Do we need an equity policy for Australian architecture, and how might this best be developed? Naomi Stead and Justine Clark outline the issues, the precedents and the possibilities.

Autralian Institute of Architects policies

Policy is a very important tool in moving towards a more equitable, diverse and inclusive architectural profession in Australia. Equity and diversity policy provides an important framework for the profession – and the organisations, practices and individuals within it – to map the changes required and to assess the progress made. Such policies also represent a clear commitment to change on the part of professional organisations, and indicate a willingness to demonstrate leadership and to act collectively to make a difference.

Unlike institutes in most comparable countries, the Australian Institute of Architects does not have an equity and diversity policy, and equity issues are rarely raised in other Institute material. The Institute does, however, espouse a number of other social justice policy initiatives with which an Equity and Diversity Policy could be aligned. These are shown in the diagram above, taken from in Naomi Stead’s presentation to the Australian Institute of Architects National Council.

One key set of outcomes of the current Equity and Diversity research project will be a draft Equity and Diversity Policy for the Australian Institute of Architects. This will include information on how to design and implement strategies to redress and improve women’s workforce participation and how to determine best-practice models to foster greater opportunity for the advancement of women architects into senior management positions.

Effective policy and best-practice models will also offer a blueprint for Australian architectural practices seeking to be in step with corporate and government clients on issues of social inclusion and well-rounded employees. The policy will be complemented by an Equity and Diversity Action Plan and a detailed audit of current Institute activities and documents to identify where equity and diversity initiatives can be introduced. The first step in this policy development is the Statement of Principle on Gender Equity, which is currently being prepared.

Architecture also lags behind other professions in Australia – medicine, law and engineering have all developed equity policies and programs to effect change. In drafting an effective gender equity policy there is much to be learned from these policies developed by other disciplines in Australia, as well as from architectural policies in place in other countries.

It is also helpful to understand the stages that organisations go through when addressing inequity. Professor Amanda Sinclair’s four ‘progressive phases of executive culture in dealing with women’ are particularly useful for thinking about organisations, institutions and professions in transition. She describes these as follows:

Stage 1. Denial. The absence of women from the culture is not regarded as a problem or a core business issue.
Stage 2. Women’s difference is seen as the problem. Solution is framed as women adapting to the predefined (usually male) norms.
Stage 3. Incremental adjustments made to existing structures to incorporate women.
Stage 4. Organisation commits to a new culture. The exclusion of women is seen as a symptom of deeper problems requiring solutions that change the existing culture.

When developing policy it is also important to understand the distinction between equity and equality. It is often assumed that equity means equality, but they are different concepts which lead to quite different outcomes, in terms of both policy and effect. It is tempting to think that, because equality is covered in anti-discrimination legislation, equity policies and initiatives are not required. This is not the case, as is eloquently argued in the Australian Federation of Medical Women’s 2004 discussion paper “Moving on From One Size Fits All: Towards gender mainstreaming in medicine“. It is worth rehearsing the arguments here as they are also pertinent to architecture. The report distinguishes between equality and equity as follows:

Gender equality: “The absence of discrimination on the basis of a person’s sex… the equal valuing by society of both the similarities and differences between men and women, and the varying roles that they play.” Equality is the basis of Anti-Discrimination Legislation, and can be described as ‘gender blindness’.

Gender equity: “The process of being fair to women and men. To ensure fairness, this may necessitate measures to compensate for historical and social disadvantages that prevent women and men from otherwise operating on a ‘level playing field’.” Equity is the basis of Equal Opportunity Legislation and of affirmative action initiatives . It involves the specific valuing of difference and diversity.

The discussion paper goes on to explain the transition from thinking about equality to thinking about equity:

It was assumed in early ideals of equality that if we treated people in the same way then similar individuals would have the same opportunities. This premise relies on a comparative assumption that two individuals are the same, that group characteristics such as sex, culture and religion can be considered separately from the individual and promotes conformity to a pre-defined ‘normal’ criteria that may be inherently biased towards one sex or culture.

It is now acknowledged that the premise of treating individuals similarly does not facilitate equal opportunity. It is apparent that to offer individuals the same opportunity to proceed through systems, their individual and group differences need to be embraced and incorporated into mainstream policy development. It is not enough for individuals to be judged the same at an entry point, each individual must have the same capacity to proceed past the same point with similar ease.

This makes it clear that the equality principles enshrined in anti-discrimination legislation are not enough to ensure an equitable workplace or professional culture. Strong, coherent equity policy is crucial if we are to act together to address the inequity within our profession and discipline.