Caroline Stalker argues that women can lead the charge in promoting a wider understanding of what architecture is and what it can contribute to the community.

Design by a team from Architectus, led by Caroline Stalker and Elizabeth Watson Brown, to ‘transform a blighted space’ at the edge of Brisbane’s city centre for Brisbane City Council. This was part of the city’s Ideas Fiesta for the City Centre Master Plan.

Unfortunately I wasn’t able to attend the recent Transform: Altering the Future of Architecture forum, but I do have a few thoughts to add to the debate. These come from my own experience, and from – I confess – a most privileged position, as part of possibly the only gender balanced directorate in a large-ish architectural practice in Australia (a bold claim, which one day I will do the research on to substantiate!).

Why aren’t women doing better in architecture (in my world at least)? What can we do about it? It is SOOO complex.

Firstly, there’s the nature of the profession. To succeed in architecture you need drive, tenacity and self-confidence in addition to ability. Assertiveness and ambition are still (yes still!) under-valued in women – social and cultural influences are very powerful. I still see more under-confident young women than men, in architecture school and in the workplace.

Secondly, there’s the nature of the work. The culture of long hours, low fees and being in constant demand etc., is very difficult  – nay, impossible – if you are the primary carer of children. Who you partner with in life defines and shapes the impacts of these demands enormously. This is also something that the industry can address directly, for example through offering greater work flexibility.

It’s frustrating to see women struggling in the profession, not just because it so often reflects the inequity they face, but also because, at the risk of stereotyping, there are things about women that I think make us very good architects. Architects are the generalists of the built environment, the ones who interpret and shape human experience. I think women are good at seeing and understanding multiple things simultaneously. Putting buildings together and running project teams, particularly on more complex projects, requires a high level of intellectual and actual organisation, another thing many women are known for! Other stereotypical female qualities like good communication skills and empathy are also essential to broaden the way we work and who we work with in architecture – a general challenge for our profession.

For me, the last major bastion of male dominance in architecture is the large, influential architectural project; these projects are well and truly ruled by a masculine culture. Should women want to be part of that world? For me the answer is ‘yes’ – that world is still building the vast majority of projects that really do shape cities, our experience of our places and the sustainable occupation of the planet. Even from my position of privilege, at Architectus, there are still gender challenges, and I have a strong desire to see change in my lifetime.

I believe that women need to be more resilient and determined, and to help other women – particularly younger ones – to be the same. It can be pretty rough-and-tumble in practice, but what we do is so very important, so it’s worth doing!

In addition to talking about how we advance gender equity in architecture it’s also important to bring in a conversation about the nature of architectural work itself, at a range of scales and levels of impact. This includes continuing to promote a wider definition of architecture and communicating the broad value for society of good architectural thinking to the wider world. We will all benefit from a broader deployment of architectural skills. Women architects can lead the charge in this – bringing a new range of skills, practices and works to a new audience outside the profession.