Breaking the bias and raising your voice, an important conversation on International Women's Day

6 Mar 2022

I was at a dinner with friends the day the media filled our screens with Grace Tame’s surly demeanour as she stood next to Australia’s Prime Minister.

For me, it was wonderful to see a young woman being unapologetically angry. Confrontational. Speaking up, loudly, and certainly not backing down. Around our table, however, some saw it as a petulant act of a spoiled child, a view I’m sure was shared around many other tables in the country that evening.

Her defiance made a lot of people uncomfortable, precisely because it’s so rare for a woman to do so in the face of male authority. Her raw anger caused me to reflect on the times during my career where, as an architect surrounded by men, I was the opposite of Grace Tame.

When someone wolf-whistled at me on site, I ignored it. When a client once made an inappropriate comment on site, I conducted a nervous laugh instead of shaming him. When my ideas were disregarded at consultant meetings, I didn’t push my point. My professional expertise has been often questioned with some clients insisting on the opinions of my male colleagues above my own.

Female architects have written widely on the biases and sexism prevalent in our industry. Alongside these stories there’s a growing set of unsurprising data. These numbers show women in many fields (not just architecture) continuously start strong but, when events like having a family occur, women disappear.
But some perspectives have started to change, albeit slowly. It seems as though female voices and ideas in our industry are being highlighted more and more — we are beginning to receive the respect that our male counterparts have always received, respect that we deserve.

At universities, there is a growing tide of women teaching architecture. At the same time, students are learning more about prominent female architects, who are practicing their craft all over the world, something that seldom happened when I was studying in the 90s. Here in Australia, I see an increasing number of female-led practices. At Cumulus, 56% of our team identify as female. There is also a growing number of support groups for women in architecture, like The Findlay Group here in Tasmania, an incredible source of camaraderie.

Importantly, I see male friends and colleagues pushing and supporting women to remain in the architecture industry and advocate for flexible time, so we can all have balance and continue practising our chosen profession.

I see so many bright young female graduates who join us at Cumulus with ideas so fresh, innovative and damn exciting. And I see older women architects who refuse to disappear or change course. They continue to practice and be mentors for others.

This is not to say that things are perfect or progressing quickly enough. There is much evidence and conversation of the whys and hows to improve the working life of women in architecture. An important body of statistics and research is being circulated loudly and proudly by groups such as Parlour, an independent gender equality organisation, to really test and question women's under representation in architecture.

I for one hope that being a male or female architect becomes completely irrelevant and eventually groups like Parlour and National Association of Women in Construction (NAWIC) have no further need to exist.

Although there has been a positive shift for women in our industry, many of us continue to face uncomfortable experiences and situations too often for 2022. Responding appropriately to these situations can be just as challenging, especially in a professional setting.

So I'm taking a leaf out of Grace's book as we all should. If you're angry about something don’t be afraid to show it. Believe in yourself and fight for what you want in your career. Don’t smile at inappropriate jokes and language. As Clementine Ford recommends, question it and question again. They’ll soon humiliate themselves. Don’t be afraid to take the lead. Be that project lead. How you act and take charge will be an inspiration for others. And push back, because when we all push back against the biases that confront us, the biases will be broken.

By Claire Austin
Cumulus Associate / Architect