Equity over equality

By Megan Berger

As an American who’s worked in the UK and now New Zealand, Julie Stewart brings a unique perspective to the diversity conversation. She’s a mother and a senior architect at Studio Pacific Architecture in Wellington, where she’s worked for three years.

Overall, Julie’s experience in the industry has been a positive one, with inclusive colleagues and work environments that have enabled her to balance her role as a mother and as an architect. But that’s not to say that she hasn’t encountered her fair share of challenges. “When I was a new graduate, I had fantastic role models,” says Julie. “But as we worked together and as they became mothers, I watched them get marginalized and I watched them leave. I thought it would be different for me, but I’ve seen the same thing happen with my own parenthood.”

What Julie’s encountered isn’t rare for architects, and isn’t rare for women in many industries. So why is change coming so slowly for an issue faced by so many? From Julie’s point of view, it’s about transparency. “We need to be transparent about what success actually is. We aren’t transparent about what it looks like, but we do know there are things that we can do, like getting registered and coming back to work after a child. But things become increasingly harder when you have another job of being a parent. The more children you have, the more complex it gets.”

“We have some great diversity in the architectural graduates, less balance when we get to registered architects, and even less balance when you get to senior management.”

The  American Institute of Architects 2014 Equity in Architecture survey identified “pinch points” or specific moments along a career trajectory where people leave the architectural profession. Julie has seen these pinch points in her own life and in the lives of colleagues, usually at the time one becomes a parent or gets registered, and usually it’s more apparent the higher up the ladder you go. “We have some great diversity in the architectural graduates, less balance when we get to registered architects and even less balance when you get to senior management,” says Julie.

Julie raises the point that perhaps the goal shouldn’t be about reaching equality, but reaching equity. “We’ve been operating in a field of equality, and equality is sameness. What we need to do is shift our culture to one of equity, which is fairness,” says Julie. “We can do that by being more transparent, by questioning our assumptions and suspending our intuition. We can do that by experimenting with ideas and solutions and trying things out, and we can do that by simply having a conversation.”

Part of that conversation should be around how companies can better support working parents – and not in the usual ways one might assume. For instance, many offices have tea breaks or weekly drinks as a way to get employees to bond on a more personal level. But more often than not, the needs of parents aren’t taken into consideration when planning these events, which can have negative effects on office culture and employee well-being. A solution can be as easy as re-scheduling office drinks to a Tuesday instead of the usual Friday once a month.

“Those moments with colleagues are so important, and they’re usually the first thing to go when you’re a parent,” says Julie. “One of the hardest things about being a parent and working at the same time is that I have these boundaries to my day, and I must leave. It doesn’t matter if I need five more minutes to finish an email, I still have to leave because I have this other part of my life that I need to go live.”

Despite the challenges, Julie is proud to call herself an architect, and has plenty of hope for the future. “Research tells us diversity makes us more productive, more profitable, more creative. The research is out there but we just have to be brave enough to try some things out, to experiment. We need to believe that there’s enough for all of us, that there’s plenty.”

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