Kate Fitzgerald is the director and founder of feminist architecture firm, Whispering Smith. A Perth-based practice which works across residential and commercial projects and delivers innovative approaches to architecture which respond to issues regarding, millennial housing and sustainability.
My discussion with Kate began by asking her what her experience as a female architect had been like so far? “90% of the time it is awesome, it’s amazing to see the support that I have, and I sometimes feel that I have more than most people do. But its that 10% that is awful and it just drowns out all the good”. Much like architect Emily Van Eyk described in last weeks article, Kate says that she can attribute that 90% of “awesomeness” to surrounding herself with like-minded and diverse people. However, says that she has curated this over the development of her practice through her own selectiveness. Kate expressed her gratitude that her practice is now in a position where she can be selective in the people she chooses to work with but acknowledged that this has not always been the case for her, and that it is still a reality for many small practices.
We spoke briefly about her time at university to which she recalled that there was “…0 diversity within the university curriculum” when she was studying. She described herself as being “less woke to the issue” at the time, and didn’t really come to realise the depth of the problem until later in her career. However, she did acknowledge that there was lots of gender diversity within the cohort and the staff.
More alarming than a flawed university curriculum is flawed industry standards, and as Kate spoke about her experience as an intern it was clear to see that this was and still is the case. Kate was told by her male boss as an intern that she was “not good enough” when she approached him about having a more involved workload. She said that she felt he wasn’t giving her tasks that would broaden her learning as an architect and that her potential was greater in the firm. I was thankful to hear that upon being told that she “wasn’t good enough” to doing any real architectural work, the young Kate quit on the spot, a wise choice it seems. When I asked her why she felt he had treated her so poorly she responded by saying that she felt it was a combination “…of being a woman and that university doesn’t prepare students enough for internships”. Kate also spoke of some other instances in her career where she, and others around her, were victims of sexism and I am sad to report there are too many to record within this article.
Kate is one of the leading people in the industry fighting in order to gain equality and as a result she is a wealth of knowledge when it comes to potential solutions to this global problem. She places a large emphasis on being a mentor and role model to young architects in order to make a change in the industry. Initially, she says, she was interested in mentoring people one-on-one but now she tries to reach a broader audience through methods such as starting a new podcast. ‘In detail’ is a podcast hosted by Kate and other business owners, Mick Moloney and Warwick Mihaly which aims to promote business skills, help other people start a new practice and “breakdown the brick wall of male privilege” as Kate puts it.
Kate described the current pathways for architects as a “broken system”. Such as in her own experience as an intern, she believes that universities are out of touch with the skills they provide their students and the skills that the industry actually needs. One such solution to this she suggested, could be a pre-internship to better prepare students for the industry. Additionally, Kate stressed the need to integrate diversity into the university curriculum all of the time, rather than having specific units that focus on it, as it should be a standard practice to acknowledge diversity in every-day study.
Kate also discussed how building a better maternity policy would allow for women to have more longevity in the industry, as raising a family has been attributed to as the primary reason women ‘fall out’ of the industry. “I am currently looking at coming up with a better maternity policy within the company, we don’t know what that might look like yet but it needs to be a serious consideration for all practices”. Additionally, Whispering Smith is trialling changes in business models, where-in employees may gradually become partners in the company, like commonly seen in law firms. This practice will, as a result ‘breed’ female leaders and improve statistics that put women in only 11% of ownership of architectural firms, the statistic which Kate describes as being the one that “matters most” in terms of gaining true equality in architecture.
Needless to say the interview with Kate was one of informative and passionate discussion, one which restores hope for the future of women in architecture. A final piece of advice for all people in the industry who may find themselves working in a toxic work environment, “if you experience it anywhere, get out” and “prove them wrong through your own success”.