A friend of mine was in an architecture lecture recently, and the lecturer asked the class of approximately 60 students to perform a simple task: name female architects. At supposedly one of the best centres for the study of architecture in the country, the entire class were only able to name 3 women. Of these 3, my friend conceded that one was only known by her classmates due to being a teacher at the institution (Sarah Wigglesworth), and another was, in her opinion, mostly known through her partnership with her more famous husband (Denise Scott Brown, husband of Robert Venturi). The third is the extremely successful Zaha Hadid, whose award winning record makes her formidable in her field in anyone’s (sketch)book. She seems to be quite exceptional as far as I can see, rather like the Marie Curie of architecture. Not to marginalise the successes of other great female architects, but as just a couple of examples, no woman other than Hadid has ever won the coveted Stirling Prize, which she has won twice (the only person to do so). Hadid has also won the Pritzker Prize, which has only been won by one other woman in its history (who shared it with her business partner).
This, along with the results of a recent survey performed by the Architect’s Journal got my friend really hot under the collar on the subject. So what’s going on in this field?
Yeah, Mattel went there. Don’t think you’d see anyone wearing a skirt on a construction site though.
I knew next to nothing about the specifics of ‘architecture culture’ before beginning research for this post. I could really easily spend this quote listing statistics, that unlike the Architect’s Journal claim, are hardly shocking at all really. They’re not shocking because they ring true with many other professions that for the longest time were regarded as ‘male professions’ – such as engineering, or medicine (though this one has come on leaps and bounds).
Some points are worth mentioning though. If one looks at who is going into architecture, one can find claims that in many architecture courses the gender ratio is nearly 1:1. This doesn’t ring true with the numbers for qualified, practising architects however – in the UK, only 14% of architects were women 7 years ago, yet made up 25% of those architects receiving job seeker’s allowance – hinting that women tend to clump at the bottom end of the profession in terms of earning potential. Add to this that in that recent AJ survey, 47% state that their male colleagues doing the same or similar jobs still earn more.
One could be forgiven for thinking that it seems like common sense to intuit that perhaps the attitudes of other men in the construction industry are responsible for causing women to leave the profession. We’re all familiar with the stereotype of the wolf-whistling hard-hatted gorilla and his naked-lady calenders. This runs against the experiences of British architect Vanessa Bizzell however, who says:
“I’ve been asked interview questions about how I will cope being a women on a construction site, which seems to be fairly inappropriate … Actually, some of the contractors and engineers that I’ve worked with have stated a preference for a more gender-balanced design team on site as they felt that it contributed towards a less confrontational atmosphere when solving problems” (full article here).
Arguably the way in which women are treated with regards to potentially wishing to have children, or be engaged with a young family causes far more career problems. To quote again from the Guardian article which provided the ‘14%’ statistic earlier:
It might be a thrill for a 20-something graduate with no ties to piece together models at 4am fuelled by black coffee and a take-away pizza, but for a mother or father it can be impossible. “One night it was getting to 9pm and I told my boss I wanted to go home,” recalls one London architect and mother. “Two months later he made me redundant.”
She was the only woman in the office, the only one who resisted working late and the only one made redundant.
Whatsmore, a staggering 80% of women in architecture believe that having children puts women at a disadvantage. There exists a ‘macho’ culture of working crazy hours and sacrificing all other things in order to ‘get ahead’. Women (and indeed, men) are penalised if they do not engage with this status quo.
A fascinating insight into inequality within the world of architecture can be found in the writing of one of those three female architects that my friend and her classmates were able to name. Denise Scott Brown wrote a superbly nuanced account of her experiences, titled ‘Room at the Top? Sexism and the Star System in Architecture’. This piece was actually written in the 1970s, but kept relatively quiet due to its potential to impact damagingly upon her career. I wish I could quote the entire piece here, so I do urge you to take a look.
Some of the main points that Scott Brown articulates are that generally speaking, many fellow (usually male) architects and critics look to assign work to individuals, rather than partnerships or teams. It’s easier to wax lyrical about the design genius of a single mind, and also helps vitriolic polemics to retain a level of focus when aimed at one person. Despite both her and her husband’s insistences that their joint ventures be credited as such, time and time again she would find herself marginalised for stylised, condescending, artificial reasoning. It would even seem that one critic tried to argue that her husband’s ‘great art’ was being ‘led astray’ by his professional association with his wife – which in my mind rather echoes some of the sentiment of sexist male musicians within professional classical music circles.
It’s the same old tiresome story, when it boils down to it. There still exists parallels between the top level of (this) industry and mentalities which treat it as an old boy’s club. As Scott Brown points out, it will be extremely interesting as the dinosaurs begin to go extinct to see how this affects the willingness of corporations to be more reasonable regarding flexible working schedules, and equal opportunity that extends more than a begrudging, token nod in the direction of progress.