Women in Architecture : Part 1 The Practitioners Meet The Graduates

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In this series of articles, INTERSECTION will interview women architects in Sarawak – from the graduate to the salaried architect, the free-lancer to the director – to unearth the role women architects play in the local architectural scene. Worldwide, there is a disparity in the number of women who graduate from architecture school and the number of women who advance to senior management, based on a report by the R.I.B.A. in 2003, there are many factors that cause women to leave architecture. Some of the factors are low or unequal pay, long working hours, stressful working conditions and more job satisfaction elsewhere.

Based on initial feedback from our local women architects, they do not face these problems in the workplace; even appearing to thrive in that long accepted male domain – the building site. Several highlighted that there is a far less visible but equally important domain of the architect’s office – where women form a low key but influential minority in areas of management of projects and people. One went as far as to pose this question; “perhaps Asia is different from the West?” – or is it simply different in Sarawak?

Through the interviews, INTERSECTION hopes to map Sarawakian women’s participation in the profession and to understand the rewards and tribulations as gender, workplace and family life intersect.

In the first of this series, INTERSECTION s its down with Ar. Juliah Sabri, Ar. Ivy Jong and young graduates – Peggy Wong, Dona Rose Koemeri, Jayne Ting and Liyana Binti Abdul Karim to compare notes and share advice.

Women In Architecture

I : Intersection

I : Ladies, thank you for joining us this evening. Let’s get start the ball rolling… In university it is 50% men and 50% women studying architecture courses especially in local universities. In the workforce, for every female architect there are 2 or 3 male counterparts. Where do some of the women go?

Liyana: Most of my female course mates become housewives when they graduate.

PJ: I remember in my diploma course, there were 23 students. We all graduated. Out of these 23 students, all the men furthered their studies. Recently we had a re-union. Out of the 9 female course-mates, 3 become lecturers without starting their practice, one changed her course, the others stopped at diploma. I am the only one running my own practice.

Dona: Quite a number of my female course mates turn to teaching, becoming lecturers which gives them a more structured schedule which I guess is important if you are trying to manage a family as well as work.

Liyana: I have a question to Puan Juliah. How do you manage between work and family especially when you have just started?

PJ: When I started at JKR, I was the primary carer for our family. My husband has always been my ‘partner’. My husband is a government officer, so we were able to juggle between work and family as the hours were more ‘regular’. When I left JKR to start by own practice, there wasn’t much of a problem balancing life because my children were by then old enough to fend for themselves.

Jayne: I guess if the children are already taking care of themselves or under the care of say, their grandparents, maybe it would be easier to juggle between work and family.

Dona: I think the most important thing is to communicate with your spouse because when I am busy, he would have to take care of the kids, vice versa. If both of us are busy, then someone else has to do it. I guess there are sacrifices from both sides. Mother in-law is our last resort. We try not to though, because it is unfair for them.

I : Would any of you like to run your own practice in, say in a few years time?

Women In Architecture

Dona & Liyana: Yes, of course.

Jayne: I am not so sure yet.

PJ: When you want to set up your own practice, you need to have clients. (Looking towards the young ladies) Are you prepared? Are you ready? Do you have any clients in mind? In my case, I had been working in JKR for almost 20 years, so my confidence level was pretty high. I was quite sure that I had enough contacts to get work when I set up my own practice. I did not bring out any projects with me when I left JKR. So that was the element of confidence I am talking about. If you don’t have any networking, I think it is a bit hard to set up your own practice.

I : It is a question of timing, after you get your LAM Part 3, do you look for work first? set up your practice? It is a hard choice to make for these young ladies especially if you are paid well. How did you decide to set up your practice?

PJ: My decision was triggered by a friend asking me to join him in private practice. So, I discussed this with my husband who was very supportive. He said “it s okay if this does not work out – I am always here” It was tough at the beginning. As I said, I did not take any projects with me from JKR. I was without income for many months during the start up.

I : In that sense, do you think it’s easier for women architects to set up their own practice because you have, potentially, support from your spouse. Panic might set in if you don’t have any work after 6 months, but I think in women’s case, do you think that it is easier as you are not the sole bread winner?

J: I am not married yet. (laughs) Instead of starting your practice straight away, perhaps we can start doing some free-lance work first and in that way establish some connections before setting up your practice.

I : That is provided your employer agrees to that arrangement. There are situations when you actually have to be very upfront with your employer. Maybe come to an arrangement with your employer that allows you to work part-time in an office and also do free lance.

Peggy: For me, I would not think of getting LAM Part 3 for the sake of coming out and setting up on my own. To me, LAM Part 3 is part of my architectural profession and education as advised by most of my peers.

I : What about experience on work site. Do you think women are not taken seriously on site? Are you taken seriously when you issue instructions on site?

Women in Architecture

Liyana & Dona: So far yes, they would listen to our instructions.

J: I think it depends on how we carry ourselves. I don’t think it is masculinity. It is about being confident.

Peggy: I agree. Who is going to listen to you if you doubt what you are saying?

PJ: You have to be confident with your work.

Liyana: In my experience, my male colleagues prefer to work with female colleagues because they are more approachable.

Dona: I have another example. If a contractor wants to propose an alternative to a male or female architect, he usually approaches the female architect first because there is a higher chance that the woman would listen to his proposal.

Peggy: That’s from their perspective when they approach you, but it is still up for you to decide, right?

Liyana: Yes, we need to be firm with our decisions. So we let them know we are no pushovers. They would respect that.

Ivy: From personal experience, there are physical challenges. When I was involved in a project in a remote area as a fresh graduate, the male counterparts initially had doubts on whether I could be able to ‘rough’ it out or not. It was physically very challenging. They were trying to physically intimidate me by intensifying that schedule on site which was gruelling. Luckily I managed and it was funny, because years later, they confided in me that they had trouble keeping up with me which I took as a compliment !

I : I guess there is a reason why women give birth but men don’t. A group of women would make decisions faster than a group of men. The ego thing doesn’t come into play. Are there any problems you think you face because you are a woman in the workplace?

L: I don’t think so. The male colleagues in my workplace are very helpful. When I first started working, I had a hard time because I was a fresh graduate. I was given a toilet project and there was this contractor who would call me up and shout at me. He made me cry, but not in front of him. My boss then taught me how to deal with people like him.

I : In terms of wage, are you paid on par with your male colleagues?

Liyana, Dona & Jayne: Yes.

Jayne: I think the salary is determined by the qualifications, work achievements and experience as well.

I : Do you think this would change when you apply for maternity leave?

D: It was okay. My boss treated me well when I had my first child.

Women In Architecture

Peggy: I think it depends on whether the boss has a family.

J: Yes, I agree with that.

I : For the 2 women bosses here (Ivy and PJ), are you more inclined to employ male or female employees ? Is there a difference?

PJ: I have never thought about that.

Ivy: Not really. My office thus far have more female than male but not intentionally. Women employees in general tends to be more efficient and organised.

J: Women are preferred because they are less likely to leave the company. (laughs)

PJ: I used to write all the reports when I was working for JKR because the men couldn’t be bothered. They laughed at me for that but I started to love doing it. So for me, women are the organisers in the office.

I : We need to talk about design abilities. Is there a difference in design abilities when it comes to men and women?

Ivy: We tend to go into greater details… we may tend to fuss around an issue and look at it from many angles as we deliberate, whereas the guys would get it resolved and worry about the rest at a later stage. Women are worried about the smallest details while the male architect tends to look at the bigger picture. There are the pros and cons to this of course.

I : Some companies give their women architects the role of doing interior design in the old days. Women are placed in ID department because the company thinks they are better at that. Do you experience that?

Everyone: No !

Peggy: From my experience, there were certain tasks my ex-boss would ask me to handle as a woman, especially when dealing with men. His reasoning is that they tend to not be aggressive towards woman.

J: In my case, it wasn’t from my boss but from a male colleague. My client sent his representative, a man – to discuss matters with an officer from the authorities; his rep ended up getting scolded by the officer. So they suggested that I go instead, and the outcome was very good.

I : So what do you think sets it apart? Is it because of your capabilities, or charm? Or both?

Everyone: Charm (all laughs)

I : Thank you for your time. It has been enlightening.

Women In Architecture

A quick bio-pic of some of our participants:
Liyana Binti Abdul Karim is at Arkitek Arkiskape Sdn. Bhd.; she obtained her degree from Aberdeen University, Scotland and initially wanted to work in Aberdeen but unfortunately was deterred by the recession during 2009. She choose to came back to Kuching to work instead as she did not want to work in Kuala Lumpur.

Dona Rose Binti Amer Koesmeri is with Atelier Timur Sdn. Bhd.; a graduate from University Sains Malaysia and came to Kuching through marriage. Her husband Roy is also an architect working with P.U Architects.

Jayne Ting is with Akimedia Sdn. Bhd., a graduate from University of Curtin, Perth, Australia.

Peggy Wong is with Atelier Timur Sdn. Bhd.; a graduate from University of Curtin, Perth, Australia; she is preparing to sit for her LAM part 3 this year.

Ar. Juliah Sabri ; a former senior officer heading the Building Branch at JKR Sarawak and one of the ‘pioneer’ female architect in Sarawak, she came out to set up her own architectural firm Julaih Sabri Architect Sdn. Bhd. in 2003.

Ar. Ivy Jong has been practicing along side her husband and fellow architect Ar. Sia Peh Swee at Atelier Timur Sdn. Bhd. since 2007.

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