By Megan Berger
Lynda Simmons is an ally for women in architecture in every sense of the word. As a sole practitioner, a registered architect and a professional teaching fellow at Auckland University School of Architecture and Planning, she’s exposed to the inner-workings of the industry from top to bottom; starts of careers and, unfortunately, the end of some as well. But that’s not all. Lynda is also co-chair and co-founder of Architecture + Women NZ, a non-profit volunteer organisation she helped establish in 2011. In a nutshell, the organisation helps shine the spotlight on women working in the field, as they are often missed.
“I had been watching waves of really talented architecture graduates go out in the world and not thrive in the profession, and it was really upsetting me,” says Lynda. “I felt somebody had to do something about it. I thought, how can we enable women to share stories and learn how others have done it? Because women have been doing this job for a long time and have managed to survive, so how do we get those stories out?”
When it comes to women leaving the industry, there’s one topic Lynda doesn’t want involved in the conversation: having children. It makes sense, really, as limiting it to just a desire to raise a family not only narrows the conversation, but ignores the much broader, widespread reasons why women decide to leave.
“Despite our name having the word woman in it, we are actually focusing on much broader, diverse issues. We actively look for ways to develop a cultural change within in a practice,” says Lynda. “If we support males as well, then families and architecture benefit.”
A key tension point for both men and women is, unsurprisingly, flexibility. But it’s not so much just having access to a flexible work environment that’s an issue for many: it’s about not having your reputation or status negatively affected by a flexible schedule.
“One of the issues around flexibility is that it devalues your role within the project. As soon as people ask for flexibility, they tend to be devalued in the office because they’re not there full-time,” says Lynda. “Unfortunately, what tends to happen is as soon as kids and family are the reason for your flexibility, your status and career pretty much flatlines.”
Quotas are, for better or for worse, an ever-present figure in our industries and the world at large. There seems to be a never-ending tug of war between those who think quotas restrict, and those who think they enable. Lynda on the other hand, is somewhere in between.
“I support quotas as an artificial forcing of rebalance. The negative argument towards them is that it should be on merit. Well, if you open up the collective pool for looking at the job to 100% of people, then the right person surely will get the job,” says Lynda. “At the moment, only 50% or maybe even 30% are being looked at, and they then choose out of that merit pool. Quotas are an artificial way to quickly open the pool to the full 100% so that you can look beyond.”
So, aside from quotas, what can architecture do to increase diversity? Architecture+ Women NZ has been having this conversation for years, and has boiled it down to two aims: visibility and inclusion.
“There are two approaches. One is moving the heavy mountains at a policy level. That’s not what we do, as there’s significant work being done by other groups in that space,” says Lynda. “What we do is operate at ground level. We’re literally a community organisation, and we’re very proud of that. We do the small things, and the small things add and add and add and end up having a really positive effect.”
Badge of honour
For Lynda, diversity means more than gender balance, it has a widespread impact on our community as a whole. How can we be sure that our designs will benefit and suit the communities we build for?
“Diversity is important because we have whole communities living well in our cities, and they can live better. Architecture plays a key role in that,” says Lynda. “We are designing for communities that we may or may not understand well. So, if we have diversity in the practices, in the offices and in the universities, then the collective nature of creating buildings and urban spaces can be represented at an earlier stage. Those voices can be heard earlier.”
As others have mentioned, the pervasive culture in architecture is usually one that puts working overtime and burning the midnight oil over a balance with someone’s personal life. But unsurprisingly, that approach can backfire.
“Especially at the graduate level that’s really supported and seen as a badge of honour if you like, a dedication to architecture,” says Lynda. “But it actually has a negative effect on your family life and future development outside the profession”.
Full steam ahead
Lynda is clearly passionate about architecture and the future for women within it. She sees the best and the worst of the industry, from the perspective of those first stepping foot onto a university campus, to those who, for many reasons, find stepping out of the industry the only way forward. But still, she has hope for the future, and a message to those who need it.
“Working in architecture is one of the best ways to live your life. It extends from the sciences to the philosophies to the arts, it’s a great place to be doing it in whichever way you choose to do it,” says Lynda. “There’s no one way to live an architectural life. Find your own way. Make it work for you. You don’t need to fit in to other people’s cultures or rules.”