Women In Architecture: Linda Bennett

Antonina Ilieva by Antonina Ilieva,
16 September 2011

Linda Bennett - pictured right - and her Archi-Ninja.com title design

Linda Bennett is a versatile young architect who has recently graduated from the University of Technology in Sydney with the highest aggregated marks in the areas of History, Theory, Construction, Practice and Design, mostly recognized as the founder-blogger of Archi-Ninja.com  which she started in 2008.

The ninja, like the architect, Linda reasons, is a skilled and highly-trained mercenary of design and is representative of an underground and unobserved culture, it is within this context that Archi-Ninja provides a space for opinion, genuine discussion, resistance and critique.

While employed at Architectus Linda worked on 1 Bligh Street from project inception to completion. Winner of the DEXUS/City of Sydney design competition, 1 Bligh Street is designed by Architectus and Ingenhoven Architects . 

 

Did you ever face any gender-based prejudice in architectural school? Do you think lecturers/ co-students regarded you and your work differently, because you are a woman?

During my time at Architecture school, I did not face direct or indirect gender discrimination from co-students or lecturers. Through the process of intense study, I developed a close and supportive relationship with like-minded individuals. I do not believe lecturers or co-students regarded my work differently because of my gender. They were supportive on the individual merit of ideas. The goal of the lecturer is to harvest the best work possible from their students irrespective of their gender. Females represent 40% of Architecture students (http://www.bvn.com.au/pages/female_architects_have_other_designs.html), therefore I did not feel out numbered by male co-students.

The male Architecture graduate receives on average a salary $7000 higher than the equally qualified female graduate (http://www.smh.com.au/executive-style/executive-women/mind-the-gap--the-gender-imbalance-in-architecture-20101004-163vt.html). This indicates that directly after graduation the male is perceived more valuable to the workplace than his female counterpart. In this case, I believe the organization assumes they will offer more to the company based on generalized male characteristics (assertive, business minded, confident and authoritative) which are highly valuedin the Architecture industry.

In work, have you ever felt a particular attitude from co-workers/clients/employers because of your gender? Do you think women and men receive the same chances for professional development?

It is undeniable that the Architecture industry is top-heavy with males - less than 1% of directors in Architecture are female. (http://www.bvn.com.au/pages/female_architects_have_other_designs.html) I believe this leads to a core problem for females in the industy. Male employers tend to support and mentor other males (instead of females) because they are similar to themselves. Males tend to stick together based on their perceived gender specific interests and commonalities - as a female however, I ride dirt bikes, I love sport and I work on cars (I am currently building a 1971 Holden LJ Torana). I can definitely contribute to the conversation, yet despite this, most of the time it is my equally skilled male counterpart who is given the opportunity to dine with the client, attend important meetings or network at social events. It is this attitude which I believe makes it easier for young males to progress into better roles within the company. Typically, the female is not given the same opportunity for professional or personal development. Male co-workers also tend to stick together. This is in evident through their ‘boys only’ soccer and run clubs. Clients are not as transparent - their goal is to have the project brief met and building occupied. Irrespective of gender, the client will be satisfied if the Architect does a good job.

Why do you think there is the large discrepancy between the number of female architecture graduates and practicing professionals? What happens to the other 38%?

It is evident that after graduation females choose to leave, work outside or move sideways within the Architecture industry. The profession is task-disciplined - projects are completed over a duration of time. I worked for over 5 years on the same project (from competition to practical completion). I worked intensively for the duration of the task in order to prove my status and build a reputation. After completing the project I left the company in order to leverage my strong portfolio and move to a better position in another company. This means that when I begin my new job, I once again need to establish the same status and reputation.

It is this type of career building which males tend to leverage in order to obtain better pay and to secure positions of management, this however provides a challenge for women as they begin to raise a family. The industry is not well suited to family commitments - Long hours, intense competition, and generally low pay provides a slightly dysfunctional profession which is often incompatible with the demands of raising a family.

Because of this, approximately 70% of females in the profession will take extended time off or reject offers for career advancement. (http://www.bvn.com.au/pages/female_architects_have_other_designs.html) If the female is not in a position of management then it is likely the cost of child care will outweigh their income.

Additional to the large percentage of women who take time off (or leave altogether), I believe it is more likely for females to move sideways in the profession because it is more inline with their family requirements. Females are more likely than males to enter broader fields of architecture criticism, teaching or marketing because the structure, pay, and measurement of success and individual growth within these industries differ to that of the task-disciplined format of Architecture practice.

1 Bligh Street is Sydney's highest green star rated building and features Australia's first high rise double skin facade. The building also contains a full height naturally ventilated atrium, tri-generation system, specially formulated high strength concrete and on-site blackwater recycling. Images: courtesy of Linda Bennett

Is architecture a 'Man's World'?

I believe Architecture has always been a ‘man's world’. When asked to name a successful female Architect aside from Zaha Hadid, many will struggle. However, to name a successful male Architect is easy - Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright, Mies Van der Rohe, Louis Khan or Frank Gehry to name a few. Each obtained the height of their fame in their 60’s or 70’s. With the average female Architect retiring at age 60 (http://www.archsoc.com/kcas/ArchWomen.html) it is likely the female will never reach the super-star status of their male counterpart (regardless of their talent) because they simply retire too young!

Even when thinking of Architecture young-guns including Bjake Ingels or Andrew Maynard it is difficult to name a young-gun female Architect - don’t worry, I aim to change this! Males do however, have better odds of moving up the company structure and to then obtain a professional position where they can start their own successful organizations.

I believe that for these reasons the profession will continue to move forward for some time with female Architects who obtain success but will remain in the shadow or be forgotten when compared to their successful male counterparts.

How do you think the profession can change to encourage equality?

In order for the profession to encourage equality, I believe it needs to address a number of issues.

The profession needs to appeal more directly to the requirements of female Architects. The profession is task-disciplined and dysfunctional - it is both qualitative and quantitative. Employees are expected to work long hours, under intense pressure and receive a generally low income - I believe this leads to many employees feeling they are under-appreciated.

Talented female Architects continue to reject directorate positions in organizations because the role requirements do not align with young family commitments. Organizations may need to reconsider the expectations and requirements which they place on their employees if they do not wish to discriminate against females in the industry.

The profession can further encourage equality through the introduction of mentoring and advisory programs which encourage females to interact with company directors, and vice versa. This would aim to give females equal opportunity to grow within a company and to extend their professional development, confidence and other skills.

For females who choose to leave the industry for an extended period of time in order to have children, the profession would benefit from workplace return to work programs in order to up-skill their knowledge of current practices.

Architecture is often represented to the public without transparency. A more diverse and accurate representation of the profession to the public and school students would benefit the perception of the industry. This would provide females with a more accurate understanding of what the profession actually entails before they enter Architecture school. I believe this would help increase the retention rate of females in the industry because they enter Architecture school and the workplace with knowledge of the industry, their expectations and role requirements.

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