Interview: Justine Clark & Dr Karen Burns, Parlour

Jan 16, 2013
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This article was originally published in Architectural Review Asia-Pacific magazine #128: New Civic Realms.

Launched officially at the National Architecture Conference, Experience, last year, Parlour describes itself as “a space to speak, bringing together research, informed opinion and resources; generating debate and discussion; expanding the spaces for women in Australian architecture.” It was founded as an extension of the ongoing ARC research project, Equity and Diversity in the Australian Architecture Profession: Women, Work and Leadership. Anna Tweeddale joined two of the co-founders, Justine Clark and Dr Karen Burns, shortly after the launch to discuss the genesis of the site, its early contributions to discussion and research, and longer-term aspirations for its future.

Anna Tweeddale: In naming the project you have referenced the idea of parlour, which is a room for a reception, or for an audience, and ‘parler’ the French verb to speak from which it derives. Verbalisation, articulation and conversation are obviously important to the project – can you elaborate on the genesis of these ideas?

Karen Burns: We are trying to make a space in which one can speak, so it’s both spatial and about the idea of conversation. The whole idea of finding a voice has always been central to the feminist project. So for me part of the attraction to the word ‘parlour’ is its historical association with women, but also the idea of speaking and finding a voice as women doing research on women and feminist issues. In broader culture there is much more discussion about gender again, which is fabulous, and we are very lucky we have hit the right moment.

Making a space, even though it is a virtual space, for that discussion seems to be really working. A lot of the discussion around Parlour is happening not on the site but on Twitter, through people emailing each other and other conversation. It is interesting that the location for discussion is so dispersed, yet somehow we have created that space.

The whole idea is that we have a conversation with other people. We are working on a university-based, Australian Research Council-funded project so Parlour is about how we can engage with the larger community beyond the world of academic papers – that’s really important.

A comment that I have heard often is that similar research has been done before and that it has had very little effect on the profession. To what extent do you anticipate that the website, in ‘making the space’ for dialogue, might act proactively to address this?

KB: Anyone who does research into gender and equity issues is also always partly an activist. I don’t think you are drawn to research in that area unless you are genuinely committed to seeing social change in your lifetime. So for us it was really important that our research stimulate a grass roots campaign.

Justine Clark: One of the outcomes of the research project will be an equity and diversity policy for the Australian Institute of Architects. Policy is very important for providing leadership and a strategic framework, but we also know that it can languish on the shelf, so we are keen to build a critical mass of opinion and attitude within the community that might also drive change from other directions.

We know it is a very, very long-term project, one that needs to be tackled in multiple ways by many people. We have all been involved in this in different ways for a long time, and we are also very conscious that we are building on the work of those who have gone before. So, in some ways you are right – not much has changed – but in others quite a lot has happened both in architecture and in broader discussions around gender.

For example, one really interesting idea that has developed since the last big report on gender in Australian architecture – Paula Whitman’s ‘Going Places’ report – is ‘unconscious bias’. This identifies that we all, men and women, unconsciously judge men and women differently. For example, there is research showing that we respond to a CV quite differently according to the gender of the person named on it. Unconscious bias helps us to start understanding some of the many and complex factors that impede women’s career progression. Obvious factors, such as women often assuming most of the responsibility for raising children, do not explain everything. And there is very clear research in other fields that women who don’t have children nonetheless experience delayed career progression. We need to understand what this means for architecture.

KB: What about the Carla Corroto material, do you want to speak about that?

JC: Yes, Carla is an American who trained as an architect and is now working as a sociologist. She has been interviewing American women who have ‘left’ architecture. She has found that they are not going ‘home’ to look after children or aged parents or other frequently suggested reasons. She has found that they are retraining and going into other careers and that they are very successful in those other careers. She also found that most felt ‘pushed out’ by architecture, not pulled away by these other things.

We also know anecdotally that in Australia a huge number of women trained as architects are operating in allied disciplines or in academia or media and other ‘non-traditional’ places. Few of these people are picked up on the standard measures, such as Institute membership or registration. To get a better understanding of participation levels we have done a large online survey – ‘Where Do All the Women Go?’ We had 1200 responses and are starting to analyse the results now. We hope to get a more sophisticated and detailed picture of women’s participation in the profession, when the profession is understood in a broad way. We also want to get some understanding of the fields women who are trained as architects are going into.

KB: I think there is a huge level of frustration now and a sense among some people that more militant action is needed in culture – for example, the frustration being felt over the incredibly low levels of women serving on boards in Australia. Now people are talking about mandatory quotas. These are people who are in the corporate world, who believe in the free-market deregulated economic system and they are saying ‘we need government quotas’. We have had 40 years of equal opportunity legislation and the change has been so minute that people know now that they are facing an entrenched culture that is mainly unconscious.

JC: My generation thought that things were about to change when we graduated in roughly equal numbers, but 20 years later it is still an issue. It is also really important to acknowledge that some things have changed and to acknowledge the women who went before us, who had different battles and battled hard – many of whom are still practicing and many of whom aren’t. It is really important that we don’t erase the contribution of these women. Unfortunately I think this tends to happen.

My sense is that many young women are doing incredibly well at university – their experience is of a meritocracy – and therefore they don’t see a problem. But not seeing can erase all the work of the women who have gone before them. I think it is really important not to do that.

KB: That is why we have the drop-off when people leave university. Universities are highly regulated workplaces, they are highly unionised, they have enormously sophisticated HR instruments to control people’s behaviour in the classroom and outside it, in the way the world doesn’t have, and that is one of the huge gaps between university and workplace culture.

The Parlour section, ‘Prospects’, directly relates to issues of workplace cultures and structure. Here you offer some clear recommendations to improve equity and diversity in a more immediate sense for architects, but some of the things you talk about there speak to symptoms of wider societal changes, as well.

JC: Yes, there are big societal, systemic issues at play, but that doesn’t absolve architecture from playing its part in generating change – as an industry we need to play our part. One of the things that has shocked me recently was the graduate salary survey that found the pay gap in 2010 between graduating men and women in architecture and construction was the biggest of any industry. We need to start asking why and we need to equip young women and the firms that hire them with the skills and strategies to navigate and change the situation.

KB: A really interesting threshold issue has come out of research in other industries which says ‘in workplaces that have under 25 percent women it is very difficult to maintain non- discriminatory practices in the workplace’. In other words, there has to be a critical mass of 25 percent to at least start to stabilise inequity and discrimination and see a culture in the workplace that you can’t specifically describe as a masculinist culture. That 25 percent threshold is crucial. Architecture has never hit 25 percent and that might help explain why we have been in this historical situation for 40 years.

JC: There is also a very clear argument about the economic benefit of well-managed inclusive workplaces – a lot of the work from the business world suggests that the more diverse your team is the better the outcome – if that team is managed well. This work also suggests that if you make a workplace that is genuinely inclusive in terms of gender then you also make a workplace that is inclusive in terms of lots of other kinds of differences and ways of thinking. Perhaps architecture needs to think about its own management practices?

KB: One of the most popular pieces on the website so far has been Andrew Maynard’s extraordinary writing about architectural workplace culture, particularly around the issue of hours – unpaid hours and overtime. Feminism has always engaged the key contemporary issues throughout its history – in the late 18th century it’s about human rights, in the 1960s it’s about civil rights, in the 1970s it’s housing, and now it is the issue of workplace culture and labour relations, labour rights and labour opportunities.

We have had a load of discussion in the last couple of years about rethinking architecture as something that has a very strong political and social agenda and culture. People have seen that as a reaction to the global financial crisis. I see the current debate we are starting as part of that discussion as well – about allowing ourselves to be marginalised as a profession within society to the extent that we are so adversely affected by economic shifts. How can we rethink our practices and position the profession so that it is not marginal and it has a central function in culture? And how can we rethink our internal practices as part of that?

Launching the site at the national conference created a possibility to reach out to an audience within the broader Australian architecture profession. How has the site been received since the official launch?

JC: The website took off very, very quickly – which indicates the depth of concern and feeling around the issues. In the five months we have been live we have had 19,589 unique visitors, visit a total of 33,066 times. Most of these visits have come from Australia (20,000), but we have also had people looking at the site from 125 countries – which is mind-boggling! But impressive though the numbers are, the personal comments have been even more gratifying. Many people have said many kind things and we are hearing about all kinds of effects, but the best comments have been from people who say they feel welcome on Parlour. It seems that we have indeed made a space where people want to speak.

So now that the site has been up and you’re starting to see some response to it, what sort of ambitions are forming for it?

JC: We definitely want to keep building the site and introducing new voices. As the research develops we’ll keep feeding it through the site, and getting responses to it from the profession. We are focusing on the survey at the moment, but we are also keen to hear from people who would like to write or contribute in other ways. We’ve had some fantastic people make contact so far. We also want the site to have a life after the end of our research funding, which is in 18 months time. So we are keen to find ways to finance it in an ongoing way. Parlour is pretty time-consuming and we are all trying to fit it in to already busy lives, but it is also very exciting.

Parlour is an outcome of the research project Equity and Diversity in the Australian Architecture Profession: Women, Work and Leadership. The team is led by Dr Naomi Stead of the University of Queensland and includes Dr Amanda Roan, Professor Gillian Whitehouse and Gill Matthewson (all of the University of Queensland); Professor Julie Willis, Dr Karen Burns and Justine Clark (all of University of Melbourne) and Professor Sandra Kaji-O’Grady (University of Sydney). Click here for Parlour’s latest article on the gender pay gap in architecture.

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25 Jan 13 at 9:19 AM • Albert Refiti

Interesting to note that two women in the group were graduated from the Auckland School of Architecture and were both students of Dr Sarah Treadwell and Mike Austin.


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