Making a Difference: Kate Rogan and Eva Nash

Viva and Dilmah Tea celebrate women who are creating change for a positive future

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Eva Nash (left) and Kate Rogan. Picture / Rebecca Zephyr Thomas

In New Zealand, architecture has a female attrition problem. While its students and graduates are 52 per cent female, registered architects are only 29 per cent female, and the number in senior roles is well below 10 per cent, according to NZ Institute of Architects (NZIA) estimates.

Where do the women go? About 60 per cent of respondents told a Jasmax survey they left architecture to have kids. Like most other industries, architecture seemingly hasn’t figured out how to accommodate the needs of family life. Which is crazy, because every day, architects manage to weave together multiple, highly complicated variables into a beautiful, robust whole.

In 2012, Auckland architects Kate Rogan and Eva Nash formed their own practice, becoming something sadly ultra-rare — female directors. In the five years since, they’ve averaged about 18 projects a year, won several awards, including NZ House & Garden’s Bathroom of the Year, and appeared on TVNZ’s Our First Home. At the same time, Rogan had two children, and Nash had a second child.

Together, they’ve surmounted the apparently insurmountable problem of staying in the industry by refusing to give up on their ambitions, by building a flexible business, and by loving architecture enough to still want to do the hours required, despite having small children to raise. Both have elaborate networks of nannies or full-time daycare. Both drink a lot of black coffee and herbal tea. They always finish by 4pm and never work on weekends.

Both left plum jobs at top practices — Rogan was at Stevens Lawson; Nash at Bossley Architects — in order to strike out on their own. In those small, elite firms, they say, it’s rare to be able to break into an existing partnership; the aesthetic or personality fit might not be right anyway, and the long hours and project duration are incompatible with maternity leave or childcare.

Instead, the pair has created a successful practice that can accommodate a family life — thereby becoming the kind of employers the industry badly needs. Their business now employs six, four of whom are working mothers, including Rogan and Nash themselves.

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“It’s not like we wanted to be the Noah’s Ark of working mothers necessarily,” Rogan says. “It’s more that, having been in that position, we realised there were plenty of people who were really experienced and talented, and underutilised. If we could offer them a situation where they were happy in their lives, they could bring in all of that experience, which is often international experience, with heaps of different skills and contacts. They’re really hard-working, as well, because when you have kids, work time is actually a fun time to explore that side of your personality, to be your own person and not just a parent.”

There are other ways that the industry can be alienating for females. Walking on to a typically male-dominated building site, female architects often have their expertise questioned, in a sort of Columbo-like hazing ritual.

“They’ll always ask you a question,” Rogan says, “and it’s always something tricky — some weird electrical or plumbing question — and they’ll kind of put you on the spot. Sometimes you can tell that they don’t necessarily need the information, they’re just trying it on, to see if you squirm. Growing up with brothers, you can tell when you’re being teased. Usually it’s as simple as answering: ‘Obviously I’m not going to know that, so what are you even talking about?’ ”

“Often, it’s a comment about whether your shoes are site-safe,” Nash says.

“They’re always a bit surprised if you’ll go up a ladder, or on scaffolding,” Rogan adds. “When you’re starting out and you’re the rookie on the site, it’s actually really difficult,” Nash says. “I vividly remember a time when I felt I had to prove myself. You just have to know the building better than anybody else. I came to actually like the challenge. I was like, ‘Go ahead and ask me. I’ve spent the weekend on this and many weekends before.’”

Rogan says she sometimes briefly ponders whether her clients have chosen female architects assuming they’ll be strong on things like kitchens. Then she goes back to not caring.

“There is unconscious bias at play everywhere and at some point, you have to pick your battles. I’m not going to worry if people come to us because they think we’re going to be great at interiors. We are great at interiors! Ultimately, we do really good architecture, we listen to clients really well, and we produce a good product that people are happy with.”

At least in an all-female partnership, you can avoid the bitter taste of earning less than your male colleagues. Although female architecture students perform as well as males, as soon as women graduate, they are paid less, with the gap estimated by the NZIA to be around $9,000 in graduate jobs, widening to $13,000 at senior level.

Lynda Simmons from Architecture + Women NZ says the industry is just innately hostile to families, with a “long-hours work culture”, lack of support for male caregivers, and most professional development events held at 6-7pm weekdays. Once you’ve taken maternity leave, it’s also difficult to re-register if you haven’t somehow kept up your professional development in the meanwhile.

“This is why practices like Rogan Nash are such good role models for the profession,” she says. “They show that, with enough support, raising a family doesn’t mean that their life in architecture needs to go on hold.”

  • This is part of a Viva and Dilmah Tea editorial series celebrating inspirational women excelling in their careers. To see more, go to Viva.co.nz/Dilmah

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