There's a long way to go before women and men enjoy equal footing in architecture, writes Harriet Alexander.
It was supposed to break through decades of resentment and ignite a grassfire among women architects that would invigorate the profession. Because they were architects, and architects are methodical people, it would take the form of a panel discussion.
About 200 women gathered within the glass-panelled Sydney Convention Centre in April to batter out strategies for advancing women in an industry top-heavy with men. But within a short time, there was a collective feeling of deja vu.
For a profession that specialises in problem solving, the women who attended offered few solutions to the gender imbalance that has marked their industry for more than a century, instead trading horror stories.
"I just thought, 'Here we go again,"' says organiser Sandra Kaji-O'Grady, a professor in architecture at the University of Sydney.
"It turned into a '70s-style conscience-raising. I think it was incredibly valuable for those women but it didn't enable us to move things forward."
Ask most people to name a famous female architect and they get as far as Zaha Hadid, the London-based designer of public buildings that are gargantuan in size, ambition and profile.
Some might come up with Marion Mahony Griffin, whose surname will be familiar to the unenlightened thanks to her husband, Walter Burley Griffin. But pressed to name an Australian - or a famous building designed by an Australian woman - most people will be stumped.
Women and men have been graduating with architecture degrees at the same rate, and with the same grades, for at least 20 years but their paths fork from the moment they leave university. Male architecture graduates command an average starting salary nearly $7000 higher than their female counterparts and the profession continues to shed women to the point where it is rare to find a woman directing her own architecture firm.
They are under-represented in major awards and speaking engagements. Those who have remained in the profession say the long hours and intense competition in the large firms are incompatible with the demands of children.
"They often say that architecture is an old-man's profession," says Naomi Stead, an academic at the University of Technology, Sydney, who is researching ways to redress the under-representation of female architects at a senior level.
"They say that because people are usually not successful until they're in their 60s and they're usually not successful unless they're men. So, both the 'old' and the 'man' are used advisedly."
It is no longer surprising to see a woman in a hard hat on a building site but many women still feel dogged by the perception that theirs is a man's world - especially within their workplaces.
Kaji-O'Grady says men are advantaged by the informal promotion system, where young architects do not know what they have to do to be recognised.
"It depends a lot on mentors picking them up and because a lot of the mentors tend to be men it tends to be self-perpetuating," Kaji-O'Grady says. "They tend to choose people who look like themselves and are like themselves."
The female survivors are often less visible because they are lesser-known members of husband-and-wife teams, they are the lower- and middle-ranking employees of large firms or they are working on projects that do not by their nature command the hype generated by public buildings. But there are still those whose heads rise above the bobbing masses.
Among them is Kerry Clare, who - with her husband, Lindsay - was the joint recipient of the Australian Institute of Architects gold medal this year for a body of work that includes the Brisbane Gallery of Modern Art, or GoMA. The building is a monument to the classic Queenslander, with a huge flat roof shading its glassy walls with giant eaves, and vents that resemble shutters. Or Kerstin Thompson, whose award-winning designs include a police station, built with green bricks, that nestles into its surrounding Victorian bushland.
Thompson says she started her own architecture practice in 1994 partly because she was disillusioned with the culture of large firms. She felt uncomfortable behaving in the posturing manner that she felt was expected of her and which came more easily to her male peers.
She remembers years ago a client - an older woman — who specifically selected her firm because it was run by a woman but who then questioned Thompson's authority when told that the budget did not stretch to the client's ambitions.
"It got to the point where I would take an older male engineer with me because if it came from his mouth it was going to be more believable," Thompson says. "Whereas if it came from me it was like it was coming from a naughty girl: 'How would you know? You're not old enough to know and ... women don't really understand these technical issues."'
But an optimistic younger generation of architects senses changes afoot. Ninotschka Titchkosky is a principal at the large firm BVN Architecture, where she says her gender has been a "non-issue". She expects the gender imbalance in the profession to be addressed in her lifetime and says women's expectation that their gender will hold them back can be self-fulfilling.
"Sometimes you could look at it a bit differently and say, 'What might be holding me back?"' Titchkosky says. "It might be your business style, it might be your acumen, it might be your technical confidence, it might be your ability to speak or properly sell a proposition to a client."
An up-and-coming Surry Hills architect, Hannah Tribe, believes she has benefited from positive discrimination, being in an unusual position as a young female sole director. She is building a Rose Bay house where the rooms on the top storey appear to be suspended from the roof in individual boxes, connected by a single passage along one wall. It looks like an expensive engineering feat but the budget for the project was small and it was built much like a factory, clad in sheet metal with a church-like interior.
Tribe does not believe this particular client was influenced by her gender in choosing to commission her but laughs as she offers her own theory. "I think she signed me for my haircut. It was really short at the back and really long at the front," she says.
It's a boy ... the sex of buildings
Some people categorise architecture as masculine or feminine but that doesn't mean it's related to the designer's gender.
The director of Pidcock Architecture and Sustainability, Caroline Pidcock, says the theory goes that masculine buildings work from the outside in and feminine buildings from the inside out. "[Female approaches] really think about what the function is and what needs to happen with the interior space, as opposed to [the masculine way] of designing a form and making the function fit the form," she says.
A principal at Durbach Block Architects, Camilla Block (pictured), was part of the team that designed the Potts Point building where Baron's used to stand. The building would be masculine under that definition.
On a tight corner block, it has a cartoonish curve at the top and is clad with a random pattern of tiles.
Block says women can be empathetic with clients. "You get a kind of sense of what somebody wants or is expecting from a project," Block says.