Is pay equity an issue in ACT architecture? Bronwen Jones challenges ACT architectural practices to conduct an industry-wide gender pay audit to find out.

‘Graduate pay gap blowout…the gender pay gap for graduates was most pronounced in the following occupational areas: architecture and building (17.3%, $9,000 difference)…”1

 Is it possible that these statistics are wrong, or don’t apply to the ACT?

Surely our profession – which prides itself on leading many of the critical issues of today’s society through creative and imaginative intellectual engagement – would be supportive of a call to explore any suggestion of gender pay inequity within our professional community?

Yet the degree of defensiveness that emerges when I raise the issue with leaders in local practice – notably mostly male – makes me worry that our profession is not overly keen to go down this road, despite general good intentions.

Many of are these leaders are directors of their own practice and are actively engaged in orchestrating a smooth transition to the next generation of directors. These senior men are hardworking, talented individuals, and many share a world view that reflects their time at university during the liberalism of the 1960s and early 1970s. Those who come after these heady times appear to assume that questions relating to gender inequity have been resolved – that this battle has been fought and won, if you like.

I think it would be fair to say each one of them is personally committed to the ideal of gender equity, even though it may be unexamined in their thinking.

Most are astonished to learn there is a gender pay gap here, now, in 2013. And not just for graduates, but for all women in the profession – indeed, the evidence points to an increased gap with age and during childbearing years.2 A not an uncommon response is, ‘nobody in my practice is discriminated against in terms of gender or pay’. I want to believe them, but the evidence suggest otherwise. Of course statistics are always open to interpretation, so it is important to interrogate them in order to understand the extent of the pay gap – if indeed there is one!3

But perhaps the ACT is different? A recent statistical portrait of the ACT suggests that we are an affluent, well-educated, enlightened lot.4 This profile supports our senior leaders’ assertions that gender equity is an underpinning ideal of their architectural practices.

Sensing a conviction that here in the ACT we don’t stoop to discriminating practices, I believe a well-designed, well-managed gender pay equity audit will be welcomed by our local architectural community. Indeed, the results from such an audit may challenge the Australia-wide statistics, in which case we can stand proudly as leaders for this important issue.

On the other hand, it may confirm a less-than-ideal situation by bringing a light to questions of inequity of pay. This would enable us, as a profession, to identify and address the unease expressed by a proportion of our professional community – mainly women. It is only by putting the facts out for all to see that we can affirm that women and men are paid fairly for the work they perform.

It is also worth noting that equal pay is not just about equal wages. Equal pay takes into account discretionary pay, allowances, performance payments, merit payments, bonus payments and superannuation. I believe these additional payments contribute substantially to the pay gap identified in the statistics and, in many cases, are the result of an unconscious (unintentional) bias on the part of out practice leaders.

This issue is not just a ‘women’s issue’ to be taken up by a minority who feel hard done by.5

Pay disparity is a tangible economic issue for women in the profession, and for our leaders in practice who are responsible for viable and profitable architectural businesses.

The long-term financial implications for women of lower pay and subsequently reduced superannuation are profound, especially in retirement.6 We all share a responsibility to ensure the economic wellbeing of our society. This is not a matter of pitting profitable practice against the complexities of ensuring gender pay equity – to do so would place an unfair burden on women. And unequal pay also has negative financial effects on the profession long term.

Aside from unconscious bias, child rearing is often raised as the reason women are precluded from advancing in practice and therefore earnings growth. Raising families is something both men and women do. It is an eternal source of frustration that the belief that parenting is ‘naturally better done by women’ persists and remains unexamined by many men. Experience tells me that children remain a parent’s responsibility long after the initial intense early years and their presence should not be a defining factor in our ability to perform our professional roles.

The experience of inequitable pay also contributes to disillusionment among women, who feel they can no longer sustain the economic argument of working ‘like men, only cheaper’.

The economics of pay inequity may well be a significant contributing factor to why women architects make up less than 20% of the profession in the ACT.7 This alarmingly low rate of participation by women should not be seen as confirming that women don’t want to practice like men, and that they would rather dabble in low-risk, low-cost, interior-focused domestic work.

To the contrary, the women in the profession in the ACT are as ambitious, as talented and as hard working as their male counterparts, and wish to be viewed first and foremost in this light. We certainly don’t want to have to carry the gendered label ‘female architect’ any more than a man would want to be labelled a ‘male architect’.

In closing, I ask for our leaders to acknowledge that the statistics may indeed point to a problem in our profession. I ask that the ACT Chapter of the Institute conduct a gender pay equity audit to verify our position locally. This request is a call for making progress towards gender parity, including fairness and equity in pay on behalf of the talented, hard working and well educated woman in the profession.

  1. Australian Government Workplace Gender Equality Agency, media release, 3 January 2013.
  2. OECD Gender Equity in Education, Employment and Entrepreneurship: Final Report to the MCM 2012, p. 85.
  3. Responses explaining some of the findings and challenging the WGEA statistics were promptly submitted by Justine Clark writing for Parlour (The Graduate Gender Pay Gap Part 1 – What do the Numbers Mean?, 13 January 2013) and Graduate Careers Australia ( ‘Gender Pay Gap’ Claims Disputed, January 2013). Shelley Penn, National President of the Institute, also responded with Gender Salary Gap Not So Great, 13 February 2013.
  4. ACT Government, A Social Overview of the ACT, 2009–10.
  5. Women account for over 50% of the total population, ABS, Population by Age and Sex, Australian States and Territories, June 2010.
  6. WGEA, Gender Pay Gap: The Facts, 2012. In 2009–10 the average superannuation payouts at retirement were approximately $198,000 for men and $112,600 for women, a difference of 58 percent. One of the consequences of this disparity is that women are 2.5 times more likely to live in poverty in old age than men.
  7. ACTPLA, List of Registered Architects, 9 January 2013.