  being able to find the time away from home to learn from other architects’ experiences. So this was a way to do so at my desk. For instance, I really connected with Samara Greenwood’s article about Architecture + motherhood.

And I dare say it has re-awakened the dormant feminist in me! I do care that the non-female body of architects hear our experiences and put themselves into our shoes. And the fact that it is written and published by women gives it an authentic voice to me.

I must also mention that the paper ‘Why Do Women Leave Architecture?‘ was a good attempt at finding some answers. But I think Parlour is much better placed to try to untangle the complex issues over time.

I feel I got lucky, I am still here. But it’s high time more of us made it through to the other side.

R+BA – What would you like to see happen in 2013 and beyond to address these issues of inequality?

SS – I would like to see Parlour, over time, probe further than the current essay format in which they publish. I think an essay is not long enough to find answers. But it is a good format in which to frame questions. They need to keep probing their loyal following- and I am sure we will be very happy to keep answering.

Just recently they called out for projects completed by Women architects to be featured on the ‘Slice’ section of Architect Victoria which is fantastic.

Communication with larger architecture bodies and keeping the finger on the issue is what I am hopeful will happen in 2013. It would be a shame to waste the momentum that Parlour has gathered.

R+BA –I would like to thank Sonia for her thoughtful responses and I hope that we can see the industry becoming more accepting of flexible work practices for all. After all,

Architecture is for everyone.

Parlour’s Second Survey Released

Earlier today, Parlour released a survey entitled “…And what about the men?” If you are a male working in architecture, please take 5 minutes to fill in this survey so that we can better understand our industry.

About Michael Smith

Architect and Director of Atelier Red + Black based in Melbourne, Australia
This entry was posted in all posts, Gender Equity in Architecture, Interviews and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Feminism and architecture in 2012

  1. livsmith21 says:

    I think a lot of what Sonia has said here is really interesting. I’m also in an industry where there’s a noticable drop-off in women higher up on the career ladder.

    My one comment is that I get slightly concerned by labeling things as feminism. It seems like what Parlour are doing is great, but I actually think that there’s two lines we need to be fighting for.

    Firstly, I absolutely agree that many industries would benefit from adopting more flexible options for mothers.

    Secondly, I think that we should be offering the same opportunities for fathers. I think it’s unfair that our current society has a prejudice against fathers being primary care-givers. I would love to see more and more jobs start to offer flexible options for parents of any sex or gender so that mothers don’t have to miss out on work and fathers don’t have to miss out on home, leaving couples free to find a pattern that works best for them.

  2. Further reading from Dr. Anuradha Chatterjee who reflects on the women involved in Sydney’s wider architectural discourse

  3. Pingback: 2012 Retrospective | The Red and Black Architect

  4. Pingback: Transform: Altering the Future of Architecture | The Red and Black Architect

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