Big Interview: Beth Chaney-Walker and Diana Braaksma, part two.

Beth and Diana

In the second of this two-part Big Interview, we’ll hear how Beth Chaney-Walker and Diana Braaksma have tackled the challenge of balancing their career progression and parenthood, and their thoughts on female leadership and neurodiversity.

You’ve both come a long way in your careers, and are parents to reasonably young children. Has this brought about challenges for you? Have you seen change in the ‘working parent’ balancing act in your time as Architects?

Diana Braaksma: It definitely has its challenges. I was potentially a bit naïve about it and I take my hat off to other parents who are out there making it work, and successfully juggling work and family life. For me, it was a big adjustment and learning curve coming back from parental leave with my first child and struggling to find a comfortable fit now that I was working part time. Now with two littlies, the juggle has changed, and continues to do so! Options for working flexibly at SPA have been good for a number of years, however, since Covid, the technology to support working from home, or working remotely, has vastly improved which helps working parents with the juggling act.

At the moment I’m in the process of establishing an additional support network at SPA for anyone returning from a career break. It’s aiming to further help people transition back into the workforce, feeling seen in the invisible work required sometimes just to be present at work, and also being intentional about what their needs are. In my own experience it can be hard to find what’s right for you (which may evolve or change), let alone communicate that to enable others in the workplace to actively support you. We’re looking to further support this at SPA through a programme of mentoring and advocacy.

Beth Chaney-Walker: There’s definitely been change. When we were at university, there was a really low rate of female Architecture students that went on to get registered and stay in the profession long term – the attrition rate was incredible. The advice given to me was “get registered before you have kids!” because it was commonly acknowledged that there was difficulty in having kids and going through the registration process.

We’ve progressed from there though, and I’ve been incredibly fortunate. There are obviously pros and cons of running your own practice, but a real advantage is the flexibility that comes with it, and having a business partner like Chris [Norman], who could run the business while I took time out. There was planning and foresight involved though – we set up the practice before I had children, and we had to have these conversations about hypotheticals, how it would and could work. It’s worked out well for us, thankfully. I’m able to work three-quarter-time or thereabouts, and we have flexible working arrangements for our staff as well: it’s not just for parents! Everyone has a juggling act that they’re dealing with in life. So, we try to make it work best for everyone.

Beth, you started your firm with your business partner in 2018. Tell us about the path to get here and your thoughts on female leadership in the profession.

BC-W: I previously worked for Chris as an employee. We had a lot of discussions around the direction that his firm could go in, and what my future held as well. One of those was for me to go out as a sole practitioner, but I struggled with that because I love bouncing ideas around and the creative energy that comes with a team.

Growing up with Di, we always bounced ideas off one another and came up with ideas together. There was a strong sense of collaboration and working through things using teamwork. That way of thinking also applies to Chaney & Norman. So while I did toss up the idea of going out alone and what that looked like, the much more attractive and exciting proposition was to combine our visions, have both Chris and I in leadership positions, work with a wider team and go from there. That option fell nicely in with the way I like to work.

There’s real bravery in going out by yourself, particularly females doing so. It comes back to that ‘invisible work’ that we talked about earlier, that’s required to be on a level playing field with males. Women who have done that have my total respect.

And at Studio Pacific, Di? Are there pathways for women into leadership roles?

DB: Yes – and there’s been plenty of discussions about this at SPA, a number of which have been generated by our involvement with the Diversity Agenda Accord. We look at the data and the numbers and ask some hard questions. The Founding Directors are all male, so there’s an imbalance there purely as a result of who started the firm. The more telling statistics to track are retention and promotion of women through the ranks into leadership roles. More importantly, there’s awareness of that. As we visualise what SPA might look like in the future, it’s that awareness that allows us to be open and up front and have honest discussions about progress made as we move forward.

Part of what we’re talking about goes back to that attrition rate of female architects after just a few years in the profession. It’s important that we look at what keeps people at SPA, how they are provided with the tools they need to support them through their entire career journey, and how the playing field can be levelled to ultimately achieve equal representation in leadership.

You mentioned neurodiversity earlier Di, which is something the Diversity Agenda are looking at in the 2025 Strategy. What do you think we can do to tap into the pool of neurodiverse talent?

DB: Attracting people to the profession is one thing, but we also need to work on how we enable them to bring their whole selves to work. We all need to feel comfortable at work, and that’s a completely individual process.

It’s important that we ensure that everyone can work in an environment that brings out their best. That diversity of thought brings better results too – we need those voices at the table. Supporting neurodiversity has become one of our key focus areas. We’ve been looking at it further since analysing our diversity data last year – which provided the team an opportunity to anonymously self-identify as neurodivergent if they wished. An amazing number of people came back with a positive response. So, the first step is getting the data, now it’s about how we’re going to support it. What are the goals and where do we want to get to? It has also emerged as a strong theme in diversity focussed SPA-wide kōrero too, and it’s fantastic that people feel supported enough to share their personal experiences.

BC-W: It’s a really interesting area and I’m the first to admit it’s not an area that we have delved into to the same degree that SPA has, but I’ve had great conversations with Di about this that have been super education for me – and for us as a practice.

We’re eager to ensure that our workplace is a safe place for everyone. You just don’t know what’s happening in someone’s life, and how much of a struggle it may or may not have been to get to work that day. As Di said – it’s about creating a space where people bring their whole selves to work and are comfortable doing so. We want to make that a priority.

If you’re a Diversity Agenda member with a great story to tell, please get in touch.

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