Challenging assumptions. Gill Matthewson outlines her PhD project and some of the questions that have arisen so far.

The team at Bates Smart, Sydney. Photo Nick Bassett.

One of the parts of the research project Equity and Diversity in the Australian Architecture Profession: Women, Work and Leadership is a series of case studies of architectural firms. These constitute the backbone of my PhD, Dimensions of Gender: Women’s Careers in the Australian Architecture Profession, currently underway at the University of Queensland.

The architectural office is a crucial site in the production and representation of architects and architecture but it is not well-researched or understood. We need a better understanding of it, given that it is where the profession creates and recreates itself, where the day-to-day events and attitudes that affect an individual’s personal experience of the profession occur, and therefore where equity and diversity  are played out.

Each office has its own work culture, which consists of the written and unwritten ‘rules’ that govern behaviour, expectations, acceptable and appropriate activities, and the values that members of the office are expected to share. But it is also neither a single nor stable phenomenon – no work group is ever homogenous or constant; it is always made up of individuals of diverse backgrounds and interests, who are operating within a series of highly complex relationships.

This complexity means that work culture is not an easy thing to study. It requires multiple forms of knowledge gathering if one is to attain any understanding of it. The more sources of information, the more detailed and nuanced the description and therefore the potential understanding of the work culture. It will require ‘immersion’ within the culture by participating in the daily lives of the office: watching, listening, and questioning what happens as well as collecting documents and artefacts.

The main focus of the case studies is to try to determine how gender might affect the work culture. This means looking at if and how it affects career progression, how it contributes to the identity of an architect, and if and how wider cultural expectations based on gender impact on architects. Architects might want to think that being a ‘professional’ would immunise them from the actions of gender, but these are deeply embedded our culture and therefore the work culture.

These are some of the methodological issues which have emerged in the planning of the series of case studies. There have been other surveys and studies to investigate the situation both in architecture and other occupations and these have informed the design of the project.

Firstly, we have selected three medium- to large-sized architectural practices. There are a number of reasons for this. According to the 2006 census,the majority of architects are employees (approximately 60%).1 Big offices are large enough to study how people move career-wise and so it is here that progression mechanisms and systems can be most easily studied. These offices are also where graduate architects learn the ‘craft’ of architecture as they accumulate hours of supervised experience towards becoming registered. Moreover, larger offices have not been well-surveyed in the past. For example, the Whitman 2004 survey was distributed through membership of the Royal Australian Institute of Architects. Employed architects in large practices are generally less likely to be Institute members. Finally, it is possible to be working as an architect but be uncounted. Particularly within larger firms, there is no need for all architects to be carrying the high costs of registration and professional indemnity insurance. This research may result in this group of ‘invisible’ architects becoming more visible.

Two of the selected practices have relatively high numbers of women at senior level. In this respect, the research focuses less on what goes wrong, and perhaps less risk being drawn into a pessimistic cycle of accusation and defence. This is not to gloss over the issues that women architects have faced and are facing, but it does begin to identify equitable practice and understand the ramifications of it.

We have begun with a quantitative ‘snapshot’ of the practices collated from information already available to the Human Resources sections of the firms. From this data we will select people to interview. Some previous studies have interviewed women only, making it difficult to determine what if anything is specific to women architects.2 Since we wish to discover the extent of gender processes, and gender affects both men and women, we intend to interview both. Following the protocol developed by Elin Kvande and Bente Rasmussen we will select, as far as possible, men and women in matched pairs in terms of qualifications and years of experience.3

They will be chosen from all levels of the organisation to develop an overall picture. The interviews will be in-depth and semi-structured, allowing for a flexible approach to the discussion around the issues. Some of the interviewees will be shadowed to observe their interactions and the work culture in action.

In addition, there will be a level of ethnographic participant observation in the work environment – this is me joining a team/s. Such fieldwork observation is often begun on the basis of a complete lack of knowledge of the ‘culture’ to be investigated. Researchers talk of the ‘naive student’ and argue that this lack of prior knowledge means the observer is hyper-sensitive to the culture and more able to see its particularities. I, however, come to the study from a knowing base – I having practised as an architect. I am therefore not a ‘naïve’ observer, but a ‘native’ observer. I have shared the professional socialisation of architects through education and work processes.

According to sociologist Tony Watson, participant observation is more than ‘watching and listening’, it is to be closely involved with people, to “actively interact and share experiences with them in a manner going beyond simple observation”.4 This level of engagement, of ‘joining’ the group in their various settings, is perhaps more possible when one has the skills to contribute to tasks that can be shared, and language in common to use with them.

As a ‘native’ I will be moving backwards and forwards between being part of the culture and observing it. This odd oscillation requires me to reflect constantly on my assumptions both about architecture and practice and about the theoretical frameworks I will inevitably bring. Even in the preparatory phase of the project my assumptions are being challenged and I am expecting this to occur more once I get into the field.

  1. Architects in Australia: A Snapshot from the 2006 Census“, 5
  2. Katherine Sang, Andrew Dainty, and Stephen Ison, “Gender: A Risk Factor for Occupational Stress in the Architectural Profession?,” Construction Management and Economics 25, no. 12 (2007).
  3. Elin Kvande and Bente Rasmussen, “Men in Male-Dominated Organizations and Their Encounter with Women Intruders,” Scandinavian Journal of Management 10, no. 2 (1994).
  4. Tony J. Watson, “Ethnography, Reality, and Truth: The Vital Need for Studies of ‘How Things Work’ in Organizations and Management,” Journal of Management Studies 48, no. 1 (2011): 206.