More on HRM

Diversity in architecture: designing a gender-balanced office

Architectural practices are typically dominated by men in leadership roles. Here is how one company opened the door to diversity.

Architecture is one of the country’s most male-dominated industries: just 22 per cent of registered architects in Australia are female. Three years ago Sydney architecture firm DesignInc was no exception. Women made up just 30 per cent of its workforce and all five directors were male.

When DesignInc director Ghislain Coulon announced his plan to retire after a 33-year career at the firm, it was seen as an opportunity to bring a female director on board – but there were no obvious female candidates to take his place.

Sandeep Amin, managing director of DesignInc since 2011, says he was acutely aware of the firm’s gender imbalance, but realised if there were going to be changes, they needed to start at the grassroots level.

“Rather than parachuting in new partners, I’m a strong believer in growing future leaders as part of the practice,” he says.

At the same time, the NSW chapter of the Australian Institute of Architects established the Architects Male Champions of Change. Launched in March 2015, the group of 10 men made a commitment to “actively intervene to halt inequality in its tracks, call out prejudice… and to be leaders by example to the profession”. The group’s mission to tackle gender inequality in architecture inspired Amin.

“I thought, ‘Rather than talking about it, how about we try to implement it?’”

Blowing out bias

Shumaila Ali, HR manager at DesignInc and a Telstra Business Women’s Award finalist, says the first step was to initiate conversations about unconscious bias in recruitment and the need for more women in the business. Talented women were targeted for leadership development, and female architects filled principal and associate roles in the new Urban Design and Landscape division, created in 2015.

Having females in leadership positions began to signal to other women both in the business and the wider industry that they too could rise to the top, says Ali.  

“We started getting a lot of applications from female graduate architects for other roles because they saw they could climb the ranks.”

Results were rapid. By 2016, the gender split across all roles was 51 per cent female,49 per cent male. And the leadership pipeline had become more equitable too. In 2018, women make up 45 per cent of principal and associate roles.

“I’m proud that this year we’ve been able to bring parity across the board,” says Ali.

“If a male principal in transport earns a certain amount, then a female principal in transport should earn not a dollar different.”

“We started getting a lot of applications from female graduate architects for other roles because they saw they could climb the ranks.”

Availability check

The introduction of a core hours policy addressed architecture’s notorious ‘always available’ culture and gave staff more flexibility to structure their work day to fit their out-of-hours commitments. Staff can adjust their start and finish times around the core hours of 9.30am to 4pm. Meetings and events must be scheduled between these times too.

The initiative accommodates those with caring responsibilities, allowing parents to start and leave early to pick up their children from daycare. But it’s not only parents. “There are people who go surfing every morning – they can also start and finish late. Some people work better in the morning, others are more effective in the evening. It’s beneficial to many.”

Changing mindsets

Achieving gender balance meant stereotypes undermining women’s performance had to be overturned: that they’re not as talented, and can’t hold their own on male-dominated construction sites.

The success of great female designers proves those stereotypes wrong, says Amin. “Look at Zaha Hadid. She was a great designer and architect. Why can’t others be?”

Another challenge was to encourage women to return to work after maternity leave – when many leave the industry. Research published at Parlour, a website dedicated to gender equity in architecture, shows most female architects are aged 25-29, and women leave architecture at higher rates than men.

“The traditional view is that you have to be in the office, that designing buildings is a collective process. But it can be done remotely, as long there is a willingness from both parties to achieve the outcome.”  

Fears the changes would negatively affect productivity never materialised. “If the output is there, we’re happy to offer the flexibility.”

More proof that the shift has been a success is high employee engagement. A 2017 survey revealed that the overall employee satisfaction was 90 per cent. “There’s a culture of trust,” says Amin. “Once you establish that, then people collectively subscribe to it. We have had no issues.”

This is an edited version of an article that appeared in the September 2018 edition of HRM magazine.

Support diversity in your team by building your team’s understand of how bias can affect decision making at work, with AHRI’s in-house training or tool kit ‘Managing unconscious bias’.

Leave a reply

  Subscribe to receive comments  
Notify me of

We talk a lot about gender imbalances in male dominated industries, which is absolutely important, yet as an industry, HR has in itself a gender imbalance issue. In 2016 the BLS in the US reported that 72% of HR managers identified as women, even more when we look at lower levels of the profession. We can’t champion change for women when the industry is doing little to address it’s own imbalance. It is paramount that we treat each HR issue pragmatically and not as a knee jerk reaction to a social demand.

Max Underhill
Max Underhill

I think this is a great and positive article. However there is quantitative recruitment processes that provide precise analysis of competence and competence gap. Pre determined gap that can be filled by L&D can also be established. The filling of this gap can be monitored together with the value of both position and the incumbent. These processes have been around for close to 20 years and I am sure the Architect company uses similar principles on other assets they acquire.

John F
John F

Further to what the previous contributor diplomatically said, the catch heading to the article is becoming old, if not out of touch with reality. To be less diplomatic: we now live with the reality of more female domination than male domination – disagree?? There is mounting evidence to prove the harmful effects of not just the significantly huge allocation of resourcing and funding towards, not just professional women, but to women IN GENERAL’s quality of life. In proportion, there is a sad lack of it towards not just professional men and IN GENERAL, but other demographic groups as well; not… Read more »

More on HRM