The Glass Ceiling in Architecture: Q&A With Catherine Townsend and Jill Garner

Set to hit our screens this month, Australia’s newest architectural television program Australia By Design is all about accessibility, and, along with exhibiting some of Australia’s best architectural statements, Australia by Design also showcases some of Australia’s top women architects.

As a profession, the evidence is overwhelming - women are disturbingly under-represented in architecture. Founding Chair of the Women’s Leadership Institute Australia Carol Schwartz AM said exclusively to The Urban Developer there are far more men than women in architecture at all career levels.

“Many women study architecture, excited by the opportunity of involvement in the building and creation of the built environment in many and varied contexts,” Ms Schwartz said.

“Unfortunately, just as in many other professions, notwithstanding roughly equal numbers of male and female undergraduates in architecture, those at the top of the profession are predominantly male.”

Australia By Design’s most prominent female presenters, Victorian Government Architect Jill Garner and Australian Capital Territory’s Government Architect Catherine Townsend sit down exclusively with The Urban Developer to discuss the issue of gender imbalance in architecture.
Describe the gender landscape in the architectural world. Is it fairly equal in the workplace?


“The world of architectural practice is notoriously unbalanced with regard to gender. Although I understand university numbers reflect a balanced student intake (and I assume graduate output), there could be an exponential graph drawn to demonstrate how gender balance plummets in the workplace as age and experience grows. The result is a dearth of experienced women architects contributing to architectural outcomes in the projects where the Office of the Victorian Government Architect has involvement. This is an extraordinary situation, considering most of the projects we touch are public buildings, which play a significant role in building culture, and need to be places we should be pleased and proud to have as part of our city now, and forever. How the best outcome can be achieved without diversity of gender input is a mystery to me.”


“My approach is to assume and expect reasonable behaviour irrespective of gender and I am rarely disappointed. My experience of the architecture and construction workplace is that knowledge, experience and communication skills are valued commodities.”
How did you overcome the gender limits to become the government architects of your state? Have you encountered any backlash for being a female architect?


“Having stepped into the Office of the Government Architect from practice, the commitment to gender balance that is demonstrated by government has been a revelation to me, hence I could suggest there were no real gender barriers to overcome in being considered for the role. The most significant ‘gender limit’ might be that associated with having stayed in the crossfire of practice for (nearing thirty) years. This continuity identifies me as one of the women architects still riding the exponential numbers curve as it takes a dive, and certainly forms the basis of my eligibility and capability to perform the role of the Government Architect. I have found no backlash from the profession—in fact I have been pleased and honoured by the support.”


I have never viewed the professional environment through a gendered lens. Although women are a minority representation in the profession, it’s not a characteristic that has coloured my life.
What advice would you give to budding female architects?


Whether male or female, an architect needs to commit to understanding structure, construction, materials and space. An architect also needs to understand processes–of analysis, problem solving and collaboration. It can only be described as a long and arduous commitment. I would encourage women architects to make this commitment to deeply understand the real contribution their alternate lens or input can make to the buildings and places where we live, work and visit. I would encourage male architects to understand the critical role of the diverse lens.


I would say, don’t be embarrassed to ask questions or for explanations. It’s a strength not a weakness (and you’ll find that everyone else was secretly asking the same thing). Make a point to be knowledgeable on the reality of building and construction, as you are a technician before a creator.

It seems the industry is looking positive in eliminating the old-fashioned ‘glass ceiling’ concept where females and other minorities can only achieve so much because a social stigma held against them. Value of skill is admired as it should, rather than gender. If the architectural industry is on its way for a fresh turnaround with more female architects, there is hope yet for all other types of industries.

You can watch Ms Garner and Ms Townsend in front of the camera on Australia By Design, airing weekly from Saturday July 15, 3pm on TEN.




Jill Garner

is Victoria's acting government architect and co-founder of Garner Davis Architects. Jill has also taught at both RMIT and the University of Melbourne in design, contemporary history and architectural theory.




Catherine Townsend

 is ACT's acting government architect and the co-founder of Townsend + Associates Architects. Catherine has a wealth of local expertise in roles such as the Director of the Architects Accreditation Council of Australia, Chair of ACT Board of Architects, and as a member of the Building Regulatory Advisory Committee   

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Article originally posted at: https://theurbandeveloper.com/articles/the-glass-ceiling-in-architecture-qa-with-catherine-townsend-and-jill-garner