Leading Towards Gender Equity Part 1: Interview with Shelley Penn

Leading Towards Gender EquityOne of the most important discussions to come out of the 2014 National Architecture Conference was the issue of gender equity in the Architecture profession.

Leading up to this point, ground breaking academic research has been undertaken through a project entitled Equity and Diversity in the Australian Architecture Profession: Women, Work and Leadership. This was made possible via an Australian Research Council (ARC) grant. This ground breaking research was undertaken by an experienced team of researchers from various universities and led by Dr Naomi Stead at the University of Queensland.

The public face to this research is the Parlour: Women Equity and Architecture website curated and edited by Justine Clark. This website has also achieved international attention as a public portal for information, discussion and news relating to gender equity issues. Perhaps the most important outcome from the research team are the Parlour Guides to Equitable Practice which were released during the National Architecture Conference last month and will guide structural change within the profession to achieve a more equitable future.

Informed by this independent research, the Australian Institute of Architects (AIA) have also been laying the groundwork for change in the profession. In December last year the AIA released its Gender Equity Policy. Further to this the AIA has also set up the National Committee for Gender Equity, which will be chaired by Emma Williamson.

The ARC grant has now come to a close and it is up to the profession to take the evidence on board and draw a new and more equitable future for itself. With this task ahead I took the opportunity to check in with some of the national leaders on this issue.

Shelley Penn Architect

Shelley Penn Architect

First in a series of 3 interviews on gender equity in architecture is Architect Shelley Penn. Shelley was the National President of the AIA in 2012 and has also previously served on the National Council for many years. Shelley is also the Chair of the National Capital Authority and is a member of the newly formed AIA National Committee on Gender Equity.

It is hard to find a better example of a sole practitioner architect having a massive impact on a national scale.


R+BA – How important is this issue to you as a leader of the Architecture profession?

SP – It is a fundamental. 50% of the population and more than 40% of architecture graduates are women! yet they are underrepresented at senior and leadership positions in the profession. Greater diversity will enrich architectural practice and our ability to serve the diverse Australian community through relevant architecture.

R+BA – What do you see as the greatest opportunity or benefit to come from this gender
Equity agenda?

SP –More women leading in practice. More diverse architectural practice.
More diverse architecture. For the Institute, a larger and broader member base.

R+BA – The Parlour project seems to be having an impact nationally and even internationally, what feedback have you been getting?

SP – All of the feedback has been fabulous.

R+BA – Should we be looking at revising the AIA election processes such that there a
minimum numbers of men and women on the national and state councils?

SP – Possibly, though I feel the big change needed is cultural. With more women participating, more women members, and greater respect for diversity being demonstrated, the culture will shift and more women will stand and be elected. Have a look at the Victorian Chapter, there are more women than men on council. A first for the Institute. Having said that, the culture will change with a combination of policy, advocacy, and changes to the rules that support equity.

R+BA – What measure of success should we be using to assess our progress towards
gender equity?

SP – I think there are several. One key one would be more women members of the Institute, and women who are active as leaders in the Institute, which I hope will shift quickly. Some other key measures would be increases in the number of women practice directors, associates, etc, number of registered women architects, etc. Another more complex one might be how we measure professional credibility….
For example recognition of the value of excellent practice that is conducted by part-time

R+BA – How long do you think it will be before we achieve this goal in the Australian
Architecture profession?

SP – I think it will take quite a while.

R+BA – What role do you see men having in the ongoing drive to achieve gender equity?

SP – A critical role. It is about how we practice, benefits to all architects through recognition of diverse ways of practicing and balancing of other parts of life, and benefits in
terms of broader architectural outcomes.

R+BA – What do you think about the ARC grant and Parlour project as a model for change? Could a similar process be used for tackling other issues or addressing equity in
other industries?

SP – ARC linkage grants are excellent vehicles for complex research and used with great success to lead to positive change, through evidence based approaches. It’s critical that the Aus Government continues to support such research. Parlour is a clever, strategic and highly effective forum for exchange, dissemination of research outcomes and advocacy. A lot of its success is to do with how well it has been put together and how well it is moderated and managed, and the fact that it clearly responds to a real need.

R+BA – What do you think about the institute facilitating an ethical employment scheme?The idea of this scheme would be to publicly acknowledge ethical employers who agreeing to sign statutory declarations which enforced their adherence to a higher ethical standard.  Is this a good idea and could it work?

SP- Yes it is a great idea.

R+BA – What advice would you give to a young and enthusiastic female Architecture
graduate, who is about to enter the workforce?

SP – Do your best! Do it your way. Don’t be cowed by the perceived ‘norms’. You can be an architect in whatever way you want and that’s ok. If you want to be a good architect you have to work hard, with integrity, reflect and always aim to do better, be ambitious in aiming to make good work, but beyond that do it part time, full time, alone or with others, big or small practice, whatever…Your way is ok.

R+BA – Thanks for your time

Next up in Part 2 of this series is Architect Paul Berkemeier

Architecture is for Everyone


About Michael Smith

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

5 Responses to Leading Towards Gender Equity Part 1: Interview with Shelley Penn

  1. Naomi Stead says:

    Great interview Michael and Shelley!

  2. Pingback: Leading Towards Gender Equity Part 2: Interview with Paul Berkemeier | The Red and Black Architect

  3. Pingback: Leading Towards Gender Equity Part 3: Interview with David Karotkin | The Red and Black Architect

  4. Pingback: Leading Towards Gender Equity Part 4: Interview with David Parken | The Red and Black Architect

  5. Pingback: 2014 Retrospective | The Red and Black Architect

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s