Curtin University Concessional Speech “inspire” to graduates

I’d like start by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we meet today, the Wadjuk people of the Nyungar Nation, and pay my respects to their elder’s past, present and emerging.

 What an absolute privilege it is to be invited to speak to you.  This invitation is very special to me.  My life has been touched by Zonta WA for decades. In fact, my earliest memory of appreciating that the world was not fair was helping my mum sort through bags of clothes for the first Zonta women’s refuge where she volunteered for years.  Mum would talk to us about the women and children who were escaping trauma and abuse with only the clothes on their backs and it was our responsibility to do what we could.  They are values that I hold true to this day and ones that I have actively encouraged in my three sons and daughter. 

There is a real synergy between Zonta’s vision of empowering women through service and advocacy and my volunteer role as president of the Australian Institute of Architects, the peak body representing architects and architecture in the built environment.   

The question I am often asked is why did it so long, for a there to be a female president.  Where do I start? Personally, the time was right with my family and my practice.  Having sat on Chapter Council for 2 years I was feeling very impatient and frustrated at the of lack policy direction or advocacy work in the community.

I was also sick and tired of the boys’ club mentality and looking at 62 black and white photo portraits of every Chapter President since 1896 hanging in the meeting room.  I realised that if I wanted to change the status quo it was my turn to put my head above the parapet and have a go. 

Nationally the Institute has 11000 members and 1100 in WA.  30% of all members are women.  We know that the number of women graduating has increased five-fold since the 80’s to be about 55% of graduates.  However, like so many stem-based professions women’s participation rates cluster in the junior ranks, decreasing rapidly to about 30% at 30, decreasing further in our 40’s to about 4% at 50. 

This role has given me a platform to advocate for the profession but it has also been personally fulfilling and enlightening.  Through invitations to present, or to listen to amazing women, this role has also given me permission to reflect on my non-linear career.  Not sure why I needed permission!  But then again, I mean seriously when do you get time to contemplate your career and achievements small or large?  But I encourage you to do so.  While uncomfortable at first, our stories are important, they matter to younger women.

As our lives have become so busy and fast and hi-tech we are losing that intergenerational storytelling and that more natural form of mentoring.  Reflecting on my whole life in one sitting I have realised that I have been touched by the actions of amazing women. 

These moments small in stature at the time have been life-changing.  I thought I would tell you of five women who inspired me and then how I am trying to do my bit in giving back.     

I was recently asked to present the Occasional Address to an audience of 2000 graduates and their families from two faculties at Curtin University. I remembered that the celebrated author and academic Professor Elizabeth Jolley AO gave my graduation address in 1987.  I could remember nothing of her speech, except, a feeling. A life-changing feeling of being inspired. 

Professor Jolley was the first and only woman I had heard lecture during my five years studying architecture.  There were few women in our course and no female tutors.  We never studied famous women architects and while there were a few practicing female architects in Perth at the time I had never met one. 

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, an older man in fact. I didn’t think of it as sexist it was just how it was.  Anyway, I had just left a girls’ school with amazing left leaning feminist teachers who told us with certainity that in 1981 we could do anything and there was no glass ceiling. But in the summer before I started university my dad, an architect made me do a touch-typing course. 

Why I asked?  “Because when the office is busy you will have to type up the men’s letters, answer phones and make the tea and when there is no work you’ll be secretary.”  Elizabeth Jolley inspired me to go in search of women in architecture. 

So off I went to London.   Initially employed in a small firm and yes I had to fill in for the secretary at times but then I was employed in a large international firm with loads of women from around the world, a female director and a female partner who had been named UK Woman of the Year. Bliss I thought I want to be just like her.  I loved working with women as they offered a different approach, considered, complementary and collaborative.  The senior partner Ann was a very good architect and an amazing woman but she was bruised by the many battles she had fought and sacrifices she had made. She said to me once, “yes I have a beautiful apartment in the docklands, a sports car and a good job but I am divorced, with few friends and no children.” Her life was filled by personal sadness and regrets that overshadowed her professional successes.   Ann inspired me to never forget that life is more than professional success. I would fight for the opportunity to have a family and a career.

I returned to Perth in 1991 after 4 years, engaged to a Scotsman, inspired and filled with hope.  But what I returned to was a profession that was behind the times. Working for 5 years for the state government as the project architect on the Fremantle Prison project I was supported again by an amazing woman, the then Minister for Works, the Hon Cheryl Edwards. 

There were only a handful of female architects in the grad programme and we were all victims of harassment and bullying in the office and on sites.  The Minister recognised this and invited us to be on a mentoring programme where we were connected to senior male architects. This was an unbelievable opportunity. Career defining for me.suddenly we were “seen” by senior management and given a different professional perspective, projects and contacts many of whom are still part of my professional life. 

Cheryl continues to inspire me to be a mentor and advocate for women, to be open, honest, to fight the good fight and put my hand up.

In 2003 I was in a desperately unhappy marriage with verbally abusive husband who was also my business partner.   My beautiful friend Fran a single mum with two young children was diagnosed with secondary breast cancer at 41. She died the following year.  Fran inspired me to trust my instincts and that life is not a dress rehearsal.  Life is for living.  I made a considered decision to protect my 4 children under 7 and myself and leave my marriage, my business and many of my so-called friends.

It was during this period soon after my separation that I plucked up the courage to call my old boss whom I met through Cheryl’s mentoring programme 10 years earlier.  He was now at the Dept of Justice.  Within 2 days I was working part time as an architect at the DoJ, Bandyup Prison and Boronia pre-release prison. 

At the time over half of the women at Bandyup were imprisoned for crimes connected to abuse and lack of education.  One day at Boronia I was feeling emotional and exhausted I was struck by this smiling young aboriginal woman pushing a pram in the yard. I immediately thought how could you be smiling? Yes, this is a nice place compared to Bandyup, but you are still in prison. Her 23-month-old baby was her fourth, similar in age to my youngest.  I asked her if she liked the new centre. She beamed “I love it here. It’s the safest place I have ever lived, and I am learning stuff .” I thought immediately “there by the grace of God go I.”  I would have done anything to feed my children.  I was just so bloody lucky that life’s lottery meant I was born into the family I was where and provided a good education in a safe home. This woman was inspirational.

Last night Liberal MP Julia Banks used a speech in parliament to take aim at widespread pervasive and undermining behaviour, bullying and intimidation in federal parliament. And then yesterday I attended a Gender Equity Think Tank conversation with Engineers Australia and Catherine Fox the author of Stop Fixing Women: Why building fairer workplaces is everybody’s business and Women Kind.  Along with the Me Too and Times Up movements you can feel there is change in the air.

There is no better time to be business women in leadership than now to demand change in our workplaces. Why should we expect anything less than a safe working environment?  Why do we need to “fix women?” As has been said before, we should not be expecting women to work more like men but for all of us to be able to work in a way that suits the demands of our unique personal lives.  Let’s face it balancing caring and working roles should be issues for both women and men.  I want that for my children.

While the institute has a Gender Equity Taskforce and in some states Champions of Change I still felt that we needed to affect positive change on the ground for women in their 30’s and 40’s including providing opportunities to network, share experiences, seek guidance and discuss career strategies, so we established a women’s networking group ‚ÄòWork Women Wisdom’ (#WWW) for any women who had completed an architectural degree.  We decided to hold the events at my home so as to not see the 62 photos, inviting babies and starting the evening at 7pm not 5pm.

Our inaugural event in September 2017 called ‚ÄòThe Art of Networking’ was attended by 150 enthusiastic and engaged women architects ranging in ages from 21 to 71. I was overwhelmed. I had never been in a room with more than 25 female architects at one time.   It was the first ‚Äòwomen in architecture’ event held in over 20 years, and for most of us who remembered the last one, we believed – and hoped – that the concerns we held then were no longer relevant.

Unfortunately, we were mistaken. So, we decided that our second #WWW gathering this year would focus on the #Times Up movement for professional women targeting unsafe workplaces

At this event, the 100 women attendees heard from legal counsel about their rights under the law.  We also offered them an opportunity to share their experiences confidentially so we could inform our members.  Most of the women who did so were aged between 25 and 40 and found that speaking up for the first time and hearing that they were not alone was a liberating and healing experience. 

The anecdotal information we collated to be honest devastated me and made me bloody angry.  The women’s experiences included a list of about 50 themes but here are 5:

– A young woman reported sexual and emotional abuse by a senior partner to her superiors in another state. Their response was “…oh no not again.” She has left her job, is in counselling and does not wish to take it further.  

– Cases of senior women being excluded or overlooked at meetings;

– Women being asked for favours in exchange for better quality work or told they were too emotional;

– A male director massaging a junior architect’s shoulders to relax her each morning;

– Systemic gender pay gaps brushed off because the woman had to pick up her children she could only work an 8 hour day.  She noted that the men all had children.  

I decided the best response was a tactful but direct letter to all our members explaining that while I was sure they would be shocked by the accounts they were all true and I wanted us to be conscious of our own actions and those of our peers.

And for those that found it hard to understand the gravity of these actions and questioned why women didn’t just speak up?  

I listed about 10 of the obvious reasons including, that the women felt that their colleagues wouldn’t believe them, or would tell them it was only a joke, or that 90% of architects worked in small practices that had no HR complaint procedure or induction training. To help them we provided links to HR tools. I urged our members to look out for unacceptable behaviour and if they witnessed it- to call it out loudly. 

Yes, all pretty normal stuff in the workforce but a type of cultural shift for the field of architecture.   

I demanded that as a profession we must have zero-tolerance.  Our workplaces must be ones of fairness and inclusiveness; that embraces and celebrates diversity; and offers a career that is fulfilling, sustainable, flexible and long lasting.

The response has been amazing. Although, I am sure that those 5% that aren’t happy are scurrying around with their fellow primates living in caves; and at an educated guess they would all be aged between 50 to 62!  My generation!!  There is of course so much more work to be done.  But I am very proud that we have made a start. 

Much like Zonta’s vision of a world in which women’s rights are recognized as human rights and every woman can achieve her full potential, I want to ensure that women in architecture are represented in decision making positions on an equal basis with men.   I hope that the Institutes advocacy encourages young women to study architecture and older women to stay in this wonderful profession practising their craft on their terms.

Thank you.