Women in architecture: Leadership

In a profession with a notoriously rigid workplace culture, how can values such as generosity and flexibility help redress the gender imbalance in leadership roles? Emma Williamson considers the obstacles women architects face on the road to the top.

Emma Williamson, founding chair of the Australian Institute of Architects’ National Committee for Gender Equity and co-founder and director of Fremantle-based practice CODA. Image:  Bo Wong

In preparation for writing this article I have read part 9 of the Parlour Guides to Equitable Practice, “Leadership,” several times, all the while wrestling with my frustration that there are not more female leaders in architectural practice and reflecting in part on my own career development.

You see, I am by nature a leader. This quality has mostly been jokingly referred to by my family as bossiness – something I used to be embarrassed by. It wasn’t intended as a compliment and I’m pretty sure none of my brothers were referred to in the same way.

This quality has driven me to create a practice that includes others and works together on a shared vision of positively impacting our community through our efforts. I have not worked in isolation and I have always made sure that I made an effort to sit myself at the table and be an active part of discussions.

Now in my mid-career, I am increasingly curious about leadership, the different roads to a leadership position as well as the types of leaders we can be when we get there. I am interested in the relationship between leadership and generosity, and also the relationship between leadership and flexibility.

It seems that often our career trajectories are set early and rely on the right combination of ambition, circumstance and support. If this is the case, then I’m curious to know why it is that men occupy more positions of leadership then women. What are the barriers that prevent women from reaching the top? And if there is something missing at the beginning of their career trajectory, what is causing women to miss out?

Nowhere is the disparity between men and women in architecture more glaringly obvious than in the boards and executive management of the architecture profession’s top practices. Without adequate organizational diversity it is almost impossible to create the impetus for increased responsibility and promotion that allow women to progress. Unconscious bias sees us giving opportunities to those that most directly reflect the cultural norm; shifting this towards diversity requires cultural change and a conscious and committed push from those at the top. In my experience, this takes generosity.

Practice leaders need to provide opportunities for all team members during the early stages of their career, and encourage them to maintain focus on their own professional development. Generosity means we are able to extend praise and encourage people to step forward and up; it means we can genuinely enjoy someone else’s success without feeling like it comes at the expense of our own. As practice leaders we need to focus our attention on women in the beginning of their career, ensuring they have the experience and skills to feel confident as professionals and as team leaders.

It’s difficult to discuss women and professional leadership without mentioning the impact of motherhood. For women who want to have children, I would argue that it is critical to build up one’s professional experience to the greatest extent possible, before having a family. Men have generally undertaken an unbroken career pathway, building solidly on experience gained through long hours in the office and on site. For women, it’s a completely different story; the career break is like a broken bone that never really heals. I reflect on my own experience of working part-time for over a decade and it’s hard to imagine what leadership opportunities would have been on offer in commercial practice.

It always feels to me like an unfortunate confluence that the cementing of a person’s career and the formation of their family seems to occur simultaneously and with such intensity! Regardless of your gender, this can only mean that hard choices need to be made. With few exceptions, this has by and large resulted in career breaks for women and time away from family for men.

Unfortunately, these early choices make a considerable impact on the rest of our lives. For women who break from professional life, there is often the barrier of confidence to overcome when considering a re-entry into practice life; a perception that the choice to come back to architecture will need to be full time, that the pay will be low, that there is a lack of technical ability as “things have moved on” or that the work will not be meaningful.

The women I know who have made it through this period have two things in common: first, they belong to a supportive workplace, with leaders who genuinely support the need to strike a balance between the different demands of their working and domestic lives. This is not work/life balance but rather life balance, and it takes a flexible leader to enable it to occur. Second, they have a supportive home environment, either through the willingness of the other parent to step back on the work front or through the support of the extended family to help manage the often chaotic matrix of deadlines, school holidays and illness.

Interestingly, those who have worked continuously and find themselves in leadership positions often have very flexible and dynamic workdays. They are the presidents of professional associations, part-time professors, government architects, board members or experts giving papers at conferences. They may have several part-time roles (involving travel) and yet no-one complains that they are not in the office every day, or that they might be somehow less interested in practice because they have a role (or ambition) outside it. Imagine if we could support people to take on leadership roles as well as to maintain the flexibility that supports the life balance they are seeking.

Women make great leaders. The lessons learned raising a family are invaluable to the workplace. Efficiency, pre-emptive problem solving, complex negotiation skills, emotional intelligence – to name just a few! Having more women as leaders will open up the architectural profession, creating opportunities for us to become more relevant within the current social, political and economic context in which we practise. Women bring an alternative dimension to architecture, and our built environment will be better for it.

To quote Parlour “ … substantial research shows that companies and organizations with diverse leadership groups consistently outperform those without. The ethical and business cases for gender-diverse leadership are abundantly clear.”

This piece was first published by Parlour as the first in a series of essays from the Australian Institute of Architects’ National Committee for Gender Equity. View the original post at archiparlour.org


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