Being interviewed about my journey is a chance for reflection. I suppose the main themes are adapting quickly to change, and ongoing curiosity about people and culture. My interests have been about bringing people together either in a physical sense or a social/cultural sense. In my early career I practiced as an architect and now I run a diversity agency. You could say I was interested in the stage set and now I’m interested in the play.
I studied architecture and thought that was all I ever wanted to do. Ever since I was a little girl, I wanted to be an architect. In 1984, we were a group of 100 architecture and construction students and six years later when we graduated, I think there were 34 of us. Four marriages came out of that small, close cohort.
Because I was a fluent Japanese-speaker, by final year I was invited to teach Japanese and Japanese culture. I had no qualifications, but in those days, you could do that. I hit the ground running. I absolutely loved teaching. The challenges of full-time study and virtually full-time work suited me. I’ve always enjoyed an intense and varied workload. I don’t know how I did that now, but I did.
In my 20s, I worked in architecture in both Melbourne and Singapore. I remember my Chinese bosses often asked me to interpret the body language as well as the linguistics of Japanese clients and consultants. I was using my cultural skills as much as my architectural skills. That was a sweet intersection.
I came back to Australia in the height of the ‘90s recession. There was suddenly a fork in the road for many of us. I think 60% of architects were out of work at the time. I found work as an architectural model-maker, taught Japanese and completed an Arts degree. Studying culture, sociology and gender was wonderful. With studying and working in construction I’ve been lucky to work with both sides of the brain.
My husband and I have what is sometimes called a ‘specialised marriage’. Jonathan, (currently a director of Cox Architecture) worked enormously long hours. At the same time, we also decided to have a large family (four kids). It’s difficult to raise a family with the long hours and insecurity of architectural work so I focused on a teaching career and home.
The change of pace and lack of intellectual contact while parenting was the most difficult adaptation I’ve ever made. Reprieve came when Jonathan decided to spend a year raising the kids. In that generation, his peers said he was crazy. ‘What about your career?’ His response was, ‘I only get one shot at this’. He was right. Interestingly his older male mentors wished they had done the same.
That year was an insight. I was working in a new full-time job during the day, teaching in the evenings and pregnant with our third child but I felt life had never been easier. I had a wife at home! Jonathan was exceptional. Happy kids, clean clothes, meals cooked every day. My advice for anyone would be to engage in both a career and home where possible.
In the early 2000s I was head-hunted into Diversity. I’ve been running my own business for twelve years delivering diversity programs across five continents. I go into organisations, analyse their issues and develop and deliver tailored programs. I’ve delivered over 750 face-to-face sessions now and created online tools.
Diversity means a lot of things. Culture is the lens through which we judge everything – age, gender, race… I think people with disability are the most marginalised group and its a great area to understand the issues of diversity. Disability really highlights the importance and uniqueness of individual lived experience. People with disability make up 20% of our population but no two people are the same. This is true of other groups but disability more starkly defies categorisation.
There is a lot of stigma associated with disability too. People have a lot of fear, and it’s largely unconscious. There may also be a tinge of guilt, embarrassment or pity. What if they say or do something wrong? Difference can feel strange and you need to make a cognitive effort. Diversity sessions can open up really important conversations so people can move beyond these blockers.
Gender bias is a hard one in Australia. Generally, we believe we are egalitarian. We believe in a fair go. Again, the bias is largely unconscious. In general, we have a very masculine culture. That’s no-one’s fault, but that’s the way we’ve developed in our culture. You think of Australian culture and male stereotypes leap to the fore – miners, diggers, larrikins, mateship…
Like a fish swimming in water, we can’t see the influence of our own environment so I spend a lot of time looking at how other cultures deal with diversity.
For example, Norway is a culture that had a great attitude to gender equality but hadn’t achieved it. In 2006, they introduced mandatory board gender quotas. At that time, only 7% of board membership was female. The reforms came in and now there is over 40% female representation on boards. For younger generations this will be the new cultural norm. It’s a matter of aligning cultural values with our actions.
You often hear women say, ‘Oh I never want to work for a female’. We often think its men oppressing women. That’s not necessarily the case and that needs to be addressed. Diversity is such a complex space.
Gender and gender fluidity are a big part of our cultural conversation now. Transsexualism, intersexuality, non-binary are terms that many Australians are getting their heads around. By contrast the younger generation don’t seem to blink. Different generational cultural norms and expectations are very real. Listening to our youth and learning from their perspective can be a game-changer.
So, what have been my foundations? My mother often said, ‘Never judge a mother. You don’t know how you’ll respond when that baby is put in your arms.’ That goes for all things in life. It’s very easy to judge from the outside, but that personal experience can be very, very different and unpredictable. Her open-mindedness, compassion and lack of judgement are some of the most generous things she gave me. I think we can judge ourselves and others harshly if things aren’t perfect. Actually, we were never designed to be perfect.
When I was a teenager, I spent twelve months on exchange in Japan, that’s why I ended up teaching Japanese. I went there with no language and no one spoke English in that tiny village. I had to learn like a child again. Being an outsider is a powerful experience. My culture and norms were irrelevant. I had to adapt and absorb. The Japanese have a sensibility about being imperfect – you don’t discard the imperfect, you improve it. The pottery with the cracked glaze that they fill with gold (kintsugi) is revered by celebrating the flaw. The cracks are what makes us human. You try to improve – fill it with gold – but it’s a journey. Shame and guilt of our flaws holds us back. Embracing diversity gives us the opportunity to acknowledge our strengths and flaws, and grow.
Fiona occupies such a special position in the built environment (which she works in and out of). Her background places her firmly with an understanding of the challenges of the industry, but her cultural learnings and her unique ability to think beyond her own self, have led her down such a marvelous path – where she now has the opportunity to create real impact on how people see, think and feel. We feel extremely privileged to have met up with Fiona and also to bring you her story. It’s always nice to speak with women who are candid and happy to be introspective. Their words jump right of the page as if a confidant was sitting right there, speaking to you! We wish Fiona all the best for 2020. J & D x