“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
It’s been a long journey for women, since time immemorial, to get past various roadblocks in any society, profession, or place per se. Whether it is the Medieval Ages or the Renaissance or the modern times for that matter. And it is neither a pleasant walk in the park nor like feeling a gentle breeze on a seashore. In other words, like any other arena, architecture has been quite challenging for a woman to practice in. A man’s profession—that’s how many people identify architecture including the Queen of the curve, Zaha Hadid.
Is the architectural profession really biased? And do women often leave architecture after graduating? And if you’re still looking for evidence that gender biases in architecture exists—then my friend, that’s a big problem. It’s now being long talked and discussed. Many might consider addressing this issue as cliché.
Numbers don’t lie. The Pritzker Architecture Prize is now more than 40 years old yet the list of 50 laureates featured only two women: Zaha Hadid in 2004 and Kazuyo Sejima in 2010 (as a partner in SANAA). Only recently, Carme Pigem of RCR Arquitectes in 2017, with Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara winning in 2020, and Anne Lacaton of Lacaton & Vassal winning in 2021—it takes the tally up to 6 now.
This doesn’t mean that women were not doing any groundbreaking work in the field since this long or before. And when awards show a gender gap, it acts as an open-book on how society values things differently for men and women.
Education vs. Practice
Worldwide women account for a 50-50 ratio when it comes to education. But this number drastically falls once they leave the architecture schools. According to the Council of Architecture, India’s 47% registered architects are Female. It is a good sign that over the past decade, this is a positive increment from earlier 34%.
Consider the education itself, where students graduate without any knowledge of the role played by women in the history of architecture. So, a general false assumption makes it look like: women have started contributing to the industry—only recently.
Statutory bodies such as the Council of Architecture (CoA), the Indian Institute of Architects (IIA), or the American Institute of Architects (AIA) have very few women in leadership positions or on their boards. These directly affect the representation of women in the practice.
According to statistics released by UK government’s Creative Industries report by the Department for Culture Media and Sport, the number of women in architecture has dropped by a staggering 10.3 percent. Compared to the tech and film & television industry, which have shown a 10 percent gain in women employment—architecture is the only creative field where women’s has dropped as a percentage.
In an interview with daily O (www.dailyo.in), Zaha Hadid’s words describe the profession’s dire state: “It was frequently assumed that a woman architect could not take on a big commercial project – and I do recognize a bias that pushes women towards designing interiors.” Despite the biases, architects such as Annabelle Selldorf, Farshid Moussavi, Odile Decq, Marianne McKenna, and Kathryn Gustafson, etc., have successfully set their own practices.
The Indian Landscape
In India, the issue in the architecture profession is more of a societal issue. Yes, social roles here indeed restrict many women to stay away from practicing architecture let alone making choices for career advancements. Transformation in socio-cultural values will certainly encourage women to practice. We can look back as early as the 1930s, where the women in the field began with Perin Jamshedji Mistri. She is believed to be our country’s first qualified woman in the profession.
Since then, numerous women have taken architecture and have made unconventional contributions to the practice, but most are often not as recognized as their male counterparts. Lack of the examples in the syllabus of architectural school is enough to tell that. It has been decades, good literature is available on women as architects and gender issues—but the problem is, most are exclusively about women in the west. To counter this, Marry Woods, an architecture historian at Cornell University, and author of Women Architects in India: Histories of Practice in Mumbai and Delhi is trying to bridge this information gap.
Woods’s research is a testament to how these architects were like social activists and entrepreneurs. It is important to note that this demonstrates a different approach to the field—where most aspire to be the next Zaha Hadid. But how often do we hear about them? Take the examples of Hema Sankalia and Urmila Eulie Chowdhury, who had managed to build housing projects and state institutions—after Independence when getting the commissions from the government was rather challenging.
The question that arises now: do women lack enough role models whom they can look up to? The answer is no. Continuing the legacy, women today are still living up to this legacy. Be it Brinda Somaya, Neera Adarkar, Revathi Kamath, Anupama Kundoo, Chitra Vishwanath, Pravina Mehta, and a lot more. These women have, in fact, blurred the boundaries between the modern and the contemporary, and have uplifted society.
Juggling: Work/life balance?
Needless to say, there exists a huge gap and a struggle to manage things after marriage makes it not friendly to practice. Other industries have set standards for maternity leave. But this measure is not considered in the architecture industry if the woman plans to start a family. The other norm generally is that women have to forgo family to have a career, in case they want to be successful in practice. It then becomes an either-or situation rather than and. In simpler words, a family is something negative—whether the woman herself wants it or not.
Esther Cho Liu, a principal architect at LSW Architects shares her experience: “You could count the female architects on one hand and then once they had kids, one by one they would leave…because it wasn’t practical for them to stay.”
Naturally, how can one be promoted to higher positions, if he/she is not that committed to their craft/job? And the control of working hours comes when you have reached the top of the ladder (which doesn’t happen generally), we come back to square one! This, of course, leads us to another issue of the gender pay gap.
Why The Special Treatment a.k.a “Status Quo” Not Helpful?
While it’s good to have a once-in-a-while and a blue-moon kind of conference and talks—solely on women in Architecture, the result is quite opposite (from what is expected). The special status-quo makes the normal to be less normal. All women talk, all women conferences, all women awards, and all women etc. It takes two hands to clap. Using the term woman + architect, in a way, is an irony: we reinforce the same idea of the gender biases—which we are talking to fight-off!
In a conversation with Dezeen, Danish architect Dorte Mandrup, argues that we need to stop promoting and propagating “female architects” in worthy lists and exhibitions, so that women can be seen as more than second-class citizens. Celebrating the work of women is not an embarrassment. She argues: “Singling out a small group of women is just a case of misguided charity and does not simply buy atonement for forgetting about women for the remainder of the year.”
In the face of gender biases and inequality, it is important to think of men as allies. Only then some critical change can be done at a larger scale. Lori Brown (professor at the Syracuse University School of Architecture and co-founder of ArchiteXX) describes it best: “Radical and significant change can happen if the other half of the equation understands how bias influences decisions and that our experience [as women] has been so different from theirs.” (Bradford, 2019)
Lori Brown argues that women aren’t given the same amount of responsibility as their male counterparts, nor are they promoted at the same rate. In her words: “It is a structure of inequality that is the norm [in the architecture industry today]”. Succeeding [for women] is a challenge.” (Bradford, 2019)
Men Feel It Too
Thanks to us Architects, we have quite normalized the trend of: working long-hours, being available round-the-clock, making work/life balance to fall on its knees, and the glorification of the lone/star creator over collaborative work. These all make it alienating for both males and females in the profession. The long-hours (or overtime) are endorsed in many offices as a measurement of “commitment”.
If a dad wants to do the childcare or wants to spend some time with his family—well, again gender stereotypes! These stereotypes have pushed the practice to the rear seat. It has thus become unhealthy, unsustainable, and very exploitative. The good news is: some firms like Hawkins\Brown have taken measures for more flexible working hours for both the parents.
Coming Forth And Sharing With The World
If you are to look up to the top 50/100 star architects in recent years, it is impossible to believe that women are not excelling in the industry (except Zaha Hadid, of course). Why do we never hear about their works or achievements? And how can this be rectified?
In her book Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, journalist and author, Elizabeth Gilbert describes perfectionism for women as a trap that is like a spider’s web. She appropriately says that women in many creative fields—don’t let their vision and voices be heard often. A woman, having done 99.98% good work still thinks this is not good enough. And yes, this is no exaggeration.
Old misogyny does exclude women in every way imaginable, but it is also true that women hold themselves back, even from participating. In Gilbert’s words: “…Holding back their ideas, holding back their contributions, holding back their leadership and their talents.”
According to the co-founder of Snøhetta, Kjetil Trædal Thorsen: “…More than 50% of architectural students worldwide are female. There is some sort of secrecy that is happening around to certain portions of architecture, but we should say open the doors, show it, even if it’s not finished, it’s fine…” (Solidpixels., 2018)
The Way Forward
Acknowledging gender inequality in the profession guarantees that resolutions would generate controversy. Despite this, women have come a long way forward. And there’s not been a better time than now. Of course, we won’t see the changes overnight. It will take time and the efforts will come to fruition.
Farshid Moussavi puts it this way: “Women’s power, and indeed that of any minority, is to introduce different languages, different gestures, and extraordinariness. By ignoring the status quo which focuses on doing things in a preempted way, you can be more creative, and are far more likely to normalize female success….I am optimistic that women’s exteriority, or being outsiders, can be a source of creative thinking…!”
When asked to write a postcard to her younger self, on BBC Arts project, Zaha Hadid wrote:
“Your success will not be determined by your gender or your ethnicity but only by the scope of your dreams.”
Women have made their way whether it’s past, or the present times, and will continue to do better. And let’s hope, for every woman—The sky will not be the limit!
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