Graduation address given by Dr Kerrie Bigsworth

Dr Kerrie Bigsworth, Director, NSW Office for Women, gave the following occasional address at the Faculty of Architecture, Design and Planning graduation ceremony held at 2.00pm on 4 May 2007 in the Great Hall.

The photo of Dr Bigsworth is copyright, Memento Photography.

Dr Kerrie Bigsworth

Graduation address

Firstly I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of this land, the Gadigal people of the Eora nation, and to pay my respects to elders past and present.

And next I must offer my heartfelt congratulations to all of today’s graduates. I am honoured to have been invited to speak to you today. It doesn’t seem so long to me since I was sitting where you are now.

Your graduation is a very special occasion. Your degree confirms not just your acquisition of architectural and design skills but also your determination to undergo challenging tasks and complete them, your ability to think, reason, be innovative and creative, and your ability to work effectively with a range of colleagues within a team.

Of course, if you think the hard stuff is over now, and all is plain sailing, then think again. I assure you, life will throw challenges at you, in your profession, in you personal life, intellectually, physically and emotionally, that you cannot yet comprehend. Life’s like that.

But the skills you have learned and practiced in getting here today will stand you in good stead for these challenges.

Now, you’ll have to forgive me, but as a woman and as the current Director of the NSW Office for Women, I can’t but notice that more than half of today’s graduates are women. It’s really pleasing to see so many young women with creativity and intelligence joining the design professions.

Many of you may be thinking, so what? Half the population are women, so half the Architecture and Design graduates would be women.

Well yes, but from my perspective, I see that while half of today’s graduates are women, only 17% of registered practicing architects are women, in the order of 14% of the principals of Sydney’s 8 largest practices are women, and less than 1% of the company directors/board members in Australian architectural practices are women.

Why? Well the reason isn’t just that in years gone by, there weren’t so many women and it takes time for them to rise to the top. Because, even in my day, over 30 years ago, women made up about a third of Architecture students here at Sydney University.

Nor is it that women are naturally not as good as men at this profession. Just look at who has achieved the best marks amongst you today – there are many women in the top places.

So why, then, are there so few women at the top of the profession?

Dr Paula Whitman, from Queensland University of Technology did some research with the RAIA a couple of years ago, surveying women about their career progression in architecture.

She found that the majority of women would sacrifice career progression for the sake of achieving balance in their lives. The two greatest barriers that women perceive to their career progress are family commitments (to current and future children, partners, older parents, and others), and lack of time (which I suspect is closely linked to family issues).

Interestingly, Whitman’s study found that offers of career advancement within practices are often rejected by women because the offers do not match the women’s career aspirations. And what are their career aspirations? The most important career goal of the women surveyed was not doing bigger jobs, or opting out, but growing their own practice.

So what’s going on here?

When I was your age, if someone had asked me whether there were systemic differences between men’s and women’s approaches to professional life, I would have said: “No, of course not. We’re all individuals. Variations between people are about variations between individual personalities, experiences, training, preferences, and skills – not about gender-based generalisations.”

But now, with a bit more experience in life, my answer would be not so black and white. I would say now that gender also plays a significant role.

Relative to men, women tend not to put themselves forward in a professional sense - they tend to think that hard work and merit will be enough to achieve recognition, reward and promotion. Men, on the other hand, seem to instinctively know that merit is not enough. Give women a job advertisement with 10 criteria, and they won’t apply if they don’t think they clearly meet all the criteria. Whereas men may well apply knowing they’ve got say 4 “down pat” and another 4 are pretty good, and those last 2 criteria don’t really matter that much anyway.

Women tend to be more collaborative, less competitive than men. Relative to men, they are somewhat less motivated by money and more by a need to produce quality work that will make a contribution to society.

And of top of those sorts of differences, in modern Australia, women still tend to take a much stronger role in child care, support of aged parents, and housework, than men.

I know these are all broad generalisations. But there’s enough substance in them to indicate that, in fact, women do tend to have different approaches to how and why they work. And men’s models about how to run a practice, how to motivate staff, what are the most effective working arrangements, the sort of hours of work required to justify access to the best jobs and the promotions – all of these things may well present a very significant mismatch for women.

As Caroline Pidcock, NSW President of the RAIA has said: “The profession recognises and rewards characteristics that are more male – aggression, ego, self-promotion, and big-noting.”

And so, as many women progress through the profession, they find themselves in male-led practices that all too often do not support women’s ways of thinking, designing, collaborating, working – women’s culture. And of course, like so much of the rest of the working world, they often do not acknowledge or accommodate women’s (or men’s) need to balance family commitments with working life.

Under these circumstances, is it any wonder that women in the profession find they are overlooked for the best jobs, or decide it’s just not worth the battle to strive for promotion to principal in a blokey environment while managing a child or two at home? And, if they want to stay in the profession, why they aspire to running their own practice where they at least can be in control and do things their own way?

I know these sorts of issues are pretty “soft”, but they are very real. That’s why so few of the top jobs in the profession are held by women. The outcome is that NSW, and Australia, is missing out on the contribution at a senior level of many talented women who have been trained to design and advise on the built environment. Just think what the quality of Australian architecture and design could be if we continued to harness and develop the skills of the women we have trained in the profession as well as the men.

This issue is just as relevant to men as it is to women. Your clients will get better outcomes if your projects take advantage of the best skills on offer for the job – and these best skills will come from a combination of male and female thinking and effort. You all need to take the collaborative skills that you have learned so far, forward into your career. Both men and women have to acknowledge that there is a range of models of work and career development and they all have their place. Men have to acknowledge that women do it differently – trust me, women already know that men do it differently. If men can’t work out how to make practices more women-friendly, they will continue to miss out on the outstanding solutions to design problems that talented women can offer.

Now, I’d have to say that women are often their own worst enemies in career development and I would encourage all women here to find a way to obtain support through your career. You can’t afford to wait 5, 10 or 15 years to discover that maybe things aren’t as you hoped, because it will be too late. You need to develop your own awareness and strategies now, over the next few years.

I strongly suggest you find yourself a mentor or support network. There are lots of formal organisations you could join which will provide some perspective and a sounding board – for example, the Association of Women in Architecture, or of Women in Construction. You could seek out women in more general professional associations such as the RAIA, or look for other women’s organisations such as Business and Professional Women, Zonta International, or the Australian Federation of University Women. Or you could just set out to ensure you keep contact with your colleagues from your current and higher years at university. But however you do it, you need to draw on the experience of those women who have been successful in navigating the challenging waters of this profession. Find out from them the pitfalls and the tactics - to stay not just afloat but out ahead of the fleet.

And I know from my current work that women tend to be much more interested in the long term impacts of climate change than men. So for those women who are looking for a niche in the industry where you can outpace the men, try focussing on your female planet-nurturing skills.

But I return to the point that the issue of harnessing our womanpower as well as our manpower, is vital to all of you here today. Because you, all of you, are our future in the built environment professions. It is in your hands to change the professional work environment - to have a genuinely equal opportunity workplace that acknowledges and respects both men’s and women’s ways of thinking -

  • that encourages the good work of all, including those who do not come forward to boast about it,
  • that acknowledges the need of every individual to have a life outside work involving family, friends and a wider community, and
  • that is flexible enough to allow workers to meet commitments outside work from time to time so that the profession can retain their expertise and draw on it when they return to work.

Some practices are already trying – they’re offering flexible and parttime work, IT infrastructure to allow work from home, clear skills-based recruitment and promotion, a diversity of roles for women, and a work culture of fairness, equity and productivity.
But not enough are.

In the short term, I recommend that women check out which firms are most women-friendly by talking to the Australian National Association of Women in Construction, who have an award for such practices.

I have been assured that cultural change in the workplace takes up to 15 years, but it can happen faster if a proportion of the workforce already supports such a change. I ask you all to make sure that you contribute to the cultural changes we need in the workplace so that our architectural, design and built form professions are indeed effective, fair, creative and truly inspiring.

Again, I offer my congratulations to you all and wish you well for your future careers.

Thank you.