Justine Clark reflects on newer, disaggregated data on the graduate pay gap. 

“You tell them – girls should be paid more from now on, ’cause boys have already had more.” Sylvia Walker, age 5.

Both my daughters looked incredulous and appalled as I explained what a gender pay gap was. The five year old – always one with an eye for an opportunity – came up with the solution above. That problem dealt with she skipped off to get her doll ready for ‘the disco party’.

I wasn’t talking about the gender pay gap with a nine year old and a five year old for fun. Both had been demanding to know why I kept on working when we were meant to be on holiday. Why did I spend hours in front of the computer when it was beach weather? I explained that I was trying to understand the recent media on the graduate pay gap, that this involved trawling through reports, charts and statistics, and that I had to do this because of Parlour. But I also commented that it was in their long-term interests too.

It was heart-breaking to have to explain that there is such a thing as a gender pay gap to my two young daughters – indeed, I get terribly sad every time we have another feminism 101 lesson in our household. To my daughters, the world is a fair place, full of opportunity. I hate to disillusion them, but as parents we also need to equip them with the knowledge and strategies they will need to navigate a world that is still inequitable.

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When I wrote that piece on the graduate pay gap news Tania Davidge had asked Graduate Careers Australia (GCA) for more architecture-specific data, but it was not yet available – I did what I could with the available material. The GCA later provided disaggregated data for 2011 and 2012 Graduate Surveys in response to a request from the Australian Institute of Architects and has subsequently made it available to us too.

This new, disaggregated data was for the survey respondents who met the following criteria:
– Had completed an award in architecture at the master’s degree level.
– Had studied full-time.
– Were working as architects in an architectural practice.
– Were working between 38 and 42 hours per week.

One of the remarkable things about this is how dramatically this filtering reduces the sample pool. In the 2012 survey, 566 respondents indicated that they had completed a master’s coursework degree in architecture. When the above criteria are applied the number of relevant respondents reduces to 77. That is, only 13.6% of respondents with architecture degrees met the “level playing field” criteria. For 2011 the numbers dropped from 306 to 90 (29%). I’ll return to this drop later.

This new, restricted data shows that in 2011, male graduates were on a median annual salary of $45,000, while female graduates were on $44,300. Bruce Guthrie of the GCA points out that this $700 difference (1.6%) is negligible in the context of the data. 

In 2012, men were on a median annual salary of $46,500, with women on $45,000. Guthrie comments that “the $1,500 difference (3.3%) is, within the context of these data, likely to represent an upper level acceptable range of error.” He also suggest that it could be due to 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 – for example, males are often thought liable to overestimate things like salaries while females can be more conservative.”

Guthrie concludes “I can’t see any firm evidence here for anything that could be said to be an unequivocal starting salaries disparity between the sexes.”

Well that is good news. So, did I waste a week of my summer? Was I off chasing a red herring? Would I have been better off spending more time swimming with the kids and lunching with friends? Or even doing all the other Parlour work that I am so behind on?

On reflection, I think not. Firstly, it was important to delve as as far as I could into the numbers that were publicly available – at least to confirm that the 17% architecture-and-building gap was indeed partly an outcome of combining the industries. Secondly, although I am delighted that the small number of architecture masters coursework graduates who met the GCA’s “level playing field” criteria experience a much smaller pay gap than that horrifying 17%, or the still dismaying 6.25% that I found in the 2011 data of architecture graduates, that is not the end of the story.

This revised data, although welcome, does not mean there is no gender disparity in the profession. As Shelley Penn writes,

“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 percent of registered architects are women). We only rarely become directors of practices and are also less likely to participate in the profession more widely.”

Part of the reason that initial GradStats figures were so shocking was that we no longer expect to see overt discrimination so early in a career, but this doesn’t mean things are fine forever after. And we continue to hear stories of pay inequity, and of quite differing perceptions of pay gaps, or the lack of them, within the same practice. One of the main problems is that we have so little data. This is why people latched onto the GCA data, but we have to approach it carefully.

But let’s also go back to the filtering that was done to get to the “level playing field”. When I saw the very small sample size I asked Bruce Guthrie what happened to all the other architecture graduates. He explained the filtering process: 

“From the 2012 data, we had 566 cases who indicated they had completed a master’s degree in architecture (and not a related field). If we look only that those who were employed full-time at the time of the survey, the number reduces to 280.

Of those in full time employment, 195 (69.5%) said they were working as architects (or in closely related codes).

Of those in full-time employment, 197 (70.9%) said they were working for an organisation supplying architectural services (another 35 said they were working in the construction field.)

Once we then select those who were working similar hours and had studied full-time to further flatten the playing field (to take out people who might have had some prior experience), we get down to the numbers you see.”

This raises a lot of questions. One of the most obvious is what happened to all the other respondents? Why do so few new graduates meet the “level playing field” criteria, and what are the others doing? What does it say about the profession and architectural careers and education that so few respondents meet the standardised criteria?

There also seem to be ideological differences about what constitutes a pay gap. Jenna Price outlined the culture of denial around the pay gap in a piece for the Sydney Morning Herald in the midst of the controversy.  These differences play out in architecture too.

In some quarters these new figures were greeted with a kind of triumphalism – “Ha, those pesky feminists got it wrong! There is nothing wrong with architecture.” Meanwhile Shelley Penn’s thoughtful piece in response to the new data was first published under a URL which ended, unhelpfully, with the phrase “gender-wage-warfare”.

None of this is very useful. Anecdotally there are pay equity issues in architecture, but there is very limited data other than this accumulating anecdote. We hope that data from the recent census will shed further light. We are also pleased that the Association of Consulting Architects has started conducting a regular Salary Survey. At the moment this data can’t be sorted by gender. Nonetheless it will provide a useful reference.

But equity is not just about salary equivalence, it is also about the opportunities that can lead to increased salaries – access to “hot” projects that help build careers, workplaces where competence is rewarded rather than confidence, workplaces where time spent in productive work is valued over ‘presenteeism’. Gender-based pay inequity is symptomatic of larger issues at play in the workplace, including architectural workplaces.

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My older daughter is a maker and a drawer. She identifies her best qualities as “being kind” and “having good ideas”. Her first school report noted that she was especially good at “3D construction”. As proud parents we smiled, but we cringed a little bit too. All the school reports that followed have highlighted her creativity, inventiveness and skills at making things. But we are in no hurry to encourage her to consider a career in architecture. We know too much about it.

Maybe the most important reason I spent that week of summer working my way through the pay gap data was because I want, one day, to feel confident that architecture could be a good career for our daughter (should she be interested in it). And I want her – and the younger, bolshier one – to keep believing that if they work hard (and are kind) they can do anything.