Like many technical professions, architecture is an industry dominated by men. With both male and female architecture students graduating at almost equal rates, why is it that so little women occupy the top jobs? Ali Devellerez, one of the SPH directors, sheds light on the issue and highlights her experiences as a woman in architecture.
Where Are All the Women?
In a landmark 2005 study ‘Going Places: The Career Progression of Women in the Architectural Profession,’ Paula Whitman found that although graduation numbers were roughly equal between genders, only 1% of company directors were women. A recent 2016 survey in the UK also found that once in the profession women were paid significantly less than men and tended to leave before advancing to managerial positions.
With the architecture industry plagued by gender pay gaps, overwhelming workloads and seemingly unbreakable glass ceilings, it’s easy to see why women are significantly underrepresented in senior and management roles.
Leading the Way
From a young age, Ali displayed promising creative skills. Coming from a family of builders, she was encouraged to combine her creative talent with technical expertise. Although her father has been supportive throughout her studies and her career, she credits her mother as her strongest support. Following the completion of her 5-year architecture studies at UWA, Ali was eager to show the industry what she was made of.
Since the completion of her studies and registration as an architect, Ali has successfully completed a range of projects both locally and internationally. As a qualified health planner, Ali has a strong interest in community projects along with design for people with dementia. She regularly works on health and aged care projects that make a positive contribution to the community.
As an inspiring leader in Perth’s architecture scene, Ali is committed to advancing women’s interests while promoting equal opportunity and balance for men. Establishing the Women in Architecture mentoring group, Ali mentors architecture graduates and early professionals. Her mentoring sessions cover everything from career development and demanding deadlines to family obligations and finding much-needed downtime.
Between balancing personal and family commitments with a passion and desire to succeed in architecture, Ali reflects on the industry’s demands on women from graduation and throughout careers.
A Demanding Industry Culture From the Ground Up
From the beginning, architecture degrees are hard work – especially within the current industry culture.
‘There is still a culture of working around the clock to complete a piece of creative work or ‘folio’, Ali explains, resulting in graduates entering the workforce with underdeveloped time management and prioritisation skills. Ali finds that graduates come from schools where sleepless nights and cramming were encouraged and worn as a ‘badge of honour.’
Ali explains that the tough academic culture is detrimental to both graduates and the industry. As graduates can be accustomed to working tirelessly around the clock, they may become vulnerable to exploitation. An inflexible and demanding academic schedule sets graduates up for burnout and failure.
‘I believe there’s a real disconnect between university and industry in terms of setting the bar for what’s an acceptable way to conduct yourself in the creative industry.’
Ali warns that the current student culture of overwhelming hours and working around the clock is both unsafe and undesirable.
‘That way of working does not translate well into a professional work environment.’
As an employer, and a former graduate understanding the challenges faced by all people in the industry, Ali actively discourages working weekends, nights and overtime that begins to put a strain on wellbeing.
Achieving a Work-Life Balance
For women, achieving a desirable work-life balance in architecture can be tough.
Reflecting on the demands of the industry, Ali explains that ‘it can be quite socially isolating when you’re spending really long hours at work.’ With tight deadlines, high standards and a culture of overworking, architecture often doesn’t blend with balanced lifestyles. ‘It’s not family friendly – it’s not even friendly for those who don’t have families.’
In the past five years, there’s been a push for developing a healthy work-life balance that benefits both employees and employers. Ali echoes this movement through her approach to work.
‘The wellbeing of my team at SPH is my number one priority’.
How Does Australia Measure Up?
Ali is quick to debunk suggestions that Australia could be a leader of equality in architecture. While targets for women employment in the corporate and government industries sit at around 30%, with an aim of reaching 50%, women remain significantly underrepresented in architecture.
‘In 2012, only 21% of registered architects in Australia were women. We are not even at one third!’
Ali also explains that the gender pay gap could be a reason behind the lack of representation of women.
An Uphill Battle for Women
While the architecture industry has its fair share of obstacles for women, a number of societal factors impact women’s decisions. Ali cites childcare as a big hurdle between women and higher level roles in architecture.
‘Whilst you may get a rebate from the government, the rebate is means tested. So if you’re in a leadership position within a firm you’re paying the most to put your child into childcare.’
Childcare is known to be a big issue for families across Australia, with costs creeping up and little assistance provided to working parents. Ali explains that a change in childcare costs needs to come from a structural and political level.
‘I’ve got two kids at school and a younger one in childcare. The two days that I pay for childcare a week are more than both my older children’s school fees!’
Traditionally, it has been women who have been expected to put careers on hold, or even abandon them completely, in order to raise families. This comes at a detriment to those men who also express a desire to work flexibly and part time in order to be more involved with family life.
‘Flexibility should be just as available to my male colleagues as much as it’s been available to me – why should it only be available to one gender and not the other?’
Ali explains that greater flexibility for men in architecture would likely lead to increased participation of women, as men would be able to support their partners in maintaining and building a career. This flexibility should ripple out to other areas of personal life, like caring for sick relatives or ageing parents.
‘It’s flexibility for everyone – it’s not just about flexibility for women or mothers.’
Many women avoid discussing personal life decisions, including decisions regarding motherhood, for a fear that their careers may be compromised. As a mother herself, Ali understands the concerns of women in architecture.
‘I make a point of openly talking about it and sharing my experiences with my team here because I think it normalises it.’
When it comes to perceptions of women in the workplace, acting with authority and confidence comes with fear of being labelled ‘bossy’ or worse – a ‘bitch’.
‘It’s not something I’ve experienced myself. I have heard about it as well, whereas if a man acted like that it’s considered quite acceptable.’
Ali’s best piece of advice for women in authoritative roles is emphasising authenticity above all.
‘Having an authentic leader helps build some trust with people, and I think that’s quite important.’
The Power of Mentorship
Critical to women’s success in architecture is strong and visible role models. Ali established a Women in Architecture Mentoring group designed to provide advice to budding Perth architects and show them that a work-life balance is possible. The group operates organically, meaning that activity is centred on individuals asking for mentorship and advice.
Ali explains that she was mentored by senior men throughout her career and now hopes to lead by example as a successful woman in architecture.
‘I wouldn’t be where I am in my career today unless I had been mentored at different times throughout my career.’
Through mentorship, Ali hopes to show women that there are people available to offer advice, guidance, sponsorship and introductions to further their careers.
‘It’s really about women helping women!’
With mentorship coming to the forefront, there are now a number of resources and programs for students, graduates and professionals across Perth and Australia. Ali cites powerful mentorship programs available, including the University of Western Australia’s Mentor Link of which she is involved, the National Association of Women in Construction (NAWIC) and an online mentoring program called Steel Heels.
Founded by Sharon Warburton, 2014 Telstra WA Business Woman of the Year, monthly subscription mentoring program Steel Heels boasts a range of toolkits and advice for new and established professionals across the world.
‘There’s all kinds of toolkits on things like how to negotiate your next pay rise, how to do networking – along with profiles of women in the industry.’
Speaking of Sharon Warburton, Ali explains that her exposure to the gender issues within both the construction and mining industries makes the resources on Steel Heels invaluable.
‘I think there’s some great tools in there! Things that could help people deal with a current issue – whether it’s ‘look, I want to take the next step in my career, how do I do that?’’
Finding a Balance
Key to flexibility and achieving a work-life balance for both women and men is being able to prioritise family and personal commitments above work when necessary. Ali points out the effectiveness of flexible working arrangements for both employers and employees.
‘Some organisations are moving towards having meetings solely between 9.30am and 2.30pm because that’s family friendly. That allows people to flex between core business hours and there’s some flexibility around either side of this time to facilitate people to do pickups and drop offs. Then some people might choose to make up some time working at home in the evening and really flex their time and be opportunistic about when they get their work done.’
Recently, Ali has found that the current cohort of directors is moving towards retirement with an open mind. Instead of leaving the industry, many are choosing to cut back on hours and reduce their workload. While mostly men, Ali emphasises the importance of modelling flexibility regardless of gender.
‘Role modelling flexibility at leadership levels shows that people can work in different ways.’
With directors and senior management showing that success and flexibility is possible, Ali hopes that women will feel more confident in talking openly about family lives and negotiating a better work-life balance.
When it comes to combating gender issues in the industry, Ali recommends finding a good role model that displays flexibility and values balance.
While gender bias can be unconscious, Ali encourages women to speak up and be present.
‘We’ve moved away from calling draftsmen, draftsmen. They’re technicians or drafts people.’
A shift in common industry language is reflective of a wider movement of empowered women and men ready to eliminate gender biases and achieve desirable working conditions for all.
Ali also recommends the book ‘Lean In’ by Sheryl Sandberg for advice on empowering women both personally and professionally.
As an upcoming generation of architects emerge, Ali emphasises setting a good example in all aspects of life.
‘One of my three children is a boy and I figure I’m setting the example for him about what an equal partnership looks like and how two parents contribute equally to a family in terms of the caring and providing for the family.’
Moving Towards an Improved Industry
With almost equal architecture graduation rates between genders, Ali is hopeful for a new and revolutionised industry for women. By inspirational mentorship, advocating for an improved working culture and modelling flexibility, Ali is confident that the industry can change.
‘We can influence the next generation of men by role modelling to our children today what flexibility, and having a career and family, looks like.’
If you’d like to learn more about Ali Devellerez or explore the work of one of Perth’s premier health and aged care design firms, don’t hesitate to get in touch with us. Ali is proud to be a part of an architecture firm that emphasises flexibility alongside outstanding client services and best practice architecture, and we’re proud to have her.