Lack of Women Keynotes by Sally Arnold

18 May 2017

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Lack of Women Keynotes at AIA Convention Highlights Equality Issues

by Sally Arnold

first published 16 May 2017, Architecture News   


This is the first of a monthly series of articles by Sally Arnold written for Sourceable on challenges for women in architecture, engineering, construction and property.  

“The Keynote panel is in no way representative of our collective intellect,” read the letter from over 50 architects and firms challenging the lack of women as keynote speakers at the AIA conference in Orlando in April this year.

Sadly, it was not surprising to see a lack of female architects as keynote speakers at this major US convention. There were a token two women keynotes, neither of whom are architects.

Amy Cuddy a Harvard Professor and best-selling author was booked in advance, and suddenly Michelle Obama was slipped in a couple of weeks before the convention.

Why does this under-representation of women architects persist? There is a growth of “female leadership” and “develop your voice of authority” seminars, workshops, articles, and International Women’s Day events urging women to step up and be bold.

Is this all in vain, or is the education process misguided? Are those running these events coming from places of strong leadership? Have they personally experienced and moved out of inequality in their profession, and can they deliver tangible results based solutions, or are they regurgitating the same old list of needs without finding creative and innovative options?

It seems workplace cultures in architecture, engineering, construction and property are complex and stuck in outdated practices. There appears to be a mentality amongst men - especially in construction - that a woman engineer on a work site is a person to be spoken to as if she is unintelligent and is wasting time.

I remember a female client who was an engineer and specialized in production of concrete telling me that she dreaded spending time on large construction sites, because the guys there treated her with disdain, an experience similar to bullying. She has left the construction industry - a qualified engineer who also has an MBA. What a loss to the industry!

How many other women have done the same thing in similar professions? Would you want your partner, mother, or female friends to have to constantly go through this battle every day?

So how can there be a more harmonious way for women to work continuously in the above careers? The inequality of women in architecture seems to also flow through into many professions, law and accountancy in particular.

“Did you know that half of Australian women experience pregnancy discrimination and one in five report either losing their jobs during pregnancy or returning to work. This is not acceptable. And it is noted by The Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission that the real figure is higher as many women fear reprisals for reporting their challenges," wrote Tracy Spicer, author of The Good Girl Stripped Bare.

The types of discrimination faced by female architects used to be common in high level symphony orchestras in Europe and the US, where they had a policy of not allowing women musicians join their hallowed ranks. The solution was to create blind auditions, where musicians would play behind a screen, no shoes on, carpet on the floor to disguise male and female tread. This has increased the number of women playing in US orchestras to over 30 per cent, but in Europe, the Vienna Symphony is still dragging its tail.

Solving the recent situation at the AIA convention in US is not rocket science. There are many ways for equality of female architects to be rapidly set in place, but the first place to start is for men to take on board their unconscious biases towards females. This is especially true of those men who have been running large practices for many years.

Yes, there are programs set in place around diversity, but do these men engage in those programs and not just pay lip service to understanding and finding personal solutions to inequality? Or do they hand this over to their learning and development manager or someone in a similar position? These programs are not just part of personal development essentials that need to be ticked off each year; they are vital learnings for all.

Gender (and racial) equality is moving forward, but there is still a way to go before we can truly consider ourselves modern and enlightened in the 21st century.


About the author:

Sally Arnold is the Director of 'Creating Encores', and has had a variety of careers - including being a former professional flautist, Head of Business Development at The Australian Ballet, a psychotherapist, an author, businesswoman and speaker.

Sally is the daughter of architect Don Donnithorne, and now writes about architecture, engineering and property, 'a world she grew up in.'