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Ashlea Jenkins and Alice Cook are joint project leaders on Woods Bagot’s Western Sydney International Airport, an epic $5.3-billion project and one of the largest infrastructure projects in progress in Australia. They are also both new mothers.
Alice Cook and Ashlea Jenkins.
According to Parlour – an industry-specific advocacy organisation addressing issues facing women in architecture – there remains a significant gap between the proportion of female graduates and those represented in formal leadership roles. Most of this can be attributed to unconscious bias, an endemic reputation for rigid work culture, and the disproportionate burden that raising a family places on women.
It is an indubitable reality that the establishment of a person’s career and the formation of their family often occurs “simultaneously and with such intensity”, writes Emma Williamson (founding chair of Australian Institute of Architects’ National Committee for Gender Equity). While family remains one of the main barriers to women in architectural leadership, Jenkins and Cook are two women defying the odds, job-sharing on one of Woods Bagot’s most significant transport projects.
Ashlea Jenkins joined the Western Sydney Airport project in February 2022 after returning from maternity leave following the birth to her son. “Nothing prepared me for parenthood,” says Jenkins. “I’m always up for a challenge, whatever that looks like – but this is something you can’t understand until you’re in it.”
“Your organisation scores really ramp up when you’re running a project and running a family,” mother-of-two and project leader Alice Cook agrees. “You have to take each day as it comes – you learn to be more level-headed and not get so caught up in the chaos. You don’t get too fixated on things that don’t matter.”
“In parenthood as on projects, you have good weeks and bad weeks – sometimes things won’t go to plan. But you don’t lose perspective.”
Job-sharing in senior leadership is becoming increasingly more commonplace, enabling mothers to take on greater responsibility in the workforce. According to Parlour, flexible working arrangements in the profession have progressed in “leaps and bounds”, with shifting attitudes for flexible working and parental leave policies creating more opportunities for women in leadership positions. For Cook and Jenkins, it has enabled them to run a multi-billion-dollar project alongside starting their families.
Industry wide, architecture has been a recognised boys’ club, and one of the impediments to female leadership is the barrier of confidence that afflicts some women when re-entering the workforce. According to Jenkins, the support and understanding she receives from her counterpart has been key to the project’s success and her own ability to manage two full-time roles.
“Alice and I have great trust and we laugh a lot, but both being mums really helps – there is that understanding for what the other is going through,” says Jenkins. “I’d like to think that before I was a mum I could understand it, but I don’t think I did until I’d experienced myself. When you have demands in your life outside of work, it’s nice to have parent in that role as well.”
“I don’t think it would be possible to achieve a project at this scale and this intensity if you didn’t have someone else to balance out the work – not just that, but someone you really get along with,” adds Cook. “This was our first time working together, and both as new mums, we really offer support to one another.”
“I have never felt my gender was something that would hold me back.”
“Throughout my career, I’ve mostly been mentored by men,” Jenkins continues. “But I have never felt my gender was something that would hold me back.”
Cook says that visibility is one of the key factors to drive change, with different types of role models offering a broader swathe of people new possibilities to aspire to. As the old maxim goes, you can’t be what you can’t see.
“By having parents in the office with kids that get sick and need to take time off, it actually gives people permission, even those without children, to realise that life happens – work isn’t the only thing,” Cook adds.
“I think the impacts of COVID and the introduction of hybrid working arrangements have been the biggest things to removing barriers for women, particularly mothers,” Cook continues. “It’s the ability to always be close to work as you need, whether the kids are sick or if you need to log in after hours.”
But change doesn’t come without its challenges and the battle for equal representation remains an uphill one. Despite new remote capabilities, there persists a gruelling after-hours culture, which poses difficulties for parents playing an active role in child-rearing.
“At Woods Bagot, having a child wasn’t seen as something that was going to hold me back,” says Jenkins. “That is a positive, but in turn, it’s for me as an individual to accept the pressure in my life for the benefit of my career.
“For me, it always comes back to my son,” she continues. “I’ll ask myself, is there a point where I’m not being the best mum I can be for him? And I haven’t reached that point yet. He has my full attention and the total depth of my love.”
“There’s a real respect among our project team – an acknowledgement that we are young mothers, and that doesn’t need to change the role we can do.”
Western Sydney Airport will be named after Nancy Bird Walton – mother-of-two and pioneering Australian aviator known as the “Angel of the Outback”, and founder of the Australian Women Pilots’ Association.
“There are sacrifices, of course – sleep, being the main one,” Cook agrees. “But at the end of the day, it’s important for me to have an active mind and stay in touch with the industry. And I’ll never get another opportunity like this – that’s what really keeps me going.”
Cook adds that the desire for young women and mothers in the industry is steadily growing for their recognised emotional intelligence, ability to effectively communicate and manage priorities, as well as pre-emptive problem-solving capabilities and negotiation skills.
“There used to be a stigma that working mothers couldn’t be as committed to their roles, but now, these mums are machines: they’re organised, they get their jobs done efficiently, even with the demands of parenthood,” says Cook. “There’s a real respect among our project team – an acknowledgement that we are young mothers, and that doesn’t need to change the role we can do.”
Jenkins feels that despite a supportive workplace and changing attitudes towards women in leadership, the industry is in desperate need of an overhaul to make the culture more accommodating of people with competing demands.
“Within the broader architecture community, the hours we do can be unstainable,” says Jenkins. “We all need to look after ourselves, and some of us have to look after little people as well. I would hope that more parents in leadership roles could change [the culture], but I think we need to look at it as an industry first.”
As for her advice to other young women considering juggling parenthood and a career, Cook says, “Don’t think about it too much”.
“There’ll always be an excuse not to do it. Before I had children, I never believed I could come back to work. But once I got going, I started to carve my own path and find a rhythm that worked for me and my team,” says Cook.
For Jenkins, that looks like being honest with yourself about you can handle and not being afraid to ask for help.
“Someone once said to me, ‘What’s it like to have it all?’ And I said, ‘Define all.’ You have to work out what you want as a parent and as a professional; be really honest with yourself about what that looks like and what you’re prepared to sacrifice,” says Jenkins. “Because it’s hard work doing both. You need to look in the mirror and define your ‘all’, and have the confidence to put your hand up and say when it’s too much.”
Western Sydney Airport will be named after Nancy Bird Walton – mother-of-two and pioneering Australian aviator known as the “Angel of the Outback”, and founder of the Australian Women Pilots’ Association. The airport will begin international and domestic passenger services and air cargo flights in late 2026.
Zaha Hadid Architects and Cox Architecture won an international competition for the concept design of the Western Sydney International Airport in 2019, which served as the reference design in the tender for a contractor. The project has since been developed and delivered by Woods Bagot, encapsulating qualities of the Western Sydney region for a compelling journey experience through the landside, terminal and airside transitions.
Content and Communications Specialist (Australia & New Zealand)