Where do all the women go?

By Justine Clark | Oct 03, 12 08:02 AM

Women have comprised more than 40% of graduates in architecture for at least 30 years, yet only 20% of registered architects are women.

Glass ceilings, sticky floors, glass cliffs, blocked pipelines – spatial metaphors abound when we talk about, and try to explain, women's fortunes in the workplace. What is clear is that in many – if not most industries - things are far from equitable. These metaphors offer a quick, often fairly visceral and visual impression of the complex factors that give rise to this inequity. Each is based in substantial research into how and why women are disadvantaged in the workplace. But each is also founded in a myriad of individual experiences, which range from overt sexist behaviour to more subtle impediments, conscious and unconscious. Most of us have experienced some of this, in some form or other.

Many issues and obstacles are similar across industries, but they may manifest differently. In architecture, women have comprised more than 40% of graduates for at least thirty years, yet only 20% of registered architects are women, and women are significantly underrepresented in senior levels of the profession. So, what is going on? Where do the women go? Why do they leave? What becomes of those who stay?

Parlour: women, equity and architecture is a website developed by a team of academics from across Australia, currently working on a large research project that tries to understand these questions. Parlour disseminates the research findings but, importantly, it also makes a place where those in the architectural community can add their voice to the discussion. It gives women and men the opportunity to reflect on what the research findings might mean from their perspective – and we have had some fantastic contributions so far. Parlour offers a space to speak, and a place to develop strategies to improve opportunities for women to contribute to their full capacity.

Parlour is not about doom and gloom – despite the fairly depressing statistics. It is about strategising to address systemic issues at all scales and in many ways. It is about recognising and celebrating the rich and diverse contribution that women already make. It is about making more opportunities and building capacity in the profession – and thinking about what the profession could be. Parlour is a space for reflection and agitation, speculation and strategy, research and the occasional rant.

Most recently we have conducted our first survey, Where do all the women go? Twelve hundred women responded enthusiastically – helping us to gain a richer, more detailed, understanding of the women of Australian architecture. They have generously shared not only their statistical information, but also their many and varied stories of working in architecture. We are just beginning to analyse the survey results now, but, as we suspected, it seems that women with architectural backgrounds are working in a wide range of industries and related fields, as well as in non-traditional ways within architecture. Many of these women do not appear in the usual ways of measuring participation – that is, through registration or through membership of the Australian Institute of Architects. (None of the researchers – myself included – would turn up in such measures, so we suspected that there were many more women out there). One of the survey’s aims is to increase the visibility of these women, another is to help us understand more about the specifics of the architectural workplace.

Of course, we are not alone in our attempt to improve the situation for women in the workforce. Many of you have probably engaged in efforts to create equitable environments in your own industries – policy documents, action plans, toolkits, leadership programmes and mentoring programmes. One of the outcomes of the research project that Parlour is part of will be similar resources specific to architecture. We urgently need strategies and procedures to help retain women in the industry.

This is not just about making it more comfortable for women to practice as architects (although that is not a bad thing). It is about creating a better built environment for everyone. If we are to effectively engage with significant global challenges, such as climate change, urbanisation, social sustainability and public health, we need diverse people designing and building the spaces and places that we live, work and play in. We need to understand why a long-term career in architecture is so unappealing for many women because that is one step in creating an industry that represents our population, and which ensures that all our talented architects, men and women, play a role to their full ability.

As British architect Sarah Wigglesworth comments, “architecture is too important to be left to men alone.”

Justine Clark, Senior Fellow, Faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning, University of Melbourne and independent architectural editor, writer and critic.

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