Some think women make better architects because it’s assumed they understand family home life more intimately.
Instead of gender, there’s a different question you should be asking. What is it?
Recently, Australian House and Garden magazine (May 2015) included a feature titled “Women in Design – Our top talent, trailblazers and rising stars”. It highlighted some of the superstars and up-and-coming female talent in a range of design industries, and was a fantastic feature to read.
And it got me thinking …
In my career, one question I’ve been asked (or told the answer to) is “Do women make better architects?” This is particularly framed in regards to residential projects.
The stats don’t stack
It’s interesting, given that roughly half of all architectural degrees comprise of women, yet women make up less than 1% of director positions in architectural practices. When I think of my female counterparts from my degree, very few of them are still practicing architecture. It’s a very male-dominated industry, and exacerbated by the male dominance of building and construction.
Believe it or not, I chose this career at age 16 because I thought it would be a good one as a mum, would enable me to work from home. (Yes, very bizarre 16 year old I was). I loved that it was a great marriage between the artistic and the pragmatic too, but I did have romantic visions of sitting at a drawing board with babies at my feet.
To be honest, I’ve been very fortunate to craft a career that has let me pretty much do just that. However, it’s not how I necessarily saw it as my career took shape.
Some of my greatest career satisfaction came from my work at Mirvac, overseeing very large-scale projects that shaped suburbs, and really had an impact on how a significant number of people would then live. It meant long hours, lots of meetings, managing large teams – and not the kind of work I could do whilst being the type of mum I wanted to be.
So, during and after babies, I did different roles. I worked with individual clients who didn’t mind me bringing a baby to a meeting or breastfeeding in front of them (!) I took on roles in the business I previously co-owned that meant I wouldn’t have manage a team and be accountable to other people’s timeframes.
Undercover Architect is really the first time since my work at Mirvac where I’ve felt that real career satisfaction again – that joy that comes from knowing I can help more than that one client who commissions me to design their home. That my experience and knowledge can empower loads of you to create homes you really love to live in – whether we ever meet or not.
This is not an essay on working mothers though. Back to my question.
Do women make better architects?
There is a great quote in the Australian House & Garden magazine feature that says:
“What is interesting to note is the confidence that these creative women have in claiming their territory. There is no longer fear attached to admitting a connectedness to nurturing, nor a feeling that domesticity is a trap that negates the ability to be taken seriously”.
I know, as a significant minority in the architectural and building industry, that my gender certainly hinders and helps me. I’ve dealt with my share of interesting gender challenges (Statements said to me like, “That’s just what a woman would do” or “Are you going to be emotional today – you were very emotional yesterday”).
However, my ability to listen, not be scared of asking questions to understand more, to work collaboratively with clients and team members, and to intimately understand how a home REALLY needs to support your lifestyle and family, have all certainly helped me achieve outcomes for my clients that make them extremely happy with their homes.
And that is really my ultimate benchmark for success.
Whilst I’ve won my share of architectural awards, it’s the client’s happiness with the process and the outcome that is my greatest measure of ‘success’. That they felt supported, nurtured, listened to – and that their vision for their home was expanded in a way they could never anticipate – but now can’t imagine living without.
What do the people say?
One thing I do know from what clients and other homeowners tell me about working with women vs men, is that women designers think differently. Homeowners and clients say that women generally think about the intricacies of how a home works to support your daily life. There is the suggestion that women understand the domestic requirements of a home better than men.
These homeowners particularly cite the functional stuff that makes life easier … the trip to the pantry from the car when loaded with shopping bags … the dumping of school bags and doing homework whilst getting dinner cooked … where all the muddy sports gear goes before messing up the home … how the linen storage works … how you get around the home with a vacuum cleaner … the supervision of the kids whilst you’re getting other jobs done … this list goes on. This is when they say a female designer excels a male one in getting the design right to respond to these (and other) various functions and activities.
I think architect Hannah Tribe provided a great example of this in this feature, when she said …
“I loathe housework so I apply myself with rigour and fiendish dedication to designing pretty and easy-to-use laundries. I see it as a kind of relationship insurance; if our clients can do as little housework as possible, and what they simply must do is pleasurable, then they will have more time for spending together doing fun things.”
Before you get ready to lynch me about sexism and sweeping generalisations, know that I’m recounting feedback from others, and really, I still don’t know the answer to this question. Like with anything, some people (male or female) in the profession are great at designing, and others aren’t – yet still work with clients and charge them for their services.
And so, as always, Undercover Architect is about informing you of what to know and seek to get it right when designing your home.
So … these for me are the truths in all of this …
- Whether you’re working with a male or female designer, it still stands that your home is the launchpad for your life.
- And so, to create a home that really works for you, that is the place you love to live, that helps you live a life you love, then all these daily activities need to be thought about and provided for.
- Great design is actually invisible. You know design is great when you don’t notice it because it’s doing its job so well.
- Great design doesn’t get in your way – it seamlessly integrates with your daily life to make it better, simpler, more beautiful.
- This is what your home should do when it works for you.
Seth Godin said, “Design is about function. Everything we do has a job, and if it’s designed properly, the job will get done well.”
As I said, I honestly can’t answer whether women make better architects than men.
For me, it comes down to the individual designer, and their skills and abilities to help you with your home. A designer that is listening, without ego, and working collaboratively with you to achieve a home that responds to your needs and aspirations. And that you’re comfortable to work with intimately and over the long-term to make this happen for you.
So if you’re designing your home, whether building or renovating, make sure you and anyone you’re working with, are creating a design that does the job well. This means it needs to anticipate, provide for and support every job you do in it, every activity, and every task.
When this happens, it elevates your life overall. It means your home is your sanctuary and haven that relaxes and restores you, and inspires you to go out into the world each day as the best version of yourself.
My tips to get started in creating a design that does the job well …
- Start being a daily design detective:
When you’re in a space that makes you feel inspired, invigorated, relaxed or calm, what is it about that space? Is it the natural light, the sense of order, the connection with nature, something else?
- Document your daily life
What are the processes, the daily activities you undertake, and the patterns of movement you adopt in and out, and through your home. What is currently inconvenient? What could work better? What is working well? Think about putting things down, getting things out, turning lights on and off, accessing stored items. How could this be simpler?
- Think about this seasonally
How do your activities change seasonally? Generally you have different needs, different ways of achieving relaxation and enjoyment based on the seasons, and require different items and activities for those needs. For example, rugging up around a fire in winter, vs entertaining out in your garden in summer. Swimming pools particularly feature in this thinking. How could your home support this variety throughout the year and be flexible and functional?
You can download your version of those tips in this image …
The real question should not be about women. The real question should be …
Ask yourself, regardless of your gender, or the gender of your designer …
Is the design of your home doing its job well? Is it creating the best launchpad for your life? And don’t settle for anything less.