Room at the Table? Women and Architecture.

I recently made a list of ten architects that I admire, and well I guess I shouldn’t be, I was somewhat surprised when I realized that they were all male. (and almost entirely white, but I’ll leave that for another day).  I mentioned this to a colleague recently and he wisely pointed out that it wasn’t that long ago that women didn’t really go to architecture schools, and we now live in more enlightened times, but that it takes a long to time ‘to-get-to-the-top-if-you-want-a-sausage-roll’ in Architecture.  Meaning its takes a good 30 or more years of practice in architecture to achieve the positions of authority that lead to big commissions and important publications.   I remember making a comment along similar lines a few years ago to a female friend that surely the role of men in feminism these days is just really make sure we aren’t getting in they way, rather than actively campaigning for things.  She didn’t take to kindly to this, and wrote me a poem in protest!  I’ve never quite worked out what she thought I am supposed to do.

I just read a great article by Architect Denise Scott Brown who discusses what is like to be married to a Architect while they work and live together, and how her husband receives almost all of the recognition.  Denise Scott Brown and her husband Mrs. Robert Venturi wrote what is one of the seminal books of the late twentieth century in architecture, Learning from Las Vegas.

“When Bob and I married, in 1967, I was an associate professor. I had taught at the Universities of Pennsylvania and Berkeley, and had initiated the first program in the new school of architecture at UCLA. I had tenure. My publication record was respectable; my students, enthusiastic. My colleagues, mostly older than I, accorded me the same respect they showed each other, and I had walked the same corridors of power they had (or thought I had).

The first indication of my new status came when an architect whose work I had reviewed said, “We at the office think it was Bob writing, using you name.” By the time we wrote Learning from Las Vegas, our growing experience with incorrect attributions prompted Bob to include a note at the beginning of the book asking that the work and ideas not be attributed to him alone and describing the nature of our collaboration and the roles played by individuals in our firm. His request was almost totally ignored. A body of theory and design in architecture apparently must be associated by architecture critics with an individual; the more emotional their criticism, the stronger is its focus on one person.

A few years ago at a conference we organized a very interesting conversation emerged about how we select the 20 or so international speakers we were inviting.  (Incidentally I think we actually invited Scott-Brown) We didn’t really have a system apart from interestingness until about 2/3s of the way through we noticed that almost all the men were speakers.  I raised this issue at a meeting, with my thoughts been that we should focus on speakers that would balance out the conference from then on.  Interestingly a few of the females at the table rejected this notion as been inversely sexist because we were then selecting women based on gender rather than skill or interest.   I’ve never quite got my head around how to deal with that problem either.

In principle my personal position is that the discriminations against women (not to mention racial) are very deep rooted in our cultures and also in the past.  Correcting behaviours from our past that we now see as abhorrent is not a simple or easy process.  Changing a law or even a perception does not necessarily signal a shift in behavioral change.  So  I think at a points we do need to make active effort to live in the world we want to,  and not think that the current one will automatically correct itself.  I’m not sure what the best mechanisms for this are, but I suspect positive discrimination is one of them.

On a further note, I was at a meeting last night and we ended up talking about pregnancy at design firms. It turns out there were no senior women Landscape Architects with children in Melbourne that anyone could think of, and in none of the architecture firms at the table were there any senior positions held by women with children.  I find it deeply disturbing that ones gender and the very natural decision to bear children to mean such a fundamental sacrifice in ones financial and professional position.

2 comments

  1. gina says:

    Barnaby your last paragraph interests me. In a professional sense bearing children is very much a disability. Most women need to take at least several months off from work, and many choose to take several years away. And this happens often in our late twenties or early thirties when our professional lives are just beginning to take off. And if we want to prioritise our professional lives? The current response is to either choose not to have kids or be a supermum.

    I do agree with your idea that one of the things men can do to bridge the gender gap is to step aside and not get in the way of women (I hope by this you mean that women should not be excluded from anything that they have a right and ability to be involved in). But I think that men can go much further to support women to be represented in leadership circles, to help us get those sausage rolls as you say. And women might need to allow men to help us more. The time of feminist solidarity that excludes men is over as far as I am concerned. I think that an important, and often neglected, place for change is the roles men and women play as parents.

    I went to a baby shower the other day. There were very few men there, certainly no single men. There is a general assumption that a baby shower is a girly kind of get together, but I can’t understand why female friends should get together to celebrate the arrival of new life more than men do. Why a male friend wouldn’t want to give a gift to his friends who are about to have a baby. And I think that in this case, the reason that men weren’t there is because women exclude them from much of the experience of bearing children.

    Of course there is no escaping the fact that women are the ones who get pregnant, who go through labour, who breastfeed. Men cannot do those things. But as soon as kids are off the breast, there is absolutely no reason why men and women can’t take the same amount of responsibility for the day to day care of their children. Unfortunately mothers tend to hold on to the lions share of this responsibility, and fathers do not step up to take some of it off their partners hands. I would say that if women make a sacrifice at the beginning of their children’s lives, then maybe men need to make that same amount of sacrifice too as soon as they are able.

    Men can support women so directly by taking on more of the care of their children, this would make the female sacrifice less and I hope would mean that our professional lives aren’t so disrupted by choosing to have children.

  2. Greta Gillies says:

    Gina, I absolutely agree that what would give women a better chance at ‘making it’ ( if only motherhood was given the same ‘making it’ rewards)would be an equal responsibility of both parents. The past reveals brilliant (men) inventors and scholars, dig a little deeper and you find they often had loyal partners (or mothers or servants)who kept them fed, clothed and the rest. Would their brilliannce have presented itself if they hadn’t been so looked after?
    In Australia and the U.K. it is definately supported and assumed that woman take on most of the responsibility in looking after children,and I’m surprised more fathers arent up in arms by this flawed assumption. I used to work in an IVF clinic and we were asked to consider whether we should raise our female treatment age from 51 to 53. A lot of people said no, I think mainly because they worried that the woman may not be around for their child, yet the clinic allowed potential fathers to be in their 60s and 70s. Fathers of this age are even less likely to be around for their children. The clinic was making assumptions about the responsibilty load each parent had. It is these assumptions and the acceptance of these that help to maintain the uneven loads of responsibilty and from women getting to decision making positions.

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