Emma Williamson’s reflections on the AIA’s gender equity committee

The latest issue of The Architect focusses on equity, both in the way the profession operates internally and also in the way it addresses issues of social inequity through design. In this article CODA Director, Emma Williamson, reflects on her time as Chair of the Australian Institute of Architect’s National Gender Equity Committee.

The Architect, Spring Edition 2016

Can you describe the purpose of the committee?

The National Committee for Gender Equity was established in 2013 and through a couple of somewhat unexpected twists and turns (read pushes and prods) I found myself on the committee and then as the founding chair.

The mandate for the committee is to enact the AIA’s Gender Equity policy, looking at the practices of the Institute itself as well as developing ways to make the profession more equitable. Despite a 50/50 split of men and women entering architecture schools, and a relatively even split of graduates there is an alarming drop in women’s participation in the profession after 30 years of age. This represents a major loss of talent, experience and competency within the profession and the Institute rightly takes this very seriously.

What was your particular stance on the issues of equity in architecture prior to joining? What did you think that you personally could bring to the committee?

These are so many cultural constructs that create inequity between men and women, which are in no way unique to architecture. I see the issue as not just about creating more opportunities for women, but about creating the same opportunities for men and women. This may sound like a subtle difference but it’s a big one. Annabel Crabb’s, The Wife Drought, captures and articulates this position perfectly. It’s easy to refer to the lack of opportunity for women, but how about the pressure on men to maintain full time work, or the negative bias toward men who seek more flexible arrangements?

In my early career as an academic, I had my first taste of the limitations of career progression that resulted from part time work. Now as a practice owner I feel the complex relationship between time, money and competition that ultimately impacts on the quality of work (trying to do things quickly because there are no fees) and the (un)desirability of the profession for people seeking a balanced life.

Although I was initially resistant to the idea of being part of the committee, I did eventually feel that it was better to put some positive energy into making change rather than observing from the sidelines. Surely, we could capitalize on the conversations that are happening across the board about equity?

As Chair, I set an agenda of combining long term strategic moves with “quick-wins” with the idea that these would energize the committee and create an environment of change.  We were extremely fortunate to be able to operate in the slip stream of energy and action created by Parlour.

The committee is intentionally made up of men and women from small, medium and large practices as well as academia from all over Australia.  This has helped to ensure that we consider the impact of equity from all angles.  As a director of a medium sized practice, as an employer and as a working mother I think I have been well placed to contribute to the space that lies between the sole practitioner and the corporate practitioner. I have also learned a great deal from the other committee members and their experience the profession.

What do you think are the key issues in architecture to do with equity right now?

Each time I have made a presentation of the work of the committee I started by including some of the diagrams that had come out of the detailed and in-depth Parlour research, as a background to our work and approach. Despite the overwhelming evidence, each time I did this it seemed to spark a question and then a debate about why we have this problem, or why we still have this problem, or if it is a problem, or what is the problem or how do we tackle such a big problem.

In practice the question of how we tackle wicked problems can be stifling, yet as architects we are trained to solve complex problem! Whilst the issue of equity is firmly part of the public discourse, it does challenge so many professional norms and can lead to a type of practice paralysis! It’s difficult to know where to start, but the committee did take the broad view that if there is a problem and it has been identified then there is also an appetite for change.

Nowhere have the issues around equity and architecture been more succinctly articulated than in the Parlour Guides to Practice. Broken down into bite size chapters, the guides cover pay equity, the culture of long hours, part-time work, flexibility, recruitment, career progression, negotiation, career break, leadership, mentoring and registration. Each chapter reveals a depressing truth but amazingly manages to present it in such a pro-active way that one instantly feels empowered to make change.

Unfortunately, it’s difficult to unpack and address one of these issues without revealing more about the state of the profession as a whole. How is it that we have managed to make ourselves so spectacularly undervalued whilst maintaining a culture of long hours? How can we offer so little in the way of contemporary work practices, and take on more and more liability, not only for our work but for the work of our consultants?

I believe a radical shift in the leadership within the profession is required to embrace change and make ourselves relevant again. Doing this requires not only recognition of equity but also diversity. Within the senior ranks of the vast majority of large practices in Australia there are VERY few women. In fact, they are largely made up of white men.

Study after study shows that we tend to employ people in the image of ourselves. This human tendency toward an unconscious bias means that there is little on the horizon in terms of real leadership shifts, without some serious policies being put in place by practices. Proposing such a change requires courage and executing it is even more challenging – but I think it can be done!

I would like to see more practices taking this on board and seeing the effect of having more women in leadership positions. These women would need to be supported in their roles and allowed to contribute to a shift in what we see as the cultural norms in architecture. I believe this top down approach will help to create better pathways for both women and men. To do this we need to reimagine professional life that is more flexible, that repositions itself in a way that can communicate the value in the work that we do.

The thing that I love about architecture is the challenge and the opportunity of problem solving. There are so many complex, layered and unique challenges in each project.  In designing a building, we have to ensure it stays relevant for many, many decades. It’s these skills in imagining a future that need to be brought into play to re-think practice.

How effective do you think that the various initiatives of the Committee have been so far?

I feel very proud of the work of the Committee and feel that the conversation around equity has made a dramatic shift in the past 3 years.

The Institute has been very supportive of our recommendations, and at a time of contraction, realised the importance of a partnership with Parlour in order to reach out to non-members and to demonstrate its work in this area. It is important to note that Parlour is completely independent of the Insititute and the NGEC.  The work of Parlour has been so influential in our thinking and approach.  The initial research project demonstrated compelling evidence for the need for change within our profession and we respect the significant groundwork that lead to the formation of the committee. I am so pleased that as a committee we have managed to establish and maintain a strong working relationship with Parlour, and that we are able to use the Parlour website as a major communication channel to reach out to members and non-members.

We have established The Paula Whitman Prize for Leadership in Gender Equity, which has been launched this year.

We have started a range of communications initiatives that look to raise the profile of women within the profession and outside; in part, we recognize that this has allowed us an opportunity to broaden the definition of an architect.

Significantly, we successfully lobbied for a mandatory 30% representation by men and women on the new Board of Directors for the AIA. Although we cannot take credit for it, we were extremely pleased to see the appointment of a female CEO last year.

What do you imagine should be the ongoing priorities for the Committee in the future?

The role of the Committee is strategic and we will continue to raise the profile of women and push for equity.  Our priority is to help more women become leaders, to keep mid-career women engaged and valued and to help changes in practice culture that will keep more women contributing to the built environment.

We also have a mandate to keep checking in on the equity of the Institute and this lens is being applied to every aspect of Institute operations from its own employment policies, to the equitable representation of men and women in CPD events, to the composition of juries.

The committee reports directly to the National Council but we are also uniquely positioned to connect in with each chapter. Now that we have a few big runs on the board I think it is time for us to combine these bigger picture moves with connecting in with what’s happening locally. Our ambition is to have more women who are visible in architecture and to help women find a workable solution for their mid-career.  Every little thing helps.

Image courtesy of Parlour.