Big Interview: Warren and Mahoney Architects – part two.

Warren and Mahoney

John Walsh, from Te Kāhui Whaihanga New Zealand Institute of Architects, continues his chat with John Coop – Managing Director and Sarah Coleman – Group, People and Culture Officer at Warren and Mahoney Architects, a Diversity Agenda member.

In this concluding part of our Big Interview, John and Sarah discuss how they are making change within their practice, the important role of Māori design, what life is like as a woman in the profession and the important issues facing architecture.

If you missed it, check out part one of this Big Interview.

Let’s talk about ownership. Over the years, that has been one way to keep people in place – and perhaps in their place.

JC: We have changed that model. The first thing I’d say, and this goes back 20 years at Warren and Mahoney, is that growth in all of its forms – growth in the scale of the practice, but also growth in terms of the diversity of what we do and where and how we do it – is absolutely bound together with diversification of ownership. Over the last past two decades Warren and Mahoney has sold about half of the firm to staff.  We are probably the most diversified large firm in New Zealand in terms of our ownership. About half of the firm is owned by major shareholders and the other half is owned by about another 40 people.

We recognised that to grow and evolve we need to let go. That’s brought a lot of additional voices to the ownership table, which has been a good thing. If you have the same group of people owning the same thing for a long time, you can do some great things, but eventually it will run its course.  

Having said all of that, there are some bare facts that are terrible, which we are reversing. In terms of shareholding, a minute portion of Warren and Mahoney has been owned by women. We are starting to address that but have a long way to go to equalise participation in ownership. We have some reasonably good data – and I’m proud of it – in terms of the number of female associates, senior associates and principals that we now have in Warren and Mahoney. We’re making progress, but ownership’s another thing.

SC: We do have targets. We have targets relating to the number of female principals, the number of female promotions to associate and senior associate, and shareholding targets as well. We are measuring how we’re going, and we have a date by which we need to meet those targets.

JC: For the architectural profession, and the Institute, the next step is to look beyond female participation to female ownership. If you think of all the major practices in New Zealand, that would be an interesting equation.

Can I ask you, Sarah, about trying to effect change in a practice with various offices. Warren and Mahoney has studios around New Zealand and in Australia. There are probably rather different cultures in each one.

SC: Absolutely, and we do have to take people with us. When we put in place our diversity and inclusion strategy, we carefully defined the business case. It’s about attracting and retaining the right talent, but also from a client perspective, giving them teams that will bring diverse perspectives, opinions and contributions, which obviously we hope will end in a better product at the end of the day. 

We do have different demographics in each of our studios. Our Wellington studio is almost gender balanced, with a number of people – men and women – working flexibly. That’s a good example of what can happen. Other studios’ balances are different. We have a commitment to bring through talented females. One of the challenges is the pipeline of talent. When I worked in a law firm, 60 to 70 percent of our young lawyers from 25 to 30 were female. You had a strong pool coming through. It’s not quite the same in architecture. The demographic is changing. Of our graduates, fresh out of university, the majority are women, but it’s taking time for that group to come through into senior positions.

We’ve just been male dominated at a number of levels, and we’re trying to change that. Our measurement against the Diversity Agenda target at the moment? We have about 50 percent more females today than we had when the Diversity Agenda started. It’s taking some time to bring some of those talented females through. Moving the dial can take time.

“We’ve hired people from other architecture firms which have told women that they would have to work full-time if they were mothers.”

Sarah Coleman

You brought up the issue of flexibility, Sarah. One of the impediments to female advancement in the profession has always been expressed as the family issue – having children, raising them, taking time out from practice and then, having been away, not being treated seriously when you return. What are you doing about this issue?

SC: I think we have some really good policies and programmes in place. We introduced a flexible working policy. We’ve been able to offer flexibility in the Auckland studio, for example, and that has meant we’ve hired people from other architecture firms which have told women that they would have to work full-time if they were mothers. Whether it’s for males or females, we are pretty good at delivering flexibility. It has to work for the business, and not all cases can be agreed, but we’re pretty much of the view that as long as you’re producing what you need to, we’ll try and work around the other demands in your life.

JC: To pick up on Sarah’s point – yes, we are going to provide for a flexible model if people need it. What had been happening, is that if people really needed some flexibility, there would be a bit of a chat to the side, but it would be the exception. It would be probably quite heavily negotiated.

It’s quite another thing to send an all staff email saying, ‘Here is our flexible working policy. If you’d like to talk to your team leader about it, please do.’ That is a more proactive step. It’s also leadership. For myself, sometimes on a Friday I like to be able to go to my children’s school assembly in the afternoon. If I can choose to do that, then I’d like all the other dads here to be able to feel that they can do that, too. The key is trust and communication. You work pretty hard as an architect, and it is stressful at times. Those little things can mean a lot.

SC: We now have some younger leaders who have children themselves, and I think that’s changed the culture. Often, we’ll have children in here. If they’ve been sick and can’t go to school, we’ll just look after them. There’s more of an environment where you’ll see children here.

A lot of pressure at work is internalised. People are reluctant to ask for things because they might risk getting a black mark – ‘perhaps their heart’s not in it’. 

JC: Yes, which goes back to that masochistic thing. Going back to your earlier question about how you take everybody with you – it has been important to have some examples of really great women in the practice, who are superb performers, and are relatively relaxed about diversity – they’re just are very good at what they do. That’s been powerful. Five years ago, we probably made the mistake of thinking that the people who should champion diversity were the strong women in the firm. That was a natural expectation, perhaps, but actually the people who should champion diversity are the leaders of the firm. I think we’ve made that step.

Secondly, I think people will come with you if they don’t feel that they have anything to fear. It was important to demonstrate to males, who perhaps felt that we were moving to positive discrimination, that when we become more diverse everybody wins. There’s nothing to be concerned about, other than your own performance – that was the key conversation.

On the question of Māori participation in the profession, and in your firm – there are continuing discussions about Māori design, its place in contemporary New Zealand architecture and the role of Māori practitioners. One firm, Jasmax, has a dedicated unit pursuing Māori design principles. Have you been thinking about a similar initiative?

JC: We have, and have made some progress, probably off a relatively low base. We’ve established an advanced Māori design unit called Te Matakirea. A passionate but relatively small group of people is involved in that, and we look for ways to integrate the input of that group into major projects, as do our clients. I think we still have a long way to go, and so does the profession and the wider building industry.

Having said that, it has been very interesting to spend time in Australia and reflect on how far we have come here. In New Zealand today, when you embark on a major public project, you are going to be consulting widely. You’re looking to include Māori design principles in a fundamental way throughout the project. That’s just a fact. You’re going to be consulting and working with a number of Māori consultants, designers, architects and client representatives who have capability to engage and vice versa. That basic capability doesn’t exist in Australia at the moment.  It will come, but if we look back over 20 years, a whole lot of people – I just saw Rau Hoskins walking past – have put an enormous amount of time and effort in to developing capability, and the language and the human capital to be able to have the conversation. That’s a challenge in Australia. 

Like the bigger diversity and inclusion question, the issue of Māori participation requires an open mind, commitment over a long period and a different type of thinking, talking and decision making. We are so fortunate in New Zealand to be in a bicultural context, and to have something as powerful as the Treaty to inform it. We have a responsibility to lead. Jasmax is doing a fantastic job – the profession owes them a debt of gratitude in the leadership they have shown. We’re not far behind.

SC: We’ve just agreed to take on an intern from Ngāi Tahu and are going to be working more with iwi –  and Tainui – to help give opportunities to graduates. We would like to work more with universities and try to give support to Māori and Pasifika students as well. There are some things I think we should be doing as an organisation to help bring people through.

Sarah, what has it been like coming over to architecture from the law?

SC: If we think about diversity and inclusion, I was surprised that architecture was so far behind where law firms were. I’m not saying law firms have got this nailed by any stretch of the imagination, but they have been talking about this for the last 10 years and have been focused on it. I was a little bit surprised that it has taken this long for the architecture community to take some tangible steps to address these issues.

JC: On the other hand, architecture firms, here at least, haven’t been in the #metoo news.

SC: Unlike some law firms? No, although architecture may have been lucky. I think there are the same challenges in both industries around the issues of diversity and inclusion. As we’ve discussed, just at the point where women’s careers are really taking off, often they will have children, and I’ll add that in architecture registration requirements can also be a bit of a challenge to women’s progression.

How so?

SC: I have been told some women will leave a firm like ours to go smaller firms to get registered. Some of the experience requirements of registration can be a bit of a challenge.

You mean in a large office, with big projects that take several years, it’s hard to accumulate the necessary experience in a range of work and roles?

JC: When you have to go through all phases of registration competencies, including contract administration, but you’re on a project that’s maybe three or four years long, it can be difficult to progress to registration. This is something the profession, and the Institute, needs to address.

What other observations would you make, Sarah, about the difference between working in architecture compared to working in law?

SC: They are very similar. Without wanting to sound sycophantic, there is the same commitment to excellence, the same stresses, the same demands from clients. The long project is one of the biggest challenges for our organisation. In a law firm, you might be on a merger and acquisition transaction, working really long hours, but it’s for six months. Here, projects can be really long, and it’s tough to keep people motivated, inspired and engaged. It’s hard for us to take people off and swap them with different people who haven’t got that background. Project management is one of the toughest things for architects.

JC: How do you reckon we’re going as a profession with diversity, John, not just gender but in all forms? You see lots of different practices.

I think architecture is starting to catch up, but there is quite a lot of catching up to do. It has always struck me as a paradox that architecture, which is quite a liberal profession, can be surprisingly illiberal about some things. And one of those things is the place of women in the profession. It has been a blind spot for a long time. Architects make all the right noises about buildings, the city …

JC: Community, society and social stuff.

Yes, but when it came to the role of women there was a mote in the eye of the profession.

JC: Looking ahead, I think the mental health agenda should be the next challenge that we give ourselves.

Why’s that, John?

JC: I think it’s serious. The problem is hardly peculiar to architecture and the building industry, but the building industry is really challenged at the moment. It’s a stressful industry to be in – buildings are hard to get built, clients are difficult to please because they’re stressed as well. The pay for junior architects is still quite low, wage growth has not been there, there are student loans and all the rest of it. The stresses and strains of being a young architect are high.

I also think that the diversity and inclusion conversation is better when it’s a balanced one. I talked before about how the Diversity Agenda is good for fathers as well. I drop my boys off at the train for school at seven o’clock in the morning, so I get to the office about 20 past seven. Normally there’s about six or eight people here, mostly men. I look around and I think, ‘You guys are the ones in here doing this and that’s hard.’ Now, the other way of looking at the same issue is that they have the opportunity to work hard.

Have they got families?

JC: Yes, they’ve got families.

Someone at home, perhaps, is picking up the slack.

SC: We are making progress. I’m not going to pretend it’s fast, but we’re making progress. I’m really pleased with the Diversity Agenda stats that we have around how many more women we have in our organisation now, but as I said, it’s about bringing that talent through and that will take some time but we’re committed to it.

JC: I think there’s a threshold that we’re approaching – around the board table, around the ownership stats, around the senior studio meetings – when we get used to having a high proportion of women around. It might be a quarter. That’s OK, but at what point do we cross that threshold? When we say, ‘Actually, the job’s not done yet?’ I think we’re approaching a threshold where we have to push on.

Do you find that meetings that include more women have a different atmosphere or ‘culture’ than male-dominated meetings?

JC: I think it’s likely to be a more balanced conversation. It just feels more normal.  That’s probably where you want to get to.

There have been so many architecture awards evenings where bunches of white guys troop up to the dais in ill-fitting suits. It was becoming an awful look for the profession. Not so long ago, people perhaps may not have remarked on it, now when it happens, everyone notices.

JC: I think it was the year before last – and it may even have been for one our projects – that a group of guys trooped up, as you put it, and there was some hissing and booing.

Everyone’s counting.

SC: Yes, and I think the numbers will improve.

On that optimistic note, we’ll end. Thank you, Sarah and John, for your time and your frank discussion of some of the important issues facing the architecture profession.


Thank you to John and Sarah for taking the time to talk to us. If you’re a Diversity Agenda member with a great story to tell, please get in touch

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