Women In Architecture : Part 4 – Women Bosses

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In the past three articles about women in architecture, we have spoken to young graduates in the verge of their architectural careers; to mothers balancing family and professional lives; and to wives building a practice alongside their husbands. In this last article in a series of four, 5 women speak candidly about their journey through the ranks to become prinicpals and directors in their own practice.

They are:
Ar. Juliah Sabri
Principal of Juliah Sabri Architect;
Director of JUSA Architects Sdn. Bhd.

Ar. Nurina Matnor
Principal of NMArchitect.

Ar. Ai Lin Tay
Principal of ALT.Projects
Management Consultant.

Ar. Arlene Chew
Director of Design
Network Architects Sdn. Bhd.

Ar. Loong Sin Jui
Principal of SJ Loong Architect.

I : Intersection
JS : Juliah Sabri
SJ : Loong Sin Jui
ALT : Ai Lin Tay
NM : Nurina Mantor
AC: Arlene Chew

I : Tell us about your journey from employee to employer?

JS: I was at JKR when I imagined myself being my own boss. So in 2003, I ‘promoted’ myself (laughs) to become the boss of Juliah Sabri Architect. Then as director of Jusa Architects Sdn. Bhd.

SJ: I worked in Australia for a year after graduating. I returned to Kuching to work with Building Design Team and Arkitek Nurcipta before forming SJ Loong Architect in 2004.

ALT: I too worked in Australia – with Gareth Cole Architect, who specialises in Solar Design,and Jones Brewster Regan Architect, spearheading their I.D. Department. In 1991, I returned to Kuching to work with Perunding Dayacipta. With Chiew and Simon1 – they were fun, I learnt invaluable tips from them (Grins)

NM: I learnt a lot from JFN Architect as well – Jon and Mike2 were very hands-on directors. I went there as a trainee and rejoined them after returning from England. In 2003, they made me a director when I obtained my corporate membership. I set up Arkitek Nurina Matnor in April 2010.

I : What were your reasons for setting up your own practice?

SJ: To give myself more flexible working hours, I have three children with the younger two less than two years apart. I felt I needed to spend more time with them. I was not very active in the first few years until 2006, when I secured some sizeable projects.

AC: In 2000 and fresh out of Uni, I began work at ‘Hwong Architect’. When ‘Design Network Architects Sdn. Bhd.’ was formed, I naturally evolved as one of the 8 original team members in DNA. Later with ‘Mission Impassable Part 3’ accomplished, the four founding partners offered three of my counterparts and I, directorships in DNA. I guess it was a natural progression for me.

ALT: In 1995, I was involved in the setting up of a branch office in Kuching for TAK Design Consultants. It is then that I realised my forte in being the “Opening Team” and enjoyed that experience. In 2001, I set up ALT.Projects Management Consultant specialising in Project Management, Advisory Services on Design & Contracts and Business Feasibility Studies, where I consult and work with Project Management Companies, Developers, Project Owners, Architects and allied Professionals in Malaysia and other countries.

I : There are many facets of expertise in the architectural practice; in which you do feel that you excel in?

AC: I believe that a person can only excel if they are doing what they love. I’ve always loved the creative process and have been fortunate to be in an environment where differences in ideas and styles are welcomed and nurtured. The results are expressed in our built works.

SJ: As a sole proprietor, I feel that I have to be good at everything – from getting job to implementing it; managing time, staff and money.

AC: I also love the challenge of transforming an idea into reality, especially the human side of it. Often, people are the barriers that make the possible impossible. I enjoy the intricate (and not so intricate) art of breaking these barriers to achieve what you want.

NM: I am at my best in the initial stages of a project; schematic design and design development. I usually spend a little time to gather my ideas, let them mature. When I put pen to paper, the results are quite spontaneous.

ALT: My strength and passion is definitely to kick start projects and set up the project team with an overview of the project. I also love other aspects like public relations, recruitment of human resources, project and office management, corporate affairs and publicity.

I : It sounds as though you enjoy the ‘people’ aspect of your job..

ALT: Absolutely, I love interaction with ‘people’. I was doing a marketing pitch there – those who require advisory services, feel free to contact me. (laughs)

I : Do you feel that you carry your role differently from your male counterparts? Does it benefit from a woman’s touch?

NM: I feel that we are better able to strike a balance of calm and productivity in the work place. We are more patient and inclined to let individuals express themselves. This is important in our profession.

JS: I agree with Nurina; I think women create gentler work environment. It is our upbringing. I am not aggressive when it comes to looking for work. I believe instead on word-of-mouth recommendation through my good service and relationship with my clients.

AC: I don’t think gender necessarily affects a person’s leadership style. It’s more of a personality thing for me (and how big your ego is). This, I’ve concluded from observing the approaches of our 8 partners (6 men, 2 women), who are as different as different can be. So no, I don’t think I do things differently.

ALT: That’s right. The difference is due to the person’s personality and experience rather than gender. Having said that, one of my ex-bosses hires women because he feels we can multitask better and are more meticulous.

SJ: I agree with him – I feel we are better organised and we multi-task better than guys. It’s in our nature. We work more effectively and efficiently.

AC: The bit about a woman’s touch is interesting. I think women are naturally more sensitive when making decisions and dealing with people. This constant ‘fine tuning’ often helps mitigate office or project related oversights. On the office, colleagues find us more approachable when there is an issue. There is perhaps a higher level of trust. On the other hand, I can imagine nothing scarier than a pissed off woman, let alone a pissed off lady boss (fortunately, I haven’t turned into one…yet); that may have its own benefits.

I : How do you think you are perceived as a boss in traditionally male dominated profession?

ALT: (laughs) In general, I am pretty relaxed but they know I am serious when it comes to meeting deadlines. They know my motto – “Work Smart” and “Play Hard”.

JS: I think they see me as someone who is close enough to know them and distant enough to lead them..

NM: I don’t know how I am perceived but I make it quite clear that my other roles (as mother and wife) are equally important.

I : …you were talking about perception from your staff, what about perceptions from your peers?

AC: Being a minority, I think female bosses are actually perceived with greater respect. Like many other male-dominant professions, women have to work harder and achieve more to get to where they are; Men know this (at least REAL men do). Interestingly from my experience locally, this also carries through to dealing with contractors, consultants and clients. People tend to sit up and listen when a woman speaks in the company of men. So, I strongly feel that there is a misconception that women architects have it harder than their male counterparts.

SJ: That s right, there are more and more women in every profession and we are recognised for our dedication.

I : In the next ten years, do you think women will play a greater role in our profession compared to now?

JS: I think it will still be dominated by men!

AC: No, I do not foresee many changes on this front. The number of women architects may increase but I doubt there will be a revolution. The percentage of women architecture graduates at universities may equal or exceed the men, the number actually staying in the profession drastically dwindles with time. The issues behind this need to be addressed before any change can take place. I believe the make-up of the PAM committee reflects the actual scenario and psyche.

I: Ah.. but perhaps the PAM committee’s make up reflects something else – the reluctance of women to be in the limelight; their time is better spent with their family and perhaps it takes only one multi-tasking woman to do the work of several men….

SJ: I think there are more women holding top posts in the Government and Teaching sectors than before. We have always been recognised for our skill and dedication – the difference now is that we are starting to see it for ourselves.

NM: The change will come when the perception of women in Malaysian society changes positively first. Only then will women have a fighting chance to compete on an equal level.

ALT: I do not foresee the profession becoming more female oriented. In the early 1990’s, there were less than 20% women architects. Now, some 20+ years later, this statistic has not changed much.

NM: Yes, perhaps the statistics have not changed much for practising architects but there are more facets that women can participate in now; teaching, printed media, corporate identity and in advisory roles.

I: In fact, Ai Lin, you may not figure in the statistics for ‘practising architects’ – you are one of the evolved roles for women architects. What change would you like to see?

SJ: I like to see more women taking up the challenge and step out to be the boss and for society to recognise our capabilities.

AC: That‘s right, Women need to step up and step in, in numbers and into positions where they can be seen and heard. I admire the women who have come out and set up their own practices, and consequently shine.

ALT: Yes, definitely a more evolved role as compared to the role of a traditional architect. Embracing change is the way in an evolving world! (laughs). I would love to see more active participation in the architectural community from women architects.

AC: The world would be a better place.

I: … and with that, we end our conversation. Thank you.



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This CPD will examine the roles and responsibilities of the Architect under the Housing Development Act (Act 118 Peninsular Malaysia 2007) and the Sarawak Housing Ordinance (1993) and related regulations. It will cover an overview of the two sets of laws in force in West Malaysia and Sarawak and point out the major differences. A brief outline of the certification process under the housing acts and ordinances and the management of quality in relation to this certification is reviewed. Managing common defects and complaint is also considered.

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