Gender equality in Architecture
December 5, 2014 6:16 AM   Subscribe

I know a couple architects here in So. Calif. I get the impressin that being an "Architect" isn't quite a sexist profession so much as having a bit of a rock star complex that, not surprisingly, doesn't really exist but for handful of people. One of these acquaintances still seems to maintain that pretension a tiny bit. The other realized long ago the money isn't in architecture, but in being a contractor. He's far more prosperous, and architect is a nice title for him to have. But 90% of his energy and money comes from nitty gritty hammering nails and juggling books. Not so sexy. Not to mention, very long hours, and a bit of a feast or famine business cycle.

Perhaps my sexist interpretation is that most modern professional minded women are too ( or have to be) more practical minded to find either dynamic all that attractive.
posted by 2N2222 at 6:49 AM on December 5, 2014 [3 favorites]

As an architect who went to school in an essentially gender even program and is now entering mid-career in a heavily male office in a heavily male profession, I applaud these two takes on the issue and think we don't really know at all. Also, I suspect that how this plays out differs a bit between countries, so the UK take may differ a bit from my US experience.

A couple other points that aren't touched upon directly, but I think have a significant bearing:
* Age and scale. Architects work until they are very old and in small offices. I have never worked in an environment run by anyone younger than their mid-fifties and have worked for an architect who was still actively practicing in his mid-eighties. On some topics of discussion this can make office culture as easy to shift as your great-uncle's social views at a holiday dinner. While "not all old men architects" ... if a significant portion of workplaces are passively hostile it will forever keep us from getting to true balance.
* Longevity. Related to age is the duration of architectural careers. I was really fortunate in getting to use my brain throughout, but it is absolutely the truth that it takes about ten to fifteen years out of school to really get the broad competence you need in this profession. That means that the educational setting of the late eighties through early nineties is just beginning to be visible in daily practice. It will take sixty years before gender balanced entering (and sticking) young professionals will result in an equivalently gender balanced profession.
* Economy. When things are tough it is the young that suffer in this profession. I've personally seen little sign that this is unfairly influenced by gender. Rather, at least in the US, we lost a whole cohort over the past recession. This would also have been the most gender balanced cohort yet. I wonder how much the statistical decline of diversity is reflective of a decline of youth.
* Architects are glorified migrant workers. We always need the next client and project. A vast majority of these clients are funded by financial institutions. Other big clients are government agencies, universities, health centers. Construction projects are huge capital investments and usually get the direct attention of the top of the control chain. Because you need to have a steady flow of new commissions, the survival of your practice relies on not finding just one open-minded client but reliably finding them. Women are well represented in interior design, but not architecture. I have witnessed this bias being the expectation among clients I've worked for. It's a tough catch-22 that requires larger societal change. As noted in the linked articles, some successful architects have turned this to their marketing advantage.
* Contractors. While it is less overt than it used to be, it should come as no shock to learn that not all contractors listen to or respect women as well as men. I ultimately see this issue as a industry-wide one, in architecture, engineering and contracting equally. They all need to rise together.

With all that said, I do think things are improving. But the pace is slow. The construction industry is highly conservative (in the little c form) with some good reasons. It is about building for the ages. Within the last year I had to mail drawings to a contractor who still couldn't quite figure out e-mail and had no use for it. He offered a fax number... Provoking change in that sort of setting is a slow, determined process.
posted by meinvt at 7:02 AM on December 5, 2014 [25 favorites]

We'd have better public transportation, more parks and playgrounds and wider sidewalks.
posted by Renoroc at 7:08 AM on December 5, 2014

This was a really interesting article - thanks for posting it.
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome at 7:10 AM on December 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

[This is sort of tangential, but: I've mentioned this book before - it's rather old (1984) but very good: Making Space: Women and the Man-Made Environment . And there's a whole wealth of architecture + gender books on Amazon, you could really go down a rabbit-hole. Good stuff.]
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome at 7:16 AM on December 5, 2014 [5 favorites]

I wanted to pull this part because I found it really enlightening as to what the education / career path of an architect is:
"Point two. Architectural education is horrible. Not a shocker, but I do think this point needs to be brought into the women in architecture debate more. Because architectural education prepares students so poorly for architectural practice (let’s debate that later, a lot of people agree), students with not one but two degrees end up spending years of their early professional lives monkeying which is unsurprisingly unattractive. I can’t put it better than this student: ‘I am not really sure if I want to become an architect because I don’t know if I want to not really use my brain for the next 10 years.’ The result is that students feel that the only way to really touch the fabric of life is to start their own practice. As a small practice starter myself, I can confirm that the parenthood and sexism issues do arguably come a little more under your control, but you can take my word for it that that architecture is still horrible: long hours, check; low pay, check; stress, check; poor job satisfaction, sometimes, due to difficulty of small practices getting big projects, check. I do tickle the warm underbelly of real life almost every day though so I can’t complain. "
I had no idea that there was a debate about architecture school and how deficient it is for preparing students for the practice of their discipline in business environments.
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome at 7:23 AM on December 5, 2014 [3 favorites]

Huh, that quote is scarily like discussions about law education, which is also terrible and sorely in need of reform.
posted by Sangermaine at 7:28 AM on December 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

joseph conrad - as the quote states, let's debate that later - mostly. At the risk of sustaining the de-rail and to try to answer your curiosity, one aspect of the problem might be that it is a profession needing the duration of a doctor's educational program and promising the pay of a school teacher when you are done. So, educational programs tend to stay in the realm of theory and design (because when else will you be allowed time to really study that?) and you then go out into the world to do your five years of interning and five years of being a "young professional" as you learn the ropes and networks of communication that allow multi-million dollar projects with hundreds of diverse specialists to happen.

To bring it back to the post topic, and I really see this as true of all diversity (lack of) in architecture:to be effective you need to build agreement and trust among an awful lot of people to create successful projects. A good architect doesn't have the answers, but they know how to ask the right questions to the right people and listen well. I think that perhaps the biggest changes to design and planning that could come from a more diverse design community wouldn't be from within the designers at all, except perhaps in what questions to ask. It would be from the different way those outside the design community might answer the questions and share their thoughts, struggles and aspirations. Just as being a woman doesn't make anyone a better gynecologist in the abstract, but might make her the better choice of gynecologist for many women.
posted by meinvt at 7:46 AM on December 5, 2014 [3 favorites]

I used to take classes in the same building as the architect students. The student body was (based on casual observation) very mixed, both in gender and racially. But even at the student level, the program was set up to haze and grind the poor kids, with constant all-nighters in the studios and, when I was asked to sit in as a commenter in their design presentations, often quite hostile evaluations of their work by professors. This was a top-ranked program in the US and the hostile environment was palpable. The structure demanded a lot of competition between the students, too, which obviously added a lot of stress.

The early-career architects I've known have mostly been unhappily locked into being CAD-monkeys on big projects, with the exception being people who found interesting niches like doing greenway design for a boutique firm or who stepped sideways into a related field like planning where they were able to work autonomously much earlier in their career. The issues discussed in the second article don't surprise me, and given the long apprenticeship pattern common to the field, there is a decade or more of pushing out women before you even get to the level of being able to influence the field.

But I don't know how you get out of a long apprenticeship model when graduating students (again, based on the early career architects I've worked with) are woefully unprepared to handle even the relatively straightforward process of designing a house. Everyone who has worked with architects has stories of unbuildable designs and basic structural flaws, for example, plus the issue that architects are often expected to take on the role of construction manager, help handle contracting, etc.

Regarding the first link, my sense is that the core problem is that women have been (and often continue to be) left out of key decisions about how to build and change the built environment. We don't so much need more women designers (though that would be good in itself) as much as we need more women making the design decisions, whether as bureaucrats, patrons, or in the public comment and response. Right now a woman architect is still going to have primarily male clients, male-dominated review committees, and public comment processes that often have very little attention to gender, all of which result in male-defined design criteria.
posted by Dip Flash at 7:55 AM on December 5, 2014 [4 favorites]

In the mid-60's my mother was not permitted to enroll in the necessary math classes to study architecture at her college. So she dropped out of college.

That's my anecdote.
posted by crush-onastick at 7:57 AM on December 5, 2014 [3 favorites]

Renoroc: We'd have better public transportation, more parks and playgrounds and wider sidewalks.

Interesting that you bring up these non-architectural elements. I say that because I am a Urban & Regional Planner by education and trade, and we consider those sorts of things "ours" to manage and implement. Planners set up transit options, decide the required ratios of park spaces to populations, and are involved with public improvement requirements.

Before studying planning, I was in a Landscape Architecture program, though we did some collaborations with the Architecture program at my university. Back then, in the early 2000s, there was definitely more gender balance in Landscape Architecture and Planning than Architecture, possibly with more women than men in the program, but I can't recall precisely.
posted by filthy light thief at 8:26 AM on December 5, 2014 [2 favorites]

The number of stalls required in ladies restrooms would double.
posted by Thorzdad at 8:26 AM on December 5, 2014 [3 favorites]

This is a good place for me to praise again Jeanne Gang's Aqua, my favorite building built in the last 25 or so years.
posted by persona au gratin at 8:59 AM on December 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

My wife is an architect. One of the biggest things she has to deal with is construction management. If you think there aren't many women in architecture, take a look at the construction industry. When managing projects she goes to construction meetings and is literally the only woman on the job site. First she has to get them to take her seriously, and then when they aren't doing things correctly she has to take them to task. She's a pretty tough lady.
posted by trbrts at 9:07 AM on December 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

See also The Missing 32% Project.
posted by Panjandrum at 10:20 AM on December 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

Women architect like this, men architect like that.

posted by blue_beetle at 11:59 AM on December 5, 2014

Renoroc, you have just described much of Paris.
posted by brujita at 12:45 PM on December 5, 2014

I know a heterosexual couple who are both architects. This discussion makes me want to ask them more about their experiences.

They have been in the profession for around 12 years now (graduating at the same time as each other) and I know that she has found it much easier to progress than he has. She immediately got a position in a bigger firm right after graduating, while the small firm that hired him had trouble getting enough clients to give him much experience. And then when they had kids, because she was earning more, he took more parental leave and then worked part time. (This is Denmark, so that's not as unusual as It might sound to some of you). And then she branched out on her own as a contractor and has had a couple of really cool big projects since then, while he is still doing what someone above referred to as monkey work.
posted by lollusc at 1:03 AM on December 6, 2014

female architect here. just going to ramble on my personal experience as i think it varies from office to office.

in the male dominated offices i worked in i got little respect and my actions were very controlled. i'm in a female dominated office now with a female boss and i have more freedom and responsibility than ever. some of it may be that i have more experience under my belt (8+ years out of school at this point) but really it's a whole different ball game. it may be that all the people i worked for previously were control freaks and now this one boss isn't or... it could be the male vs. female thing. hard to say.

ditto what trbrts said about construction management - it's quite a handful. i have two projects under construction currently and i'm usually the only woman on the job site. when there are issues that arise that need resolution, the men on site often come to me with "the way you designed this, it just won't work! we can't do it. not going to happen." without any alternative ideas for how we can carry out the intended design objective. i wonder if men get shut down so quickly. so i push through anyway - i have to set them down and suggest those alternatives, find out what will really work and what won't. sometimes my questions may expose me as being naive to the building process, but really i'm looking for a good way to make what my client wants come to fruition - any way we can make that solution happen. some contractors get it and start to work with me instead of against me, eventually when i've been working with them for a while.

another thing about being in construction all the time - i'm on site almost every day. my clothes get filthy. forget about wearing skirts, heels, or anything delicate. the job just doesn't allow for it. the hard part is finding nice enough clothes to wear in the office that will also be durable enough for the job site. men can get away with this easier than women. appearance is still a huge thing in architecture.

anyway to sum i don't know if being a woman that deals with construction a lot is why it is so hard and often like pulling teeth. i have no direct basis for comparison. i just work hard and push through to get it done. i have longed for a female mentor and have never found it (my boss is not it) but there are younger female interns at my office and i try to give them the tutelage and exposure that i never had. it's a difficult industry and i'm disappointed daily. a lot of my female friends from school aren't in it anymore, but there are a few of us left. i think the only thing that gets me through at this point is i've come this far and i can't really see myself doing anything else. also... it's kind of cool to see something you designed get built :) okay not just kind of... it's INCREDIBLY COOL!
posted by cristinacristinacristina at 4:36 PM on December 6, 2014 [2 favorites]

I liked the underpinning in the first article that what might change how we Architecture is less the gender of the person designing, and more an issue of coming up with ways in which to shift from a competitive mindset, whereby One Is the Star, to a cooperative mindset, whereby one seeks input from a variety of different people in order to cover a lot of ground.

One of the places a lot of my clients live is essentially in public housing, but it's clear that whoever designed it didn't take cost and ease of upkeep into account. All of the lighting fixtures, for example, are incredibly expensive to service, and the lightbulbs are rare and expensive, something that is a problem when a place is public housing. There are social oddities, like one person's window opening up onto another person's balcony, which can and have caused strife. The open design is interesting, but it also results in sound carrying easily down several floors, which also adds to strife. I contrast it to my living situation, which is parallel single bedroom apartments with high fenced yards, and think that while my apartment complex is a lot more boring, it's also a lot more functional.

People often have blind spots, too. I remember a bunch of people once talking about a utopian world where you had to park your car and walk blissful moments over grassy land in order to reach your living/working areas - it was clear no one was thinking about the elderly, physically disabled, or even people who work hard jobs - which was ironic, since the median age of the group was around 60 and some people were given rooms closer to the central area due to physical challenges that made walking far distances a challenge.
posted by Deoridhe at 5:34 PM on December 6, 2014

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