Mt Eyk is a Perth-based Architecture Firm directed by Emily Van Eyk, a young architect making a difference in the industry in more ways than one. Graduating in 2010 Emily’s career has ranged from working within firms including Troppo and Gary Marinko Architects to currently teaching architecture at UWA while running her own practice. I recently interviewed Emily as part of my current research on Women in Architecture, to investigate how her personal experience compared with the statistical evidence put forth in my previous article and to get her opinion on some ways she feels that we can rectify the issue of gender inequality in architecture.
Overall Emily describes her experience as a female architect in Perth as “excellent” she stated that within her early career “The gender imbalance was less obvious… The most difficult hurdle to overcome was not gender it was simply inexperience which I think is quite common whichever gender you identify with”. However, Emily also stated that though this was her experience in early years, this is unfortunately not the experience of many women in architecture. She says “I have no doubt other women have experienced gender discrimination or worse at an early stage in their careers, but this wasn’t my experience”.
Additionally, in Emily’s University years she explains how representation both within the cohort and within the faculty was wide spread and diverse. But it was however lacking within the curriculum, through an absence of representation around women and other minority groups, particularly prominent within the history and theory units. As I have mentioned in previous articles, in my more recent years at university I too feel that there is a general lack of representation within the curriculum. If you wish to explore this further you can refer to my previous article “Where did all the Women go? A brief history of Architecture.” for a more passionate insight into the selectiveness of history books.
In 2016 women made up 31% of the architectural profession, I asked Emily how this statistic compared to what she experienced in the industry day-to-day. Her response; that it was “probably not so dissimilar”. She continued by explaining how she purposely chooses to work with and for like-minded industry professionals and as a result her day-to-day experience of the profession is largely filled with diverse and open-minded people like herself. However, because of this she admits that she sometimes forgets that the wider industry is traditionally dominated by white middle-aged business men. She continues by saying that on occasion she will attend a local event or larger project meeting, where in she is reminded of the disappointing reality, that both her and many of her colleagues are a small minority in the wider profession.
I asked Emily why she thinks that only 11% of owners of architectural firms are female and why she believes that women are less likely to be in senior roles. The answer was one that I have touched on in previous weeks and is what Emily described as “the pregnancy hurdle”. She explains that the industry is not as accommodating for women who are looking to raise a family while they work. Most obvious in the lack of flexible, shorter, or staggered working hours. While she personally has not had to face this problem she spoke of others in the industry who have. She said that mothers that she has known in the profession have questioned whether they were let go from their jobs because they worked shorter hours than their colleagues, as they needed to devote time to their families. “Paternity leave is another big issue too…” Emily also stated, I must agree with this important point as well, any positive change in the profession will require a major cultural shift and we must therefore ensure we are fighting for the equal rights of all. If our male colleagues aren’t eligible for paid leave when they have children then we’re further breeding a profession that relies on women to leave their careers to raise families and for men to continue cultivating an industry that traditionally over works its employees.
Something that was obvious after talking with Emily is a greater need for autonomy, flexibility and innovation with the profession. Emily believes in reinventing the architectural business model and breaking away from outdated practices such as the 9-5 work day and micro-managing bosses. “Who cares if you have a break or go on Facebook for 10 minutes, I think COVID has proven that people are self motivated enough to do the same work that they do in the office, in their own time. I think collaboration is important within architecture but flexible business hours, and eliminating strict working times is a great way to encourage more diversity in the industry”. Emily even suggested the potential to subcontract out all of the work in a firm, have no official employees and essentially tell people what you need done and when by. This allows people to work the task into their lifestyle and bill you once completed which would be particularly appealing for say busy parents. Though she admits that this does come with other problems it is certainly an interesting and very plausible approach, one that is not so dissimilar from the recent need to work from home. In terms of flexibility within working hours Emily stressed the need for a well-regulated system to ensure that it functions in the best possible way. “As much autonomy as you can get”, she described as this as the key to both a successfully run business and a thriving employee base.
Other possible solutions that we discussed, which aim to rectify issues with inequality at a university level included integrating more studies such as ‘Diversity in Architecture’ as a unit within the course and also the inclusion of more practical-based units that teach students about necessary business skills needed in the industry. This aims to help create more knowledge around the industry as a whole, so young graduates are better prepared for the profession and less likely to be battling inexperience after graduation. Additionally, Emily identified that there is also a need for a bigger cultural shift within all professions and Australia as a whole “We need to recognise and educate around vulnerability”, this will be beneficial in order to breed a more open-minded and diverse culture in the profession and break from the current patriarchal business models.
Furthermore, my interview with Emily was one of interesting and passionate conversion. Though it is disheartening to hear some of the stories and experiences of female architects today, it is also clear that architects like Emily who are looking to create change in the industry are growing in numbers. Therefore there is hope for the future generations of architecture yet.