Proud to be first Female AIA WA president

Finally there is a woman as President of the Australian Institute of Architects (WA Chapter). I feel proud to have just been elected to the role.

In the Boardroom of the Chapter Council there are black and white portrait photos of all the chapter presidents and they are all men.

Half of our Chapter Council are women, which is fantastic. We can thank the former President Philip Griffiths for actively recruiting women.

Women seem to have a bit of reticence to put our hand up for positions such as this. It’s not because we don’t think we can do it. It is more to do with managing the balance between all the roles of caring for children, parents, partners and professional responsibilities. This role is another ball in the juggle of life.

Another reason we haven’t had women represented at senior levels is that as a profession we are losing talented women after they have children. These women leave around their thirties and the majority don’t return. There is a vacuum created where you see few female architects in their fifties. Those women who stay might consider taking on outside leadership roles later when their children are a little older and their practice is established.

When I graduated we were always told architecture was an old man’s profession. There was so much to learn you couldn’t achieve greatness until you were older. I don’t think I ever thought about this as sexist. I just accepted that architecture was a man’s profession.

My Dad was an architect. Growing up I didn’t know one registered female architect, famous or not. When I was at university there were very few women. I had never been lectured or tutored by a woman. After graduation I headed to London seeking practices that would expand my experience but also where I could work with and for women. It was amazing.

I realised then that as women we offer a different perspective – considered, complementary and collaborative. In one practice I worked under a female director who had been named UK Woman of the Year. She was a very interesting woman and had made so many sacrifices for her career. This was career defining for me. I realised that I wanted to have a family and a career and I would fight for this opportunity.

When I returned from overseas I worked for a period at the BMA (State Government) when the government designed and constructed public architecture. At the time there were a handful of mid-level young female architects.

The then Minister was the Hon Cheryl Edwards, is a wonderful advocate for women. She started a Mentoring programme. She arranged for us to be mentored by senior male architects. This was an unbelievable opportunity. It was career defining for me. Suddenly we were “seen” by senior management.

Personally this connection offered me many professional opportunities expanding my experience but also my contacts. Many of those people have been pivotal in my life. This was particularly true when I divorced at forty with four children under seven. I had to start again and my career and contacts from this period were my saviour.

Interestingly, I have reconnected with Cheryl Edwards through my role as a Rottnest Island Board Member. She is a wonderful dynamic mentor to this day. I am very privileged to have both Cheryl and Katie Hodson Thomas as sounding boards.

I am also mentored by Professor Warren Kerr who was my boss at the BMA. I am naturally loud and gregarious at the same time feeling insecure and shy inside. I feel without these mentors and some wonderful women supporters encouraging me, I would never have had the confidence to put my hand up and run for the position of President.

What I have learned from my personal experiences is that women need other women to stand up when the time is right for them. They encourage you by saying, yes you can do this. Women need mentors and leaders. I really hope that I will encourage young women to study architecture and older women to stay in this wonderful profession practising their craft on their terms.