The term “women in architecture” yields about 330 million Google search results in a fraction of a second. Myriad awards, surveys, and panels—all dedicated to this subject—suggest that it is widely understood in the profession as an issue worth addressing. It is worth examining, however, which structures are actually being challenged and, especially, who is being confronted.
While working for a year as the Mexico City-based editor of an architecture website, I conducted many interviews. Among the subjects were a couple of Pritzker Prize winners, many successful Mexican architects, and one golden boy whose playful approach to buildings has positioned him as a favorite of Elon Musk and Steve Jobs enthusiasts. During these conversations, I always left one question—the same question—for last: “In what ways would your career be different today if you were a woman?”
The men’s bewilderment was immediately palpable. Many stared back at me for a few seconds before answering, clearly perplexed, somewhat indignant. Somehow, unlike any of their female colleagues, these renowned architects had gotten away with never acknowledging gender during their decades-long professional trajectories.
This simple question had previously occurred to me while preparing to interview a successful female architect, as I imagined the irritation I would be met with were I to tread into the gender terrain. A sign of the long way we face towards equality, successful women in most fields rarely escape the subject of their own female-ness in interviews and panels. I have witnessed many women in our field vehemently declare themselves “not female architects—just architects.”
It is a fairly common belief—held by both men and women—that insisting on gender discourse in architecture promotes separatism and, therefore, sexism. Their frustration with the subject often leads women to question why men are never asked what it’s like to be a male architect.
It is a fairly common belief—held by both men and women—that insisting on gender discourse in architecture promotes separatism and, therefore, sexism. Their frustration with the subject often leads women to question why men are never asked what it’s like to be a male architect. Despite the non-existence of reverse sexism, I thought, fair enough, and so I decided to do just that.
With varying degrees of eloquence but no exception, the men I interviewed each arrived at the same cozy conclusion: had they been born female, there would be no difference in their careers today. A quote from one of the men still stands out for me: “It is not my experience that the world is rooting for men.”
Well, of course it isn’t.
Deep within the echo chambers of internet feminism, it’s easy to believe that by now it is understood as sheer common sense that the few women who reach male-dominated levels of success have overcome more obstacles than their male peers. But echo chambers are just that, and actually it is not agreed at large that systemic discrimination is at play when young architects begin escalating the professional ladder. Certainly not by the men benefitting from this disparity.
Perhaps in order to avoid the insanity that stems from constant frustration, I hold dear the belief that most people are not sinisterly applauding the wheels of inequality as they turn; that those who snide at political correctness truly believe the world is as just as their experience informs.
So, let’s talk about statistics:
The Architectural Review’s 2017 Women in Architecture survey found that only 20% of participants believe the building industry has fully accepted the authority of a female architect.
The same survey showed that female full-time designers in Europe report a 42% lower median salary than their male counterparts. In the US and Canada, the difference is around 20%.
59% of female architects that have had children report that this has been detrimental to their careers, the survey demonstrated.
In the end, I never did publish any of the answers, mostly due to my supervisor’s understandable concern with how potentially inflammatory it would be. Truthfully, going into these interviews, I expected nuanced responses demonstrating the men’s understanding of a pervasive inequality that explains the glaringly few women heading important firms. I expected my own thoughts echoed back to me, as they so often are in the social media circles I am part of.
The previously mentioned statistics were published by a renowned architecture source, and widely shared by others. Why did none of these men seem aware of them? More telling than their ignorance was their obvious discomfort while stumbling through their answers.
Shortly after the death of Zaha Hadid, a former president of the Architectural Association said: “If we can eliminate the practice of talking about female architects, it would be the greatest tribute we could give her.” The sentiment is noble, but I wonder if inequality of any sort has ever been obliterated by eliminating the practice of discussing it.
Shortly after the death of Zaha Hadid, a former president of the Architectural Association in London said to The Guardian: “If we can eliminate the practice of talking about female architects, it would be the greatest tribute we could give her.” The sentiment is noble, but I wonder if inequality of any sort has ever been obliterated by eliminating the practice of discussing it.
What I do believe, however, is that the discussion has so far proved to be unfairly one-sided. Relegating the burden of “women’s issues” solely to women—a group with limited power to enact change—seems insidiously inefficient. It is foolish to think that we can move forward if those in positions of power remain unconvinced that the playing field must be leveled.
A few months after our interview, I met one of the men I’d spoken with again at an event. Several mezcals later, he brought up the question, and a long conversation ensued—one more similar to what I had initially hoped for. The beloved journalistic exercise of “speaking truth to power” aims in part to change world views, presuming that doing so can improve the world we inhabit. If, in architecture, we can find a way to break the echo chambers that have formed around gender discourse, inviting men to reckon with their privilege, we may also find a strength in numbers on the path towards a more inclusive profession.
Featured image via Wikipedia Commons.