This year, we decided to extend our International Women’s Day (IWD) celebrations, stretching them out for the entire month. Throughout March, we highlighted the importance of gender equality – profiling some women we admire, and asking ourselves how we’re helping address some of the broader challenges that women are facing. From the impact of housing affordability on women, to the need for ‘more than mentorship’, here’s a wrap-up of what we learned. 

Planning Enlightenment: affordable housing

It just so happened that our quarterly ‘Planning Enlightenment’ session was perfectly themed for the International Month of Women. These sessions began around 10 years ago, when UPco Senior Associate David Hickey began to host internal lunchtime gatherings to share insights, hear from other industry experts and cement our collaborative knowledge. This time, David passed the baton to UPco Senior Associate Sarah Thomas.

Sarah organised a session on an exceedingly important topic: affordable housing. We were joined by Karen Janiszewski, Director of Urban Xchange and a leading property consultant with specialised knowledge of affordable housing projects. The session was a deep dive into the practicality of affordable housing and how best to execute these projects to fulfil their broader social purpose, while staying commercially viable.

As we saw in UPco Director Marc Ellenbroek’s social and affordable housing paper, one barrier to providing affordable housing is the surrounding stigma and the NIMBY (‘not in my back yard’) attitude. Karen reminded us that anyone can find themselves in need of affordable housing – and sadly, women are currently over-represented in the market. Older singles, key workers (such as teachers, nurses and retail workers), victims of domestic violence, lone parents, and mothers or carers who have been out of the workforce are particularly vulnerable.

Breakfast to break down barriers

On a lighter note, about 300 people gathered early on 16 March to attend the Planning Institute of Australia’s (PIA) IWD breakfast, where we celebrated women and discussed gender parity in the industry. The Hon. Sonya Kilkenny, newly appointed Minister for Planning, kicked things off during a much-needed round of coffee. Proudly announcing that an all-female team leads the Digital Twin Victoria initiative, the Minister is already realising her vision for technological innovation in Planning and more opportunities for women in the workforce.

Keynote speaker Michelle Redfern took the mic next. An ‘unapologetic, passionate feminist and inclusionist’, she advocates for and supports all people to reach their full potential – which includes breaking down the (sometimes invisible) barriers between women and leadership roles. Michelle commanded our attention for a very good reason: though we might see a good balance of women in the workplace, what’s stopping females from being at the top?

Mentoring vs. sponsorship

Another point that Michelle emphasised was the way in which sponsorship will help women cross the line into their leadership and career potentials. According to Property Council of Australia (PCA), ‘sponsors act where mentors usually advise. Sponsors are people who will advocate for you in the workplace, champion your skills and success, and help to build your network and profile.’ While mentors can show us that we need to break down barriers to get to where we deserve to be, sponsors can break those barriers down with us.

At UPco, we fully agree, and are proud to be putting our beliefs into practice through the PCA’s 500 Women in Property sponsorship program. Anna Kennedy (sponsored by Director Marc Ellenbroek) will be reaping the rewards of the program this year, following on from Holly McFall, who took part in 2022.

Trailblazing with Josephine Johnson

At the IWD breakfast, the prestigious 2023 PIA Fellowship was awarded to Josephine Johnson. As the first female planning lecturer at Melbourne University, and one of Australia’s first qualified female urban planners, Josephine truly has carved out her own path – and it was great to see her legacy honoured.

The award prompted UPco Senior Associate Kellie Burns to reflect on the historical research project she did as part of the Women’s Planning Network (WPN): From Accidental Planning to Agent Provocateur; 60 Years of Women in Victorian Planning (2009, published by PIA). An article from this paper celebrated the pioneering women of an industry that traditionally excluded them: Planning. A biography of Josephine, accompanied by an interview with the trailblazer herself, detailed her contributions to Planning and the new path she’d created.

From Agent Provocateur to the norm

We can’t help but wonder what that WPN historical research piece would include today. It would likely include the ESD-focused Bridie Guy, recipient of the other IWD breakfast-time award (PIA’s Female Achiever of the Year). And other women who are devoted to increasing the sustainability of our built environment, like Leonie Dixon (who we interviewed earlier this month). Or perhaps it would feature Ana Sá, an architect dedicated to the human experience of architecture. It might feature Anna Kennedy, an UPco Associate who jumped out of the frying pan of first-time parenthood and into the fire of rapid professional development.

Thanks to those agents of change of the past, gender parity can become the norm – and when we achieve this equality, we’ll be inundated with so many models and versions of success, that gender won’t have to be the main basis for role model selection.

We chatted with some of the Directors to see what they think about the balance of gender in UPco’s leadership roles, and the industry in general.

“In general, I’d like to see more women who are supported to rise the ranks of their career, while pursuing (and being supported in) other endeavours – be it furthering their education, pursuing a passion, or raising a family.” – Amanda Ring

“10 of our 19 senior roles are filled by women. Everyone brings something unique to the table – and it’s important to recognise those different experiences, skills and perspectives.” – Hugh Smyth

“We promote people in our firm based on their experience, skills and career ambitions.” – James Goulding

We’re excited to see more change be highlighted by International Women’s Day, and for all genders to be on level ground – across all industries.