Dean of Architecture, Building & Planning at the University of Melbourne, Professor Julie Willis reflects on the turning points in her career, the benefits of seizing opportunities outside her comfort zone, the impact of gendered assumptions – and how to manage these – and the importance of being comfortable in her own skin.
What do you do? How does this differ from what you imagined doing when you set out to study architecture?
If you told me when I started studying architecture that I would eventually be the Dean of the Faculty, I would have laughed you out of the room. When I started studying, architecture was all new to me: I was never one of those kids who’d dreamed of being an architect their whole lives, indeed came to it as a choice for university very late when I became very disillusioned about pursuing science. And I’m not sure I had a clear picture of what I would be doing in architecture on graduation, other than going into a firm and thus practice. Yet the thing that drew me in to the discipline, what motivates me in architecture, hasn’t changed: I love the thrill of designing creative, beautiful solutions to complex problems; as an educator, I also love the ‘A-ha!’ moment you see in your students when they understand something for the first time. As Dean, I usually describe myself as being a jobbing academic, but just with a large administrative load. I still teach (although much less these days) and I have an active research program.
As Dean, my job is to ensure that we can provide the best educational experience possible for our students, to uphold the responsibility we have to the wider community to push the boundaries of knowledge and discovery in our fields, and to create a scholarly environment of curiosity, experimentation and engagement for all who pass through our doors. That means I’m working with lots of individuals to achieve these aims, within a wider context of the university and the professions.
What have been the biggest career challenges and successes so far?
At times, it has seemed like just surviving has been the biggest challenge and the biggest success. Like many, I had kids (three) in that early to mid-career zone and finding the right balance going forward was at times challenging (hello complete exhaustion for a few years), but I had supportive people around me who understood what was going on. I learnt important lessons through that experience, such as prioritising, evaluating the relative importance of tasks and ways to be efficient. That doesn’t mean that I’m necessarily good at prioritising! But I do know the absolute necessity of making time for the important things, such as my family.
Can you discuss particular roles or projects that were turning points in your career?
Starting a PhD was a key moment for me as it opened up the possibility of an academic career, which was greatly attractive as it offered a level of autonomy and self-direction that I liked, and the capacity to keep doing research and teaching.
Being accepted for the University of Melbourne’s Academic Women in Leadership professional development course in 2003 had a profound effect on me. I’d been quite cynical about the value of professional development until that course, but found that the reflection and self-evaluation, as well as the network and cohort that developed between the participants, was incredibly valuable. Several lessons learnt, particularly about common behaviours in people, I continue to draw upon; and I continue to seek out good professional development opportunities where I can.
Although it is outside architecture, taking on the role of a Pro Vice Chancellor in the university in 2012 was another key turning point. Although I’d held leadership roles before, this was at a much higher level and far higher stakes with a remit right across the university. Under the mentorship of a great boss, I found not only my feet but learned to fly, building skills and experience at a very rapid pace, and gaining exposure to situations (both good and bad) that means now there are far fewer surprises or unpredictable circumstances for me as a leader.
Have you benefited from mentors (formal or informal), sponsors and / or other supporters? What was the impact?
I’ve had lots of mentors, formal and informal, through my career and I’ve learnt huge amounts from them all. I really value the advice of others and one of the impacts of great mentoring has been the confidence to ask for advice – if you are pretty sure you are going to get good, robust and careful advice when you ask, you are more likely to ask again. I actively seek out new mentors as a result. I’ve had situations when I or my cause has been championed by others, which has again built confidence and righted wrongs that I might have otherwise let slide. These are the people who’ve equipped me with the knowledge, the experience, the confidence, the support, the connections and the chutzpah to go out and do what I do best. And I’m a big believer in paying such largesse and generosity back – or forward – as need be.
What are your areas of expertise – in research, practice or beyond the academy? How do these influence and inflect your leadership approach?
I primarily research architectural history, but I also research issues of gender in the profession and contemporary healthcare environments. Reflecting on how they influence my leadership approach, I can see connections that I’ve never contemplated before. As a historian, I look for patterns and cycles of change in architecture: you soon learn what is old is new again to those who only look forward. Understanding the background or what’s happened in the past can mean we don’t repeat mistakes and can learn from that experience. It also teaches me that there is often a gap between what people say they do and what they actually do, and having the hard evidence is always a useful starting point for any discussion. This might infer a degree of scepticism, but I think it is more a need to do a bit of stress-testing or investigation on things before proceeding. While I reckon I’m a pretty good judge of things, I test out ideas and proposals with my colleagues to make them as robust and refined as possible before taking them to a wider audience. That degree of caution has saved me plenty of times from making mistakes!
What is your leadership style? What experiences have shaped this?
I’m not a flag-waving, call-to-arms, follow-me kind of leader; instead, the concepts of leading-through-influence and leading-from-behind encapsulate my style more appropriately.
I believe good ideas come from anywhere and that everyone has the right to contribute to strategic directions and big decisions, so I put emphasis on listening, engaging others in decision-making, delegating and consultation without allowing any of that to constrict or obstruct our efforts going forward. In other words, engagement is essential, with the emphasis on making the best decisions possible. Building trust is enormously important and being authentic in your actions, espoused beliefs and manner of communication. You are not occupying an idea of leadership; you are shaping the mantle of leadership to who you really are.
I’m driven by trying to make a difference for others. I’ve taken up leadership roles because it meant I could make a positive difference and change the rules where needed. It gives a definite horizon to my leadership: if I can no longer make a difference, then it is time for someone else to step in.
I’m shaped in this leadership approach by my own experiences and preferences. I don’t like being told what to do, so I avoid telling others what to do, instead asking for their opinions and advice if I can. I’m such an introvert that if I can’t be me, I’ll come across as completely false and insincere, and put myself under an enormous amount of pressure and stress: so I’m always true to me. And I get the biggest kick about seeing others succeed, so I work to enable that to happen.
How have gendered constructs and leadership intersected in your experience? What challenges attend this and how have you navigated these?
Oh yes, they have. And still do. There are plenty of times when I’ve met people for the first time in my role as Dean and they’ve assumed that my male colleagues are more senior to me. Or when rather horrifying things have been said about or to me, inferring that I’m too young, too junior, not qualified enough, or credit is given to my (male) colleagues for my achievements. It was not so hilarious to once find my research on women architects credited to a long-standing male collaborator.
Essentially, I get questioned about my capacity in a way my male colleagues never face, often quite naively and without malice, but definitely unthinkingly, and it is deeply offensive. One of the best things I ever did was to lose my fear of what others thought of me. So comments like these are offensive on one level, but I really don’t care what they think on another level and they thus lose traction or power over my responses: I’m in control of how I respond, not them.
I’m good at what I do and that’s usually utterly apparent once I get the opportunity to talk or do. There are times I don’t bother to respond but I will call out bad behaviour where I see it or experience it. I’m not immune to the comments – they make me deeply angry at times (and that’s putting it politely) – but I’m determined not to let them define my responses. I’m well-known in the university for my feminist stance and am now the university’s academic lead for diversity and inclusion, so more and more I fight the good fight for those who will come next.
What do you consider to be the key attributes and skills of an effective leader?
Effective leaders are those who support and encourage those who work with them to be their best. They regard leadership as a partnership between people; they listen, they demonstrate thought and care, they are considerate, but push when it is needed. Effective leaders empower those around them and delegate where possible.
What changes – structural and tactical – are needed to increase equity in the profession and discipline?
We’ve got to address the culture that regards architecture as a calling, a vocation: which translates into long hours and giving it your all, all the time, for not particularly great pay. People have lives and can’t be expected to work all the time just for the glamour or the glory of it. Better working conditions consistently across the profession, equal pay, and better HR management practices will make an enormous difference to making a more equitable profession.
It is hard for small businesses to be best practice at employee relations and human resources issues, and it is easy to concentrate on the tasks at hand, but this stuff is important to get right. We see so much concern and attention at present about issues of wage theft (such as unpaid overtime), failure to pay entitlements and other employee-related issues in other industries. It is only a matter of time before cases emerge in our profession. And the media portrayal of such cases, when they emerge, will not be kind.
We need to think about why people are leaving the profession and understand the real costs of staff turnover. If we cannot manage the conditions for staff appropriately, they will leave for better positions, or leave the industry altogether, resulting in lost productivity, lost knowledge and real costs: it thus makes good business sense to pursue strong and flexible working conditions for all staff.
What roles can architecture schools play in helping to address equity issues? How can education and scholarship help build a fairer profession and discipline?
We need to ensure that we model behaviour: that our students see both men and women in academic and leadership roles, and that those who we invite and profile represent the diverse community in which we live. Given we have had gender parity in our student body for decades, we have inadvertently created an environment where, anecdotally, many of our students believe gender issues are a thing of the past in the wider profession: a significant number of our graduates are profoundly shocked at what they experience in practice. That discordance encourages the activism that is needed to provoke the necessary change in the profession.
What equity problems does your institution face? What strategies is your institution using to address these?
We have a legacy of under-representation of women on our academic staff, both permanent and casual, and we are working hard to redress this imbalance. It takes time to change this, and I am determined that we will. My university is actively seeking to address gender equity issues, with the Vice-Chancellor making repeated and clear pronouncements that this is a key issue for us: the university’s Diversity and Inclusion Committee (which I chair) reports directly to him, and we are charged with making a significant and lasting difference in the institution to improve access and inclusion: in that, there is a significant effort to improve the access and retention of women researchers and academics, particularly in areas in which they are under-represented.
Looking back on your career, what are you most proud of so far?
For the most part, I’ve said yes to opportunities that have come my way. This has meant that I’ve got outside my comfort zone, I’ve bitten off more than I thought I could chew, and I’ve stretched myself. Sometimes it has meant I’ve tried to do too much, but lots of times it has meant that I’ve done things that have been amazing experiences.
I believe I’ve had a positive impact on those who’ve worked with me, colleagues and students alike. That means having the difficult, not just the easy, conversations; being mindful of opportunities for others (not just yourself); pushing when that’s needed; caring; celebrating; and supporting. I’m conscious that I’m a role model and a mentor, and that I have got to live, and be seen to live, the values I espouse.
But most of all, I’m proud that I’m true to myself. I might be a rather shy, introverted, recovering perfectionist, but I look and act how I please and say what I think and am very comfortable in my own skin.
What advice would you give a young woman embarking on a career in architectural academia or practice today?
Get rid of your fear – for fear will make you do things you regret. Be you. Try to be clear, straightforward and upfront – authenticity is important – and don’t be afraid to ask. Be calm but firm about stuff that’s not right, and call it out. Get on with it, don’t wait for permission or to be asked. Be resilient: if someone says no, what’s so bad about that? It doesn’t mean they don’t like you, so don’t run away like a kitten with a hurt paw. Grab opportunities with both hands, even if you’re scared you can’t do it. Own it. Ask. Give. Lead.
Professor Julie Willis is Dean of the Faculty of Architecture, Building & Planning at the University of Melbourne, and a co-founder of Parlour. Prior to becoming Dean, she was Pro Vice Chancellor (Research Capability) from 2013 to 2016. Julie is an architectural historian and educator whose research focuses on Australian architecture. She has published widely on topics including the development of modern hospital architecture in Australia; the importance of public buildings in community, civic and national identity; architecture during wartime and its subsequent impact on practice and production; and equity and diversity in architecture. She has twice won the Australian Institute of Architects Bates Smart Award for Architecture in the Media. She is co-author of Women Architects in Australia, 1900-1950 and co-editor of the Encyclopedia of Australian Architecture (Cambridge University Press, 2012) and Architecture and the Modern Hospital: Nosokomeion to Hygeia (Routledge, 2019).