Women and Design Leadership: A New Era of Architects in the Public Sector

Holden, Susan | Volz, Kirsty

Ngā Pūtahitanga / Crossings: A Joint Conference of SAHANZ and the Australasian UHPH Group

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The gradual per-capita decline in the size of the public service in Australia since the orthodoxy of economic rationalism became entrenched in the 1990s has impacted on the design of the built environment most obviously in the shift away from the in-house design and delivery of public works by government-employed architects. Yet with rising interest in design-led cities, a new generation of architects in state and local government are taking leadership roles in design governance, where public sector actors exert influence predominantly through informal means such as through design advisory, review and advocacy processes. These roles represent an important point at which architects can participate in the complex multi-disciplinary and multi-stakeholder delivery of projects and positively influence the quality of built environment design outcomes, for the public good. Yet this form of architectural work tends to be invisible and not well understood by the profession. Women at present have high visibility in such design leadership roles in Australia, with all State and Territory Government Architect positions and many City Architect positions currently held by women. This paper investigates women’s experience in public sector design leadership roles to better understand this work and how career paths involving the public sector have changed since earlier eras of government public works departments. Drawing on interviews, the paper explores aspects of women’s career experience including the specific skills and expertise utilised in design advisory roles, and the extent to which this form of work is recognised within the profession. Contemporary career narratives are analysed in relation to an historical survey of women architects in the public service and changing ideas about professional expertise. The paper focuses on exploring two themes: the ways in which public sector work is incorporated into portfolio careers in architecture, and the expertise involved in design leadership.