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Where are the women in architecture going?

Where are the women in architecture going?

Since the start of time, women have been involved in the building of cities, influencing architecture as we know it today. Yet statistics from the NZIA show that although architecture graduates in New Zealand are a 50/50 split gender wise, the number of women practising, particularly in senior roles, drops off significantly over time. On International Women’s Day, Context Architects director Lisa Hinton reflects on the industry’s diversity issues, as well as what her firm’s doing to combat this.  

The numbers don’t lie ­– New Zealand architecture has a retention problem when it comes to women.

According to NZIA statistics, women make up 52 percent of the graduates leaving architecture school, and yet less than 10 percent end up in senior roles nationwide. Studies in Australia, the US, the UK and Canada have also found similar results.

And in terms of registered architects, just 29 percent are women – a significant drop when compared to the amount of women architecture graduates.

 So, what is actually happening within this drop-off period? Where are these women going, and why are they leaving? Hinton has a theory, and one that many women in the industry agree with.

“I think what happens is women give up architecture as a career because it’s hard to juggle being a mother and the work,” she says.

“Our industry hasn’t worked out how to accommodate flexible working, which is partly because of the nature of construction and the five day a week commitment often required from the project architect and the construction sector on site.”

She says because firms often don’t come to agreements with employees with working arrangements for families, women are forced to pursue more flexible jobs elsewhere.

“Our industry should be doing more to promote flexible working and address what is a real issue of losing our talented women because of rigidity and old ways of working.”

Context Architects has 53 percent women in their practice, which is almost at parity with the amount of women graduating from architectural school (52 percent).

Hinton says this has happened naturally as a result of having a family-based culture as opposed to rigid rules.



Lisa Hinton

But when taking a closer look at what Context is doing that allows for greater gender diversity, Hinton points to three key initiatives.

Firstly, flexible working arrangements. Hinton says staff are allowed to bring sick children into work or finish earlier in order to be home for dinner, so long as the same outcomes are achieved.

She says the second is having pay bands and remuneration benchmarking processes in place.

“In our industry, we’ve got a gender disparity in pay, so pay bands should be matched against the market to get to a market rate based on years of experience and role type. It means you simply can’t have a gender gap because it is systematised and you sit in a band. It’s a great way to counteract it.”

Thirdly, she says staff need to be given the tools to work mobile, such as being able to video conference from home and access files while on the go away from the office.

But all of these initiatives are meaningless without the key component, which she says is trust.

“We have tight knit teams who help each other out, and can pick up the slack when someone is unavailable. Companies need to treat people as adults who can run their lives and their own time by changing their attitudes and build trust."

Diversity in design

There are countless examples of items in the world that have been designed by men without bringing other viewpoints into it. Female crash test dummies were only required to be used in car safety testing from 2011.

But Hinton says having a range of diverse viewpoints when it comes to designers is a huge advantage.  

“Women tend to think about design quite differently, and often from a social and community perspective – it’s people-centred about the end user inhabiting the space, and less architecture-centric design and not design for design’s sake,” she says.

As well as this, she says in an industry known for miscommunications – or lack of communication in the first place – women are good communicators, can win business and can smooth out issues with ease.

She says they also excel at collaboration, which will be a huge advantage when it comes to the future of architecture.

As virtual-building environments become the norm, she says designers who are great collaborators will be winners.

“Women are built for the future of architecture where the technology divide sends us to the other side of co-design and design collaborations with clients, specialist consultants, BIM, etc,” she says.

And she says it’s not just women who should be pushing this agenda, either, as family friendly policies benefit both men and women.

She says Context recently hired two architects who were men, on the basis that they let them pick their kids up from school at 3pm a couple of days a week.

“I could not get over the fact the previous employer wasn’t willing to let them do that – it’s crazy to let something like that impede your business and lose talent,” she says.  

Five architects at Context were promoted to be associates in December, four of which were women (L-R): Alex Petersen, Craig Birch, Dasha Tarasova, Madeline Sharpe and Rachel Venables

Leading the charge

In terms of initiatives helping with gender quality, Hinton says Australia is leading the way.

 There’s the Male Champion of Change programme, which works with influential leaders to help redefine men’s role in taking action on gender equality, as well as the ‘All roles Flex’ movement, which has kicked off with Telstra and the ANZ bank to take away the guilt factor from flexible working.

Back home in New Zealand, the NZX introduced a rule last year that meant listed companies needed a gender policy, and would have to provide an explanation if they did not have one in place.

Hinton says both men and women need to be on board championing solutions – and not just for the purpose of retaining talent.   

“In the future, particularly in a time where talent is short and in our industry, we’re stretched to capacity, I think flexibility will become part of the norm – it won’t even be a choice,” she says.

“But you don’t want it to come from that, you want it to come from embracing this. Happy staff equals happy clients, if you want to have a good client journey, that’s where it should be coming from, not from talent shortage.

“We could do a lot more on an industry level [in architecture], whether it’s a forums, or sharing best practice case studies of it. You don’t want to be the exception, you want it to become normalised within the industry and accepted,” she says.

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