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Why aren't there more women architects?

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Gender equity is by no means a new issue – it is age-old, and it is high time we addressed the obstacles that have kept us from achieving it in the profession of architecture. Not just by talking about the issue, although that is a very important first step, but through practical actions that each of us has the responsibility to undertake.

Architecture has historically been a male-dominated profession, with an unacceptably low number of women in senior leadership and management positions, and also in the profession as a whole.

There are industries that are more appealing to men and therefore have low female representation, and some may seek to explain the situation in architecture by lumping us in this category. However, one fact clearly shows that something else is at play: the number of male and female graduates of architecture is almost equal.

Paul Berkemeier. Image: Supplied

Paul Berkemeier. Image: Supplied

So we know the profession appeals to both genders, at least at the student level. Why, then, does the number of women perusing careers in architecture drop sharply after graduation?

This question, among others, is at the core of research currently underway. Equity and Diversity in the Australian Architecture Profession: Women, Work and Leadership is an Australian Research Council-funded project established in 2011 by industry and academic partners, including the Australian Institute of Architects, and it is due for completion this year.

The study has already provided evidence that many women are being compelled or encouraged to leave the architecture profession, or are discouraged from returning to it after a career break.

Unfortunately, there is no single solution, as there are many systemic, often unintended and largely invisible factors that continue to affect the participation and progression of women within the Australian workforce, and specifically the architecture profession. These include the long-hours culture, lack of meaningful part-time work following career breaks and the existence of a gender pay gap.

How do we attempt to reverse this engrained culture? Employers, employees, managers and industry leaders of both genders need to work together to chip away at the gender stereotypes current in place. The Australian Institute of Architects, as the industry’s representative body, wants to lead the profession on this quest, not only through governance but also by developing and sharing the tools and systems required for practices of all sizes to provide equitable workplaces.

As president and a member of the institute’s National Council, I am proud of the recent passing of our first Gender Equity Policy. It is a step in the right direction, encouraging and providing guidelines for the organisation and the profession as a whole to adopt a comprehensive and ethical approach to establishing gender equality across the field.

The policy establishes 10 best-practice principles designed to maximise fair and equitable access to opportunities and participation for women within the architecture profession. In addition, we decided to establish a National Committee on Gender Equity to develop additional actions, initiatives and programs to propel us to our ultimate goal.

This may only be one piece of the puzzle, but it is also an encouraging decision that shows the profession’s commitment to challenging and overcoming gender inequality.

Paul Berkemeier is national president of the  Australian Institute of Architects.

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