Supporting Working Parents

Justine Clark , 5 August 2014

The recent report by the Human Rights Commission, Supporting Working Parents: Pregnancy and Return to Work, makes depressing reading, even for those well across the issues that women continue to face in the workplace – including in architectural workplaces.

The headline statistics are troubling and some of the anecdote contained within is quite alarming. But the report also contains a great deal of useful material about how to address the issues, and the benefits for companies that do this effectively. 

The findings

The report found that 49% of mothers surveyed have experienced discrimination in the workplace at some time. Over a quarter (27%) of the fathers and partners surveyed also experienced discrimination related to parental leave and return to work, even when this involved taking very short periods of leave. The statistics for ‘professionals’ are also worrying – 36% of ‘professional’ mothers reported experiencing discrimination when requesting or during parental leave and 42% on return to work.

Discrimination takes many forms – the report comments that it may range from “negative attitudes and comments from colleagues and managers, through to loss of opportunities for further training and career advancement, reduction in pay and conditions, as well as redundancy and job loss.”

All of these have a clear impact on women’s ongoing participation in the workforce. The survey found that:

“32% of all mothers who were discriminated against at some point went to look for another job or resigned. Further, almost one in five (18%) mothers indicated that they were made redundant or that their jobs were restructured, that they were dismissed or that their contract was not renewed during their pregnancy, when they requested or took parental leave, or when they returned to work. Such discrimination, particularly where it results in job loss or the withdrawal from the workforce, can have significant long-term effects.”

Supporting Working Parents is a particularly useful document because, in addition to charting the issues from the perspective of parents, the review gathered a substantial amount of material about the opportunities and difficulties from an employer perspective.

It found that many employers have difficulty understanding their legal obligation, as well as problems in knowing how to meet these obligations. Some employers also outline the problems they experience in managing return-to-work scenarios and flexible work and in changing stereotypes. This can be particularly difficult for small businesses as they may have more financial constraints, fewer resources and less capacity to effectively manage workflow.

Significantly, the report contains very helpful suggestions about what to do to address these issues, and the benefits that accrue to those employers who do manage things successfully.

What has this got to do with architecture?


There is now ample evidence that women in architecture, as a group, face uneven opportunities. This is borne out by the work my colleagues and I have undertaken as part of Parlour and the substantial research project behind it. This is reinforced by the ACA’s own National Salary Survey, which identified a gender pay gap in all but two of the categories surveyed.

Returning to work after having children is the time when women in architecture are most likely to face explicit discrimination. This was raised as an issue time and time again by the women respondents the Parlour surveys, and was also raised by men – both by men observing what was happening to their women colleagues or partners, and by men who wished to work reduced (or merely standard) hours to enable them to fulfil caring responsibilities. As in other fields, women who experience this discrimination are much more likely to leave the profession long term, or to not return after a second child.

There are also stark differences in the perceptions between employees and some employers. Many employees are quite certain that their productivity and focus increases dramatically – with restricted work hours they no longer muck about, instead they get stuck in and get the work done within the available time. Some employers recognise this and work with it, some simply don’t know how to manage workflow well, while a few are adamant that the only way to be an architect is to be a more-then-full-time worker.

But is this a business issue?


Aside from the obvious ethical and social justice issues, there is a very clear business case for gender equity. This pertains to individual businesses, the profession as a whole and the wider economy.

Women’s workforce participation has a major impact on productivity and the economy – the Grattan Institute has found that increasing women’s participation in Australia by just 6% could increase the national GDP by $25 billion.

Individual businesses also stand to benefit. There is now an enormous amount of research demonstrating that increased numbers of women in the workplace, and diversity at senior levels in an organisation, has clear benefits in terms of better efficiency, performance and innovation. The report provides an excellent summary of the business case. It points out that an increase in women’s participation can have a direct and substantial impact on a business culture and operations. Tangible benefits include “better efficiency, performance and innovation; increased access to the female talent pool; and improvements to a company’s reputation.”

There are also substantial savings to be made by reducing staff turnover – indeed the Australian Human Resources Institute estimates the cost of staff turnover to Australian business to be $20 billion. These costs are often overlooked in the context of architectural practice. The report identifies particular savings in relation to the following costs, many of which are relevant to architectural businesses:

  • Job advertising costs
  • Lost time spent on interviews, clerical and administrative tasks
  • Use of temporary staff or lost output while waiting to fill the position
  • Costs associated with training the new employee
  • Termination pay
  • Loss of specialist knowledge
  • Loss of clients
  • Low staff morale and reduced productivity

So, while a business may experience short-term hurdles in accommodating new parents on their return to work, the medium- and long-term benefits far outweigh short-term issues. This is a serious business and professional issue. As my colleague Naomi Stead comments,

“Gender equity is not an extraneous cost that the industry can’t afford, but rather a way of ensuring the ongoing economic viability, innovation and sustainability of the profession – even aside from questions of fairness, justice, morality and ethics. The question is not whether we can afford gender equity, but whether we can afford to miss out on its benefits.”

What can a practice do?

There is now a substantial amount of material to help architectural practices ensure that they are equitable workplaces, and that they can reap the benefits of an engaged and diverse workforce. Given that the most overt discrimination in architecture occurs after women have children, practices need to play particular attention to this. The profession needs to look very closely at its workplace habits and assumptions.

I am firmly of the opinion that good, basic business practices will go quite a long way to improving equity in the profession, and indeed to improving the lot of the profession more broadly. It won’t fix everything – there is still much work to be done in relation to the impact of unconscious bias, ingrained stereotypes etc – but a decently managed business, with good HR policies and processes, is a good start. (This is one of the reasons I am interested in working with the ACA.)

The Parlour surveys, along with a lot of other anecdote, suggest that many (not all) architectural practices are under managed, and that this can result in the office stumbling from crisis to crisis on inadequate fees with poor systems. It is hard to manage workflow sensibly in such a context, and those who can’t put in continuous long hours – including working parents – often find themselves discriminated against regardless of their productivity.

The informal management styles of many architectural practices can also allow inequity to creep accidentally. And the Parlour surveys indicate that this is particularly pronounced for those returning to work after the birth of a child.

Having basic policies and procedures in place can help avoid this, and that ensures everyone knows where they stand.

Recommendations from Supporting Working Parents

The report makes recommendations in terms of both business processes and company culture. This is worth reading in full. Chapter 6 outlines successful ‘best-practice’ initiatives and policies developed for the benefit of employees and employers alike. The process includes establishing and implementing policies, clearly communicating these policies and commitments and addressing problematic stereotypes.

The report points out that in many cases this need not require substantial financial investment or a significant shift in the way an organisation operates. This identifies two key stages – establishing the foundations for success, and the effectively implementing the strategies.

Establishing the foundations for success includes ensuring:

  • That the right policies and practices are in place
  • That leaders within the organisation are vocal and committed to supporting pregnant employees and working parents within the organization
  • That policies and practices are monitored and evaluated
  • That information is provided to enable informed and open discussions
  • That managers and employees are empowered and supported
  • That flexible work arrangements are facilitated

Effectively implementing the strategies and policies involves managing pregnancy/return-to-work related issues in a holistic manner including:

  • Developing a plan from the time an employee announces her pregnancy;
  • Preparing for an employee’s parental leave
  • Staying connected during parental leave
  • Reintegrating after parental leave
  • Career acceleration upon their return

Fortunately there is now also a lot of information and support available particular to architectural practice.

ACA member resources

The ACA has many resources to help businesses operate more productively.

The ACA HR Policy Templates are particularly important in this regard. These provide a fair and equal context for employment and ensure that everyone understands their rights and responsibilities. HR policies provide an excellent reminder that equity and fairness matters and help set out the processes that will ensure that all employees have the same access to opportunities. This is an excellent way to attract and retain the best staff.

Parlour Guides to Equitable Practice

Published in May 2014, the Parlour Guides are addressed to both employers and employees. Eleven topics are covered. Each guide explains the issue, why it matters (including business implications) and what we can do about it. Guides of particular relevance to supporting working parents are:

There is a lot that practices and the profession can do to ensure that working parents do not face discrimination in their workplace, and this will bring many benefits to the businesses and the profession more widely, as well as to the individual.

If you are a director, a principal or a manager, it is time to take a lead and ensure that your business is a fair and equitable one.


Justine Clark is the editor of Parlour: women, equity, architecture. She is also the editor of the ACA website. This essay reflects her opinion and research of the Equity and Diversity in the Australian Architectural Profession project, not that of the ACA.