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Gender salary gap not so great

Shelley Penn, national president of the Australian Institute of Architects, addresses the gender equity and wages debate within architecture, from the Graduate Careers Australia (GCA) 2012 GradStats report. Her assessment of the data found nowhere near the inequity first suggested in the initial reports.

2013 had barely begun when the federal government’s Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA) issued the factsheet GradStats – Starting Salaries, based on the Graduate Careers Australia (GCA) 2012 GradStats report. The figures were shocking: for 2012, a 9.1 per cent gender pay gap for new graduates across all occupations. And what woman would look twice at the architecture and building industry with its staggering 17.3 per cent disparity?

Gender salary gap not so great

Image: Leo Reynolds

This was particularly disheartening for me as National President of the Australian Institute of Architects. Architecture is a broad discipline and architects are diverse in how, where and why they practice. The Institute has been active in celebrating this for many years, and in particular is focused on gender equity as an industry partner in the Australia Research Council (ARC) funded project ‘Equity and Diversity in the Australian Architecture Profession: Women, Work and Leadership’. I may be only the third woman president in our history, but I’m also the second in four years, a sign that things are changing.

The research team and the Institute suspected that the GradStats figures for architecture were skewed through being combined with building and related industries, and started to look at GCA’s published figures more closely. The Institute then contacted GCA’s Advisor on Policy, Strategy and Stakeholder Relations, Bruce Guthrie, who disputed WGEA’s analysis and provided further disaggregated data.

When looking at the detail for architecture masters graduates, who had studied full time and were working 38-42 hours in an architectural practice, the results were dramatically different and much more positive. In 2011, men were on a median annual salary of $45,000, with women on $44,300, which equates to a 1.6 per cent difference, while in 2012, men were on a median annual salary of $46,500, with women on $45,000 – a 3.3 per cent difference.

Guthrie advised that even this disparity is “… likely to represent an upper level acceptable range of respondent or survey error or a difference unexplained by the variables used to control for this analysis (that is, there could be factors apart from study time, occupation, employer type and working hours that could account for more of this difference) …”

So, is this good news? Well, it’s certainly better news, but it does not mean that gender equity is not an urgent issue within the profession, and we need to be mindful of the narrowing of the sample in the figures above. For the 2011 GCA survey, there were only 90 respondents who fit the descriptors while in 2012 this number had dropped to 77. Is that number adequate to be representative? I hope so!

There is no getting away from the fact that despite similar numbers of female and male graduates for the last three decades, women are less likely to register as architects after graduation (only about 20 per cent of registered architects are women). We only rarely become directors of practices and are also less likely to participate in the profession more widely; for example, by joining the Australian Institute of Architects, where less than 30 per cent of members are women.

As careers progress, the barriers for women increase, as evidenced by lower numbers in senior positions and higher attrition rates. The need for part time or flexible work hours when juggling career and parenthood affects women most heavily. But parenthood is just one issue. To understand the breadth and complexity of contributing factors, and to enable some real and meaningful change, we require good research and evidence.

Led by a large and collaborative team including three universities and five industry partners, the research project will, in 2014, provide valuable data, analysis and recommendations for ways to support equity and diversity within the profession, as well as a new Institute policy.

As part of the project, Parlour was established. A website for active exchange, Parlour brings together research, informed opinion and resources on women, equity and architecture in Australia.

While to a certain extent, the information put out by the WGEA on 3 January has promoted debate and interest, it may also have done some damage. I hope any young women considering architecture as a career choice were not deterred. There is a growing acceptance that diversity is good for business – all business. In architecture, diversity in its broadest sense is an essential aspect of the profession’s ability to respond with sensitivity, innovation and relevance to the myriad issues facing the built environment. In relation to gender diversity, things are not so bad as suggested a month ago, and they will simply get better as more women are welcomed to the profession and are confident of their place in it.

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