Architectural Blatherations

Women in Architecture 1 : First Thoughts

top rule

The Good Oil

All occupations, of course, should be gender-neutral. Much as we hate to say it, we are led to conclude that women often get a raw deal in their education in architecture school, and in their careers in architectural practice. You should also take a look at Part 2 of this article, in which we come to a very, very reluctant conclusion.

Don't send us a nasty email about how we discourage women from entering architecture. We have no intention of doing so. Exactly the opposite, in fact. We think that the architectural studio and profession is unfriendly to women. As you can read below, so do a number of female architecture academics. For a contrary opinion, you can read this email from a female architecture student who believes that women suffer no handicap whatever.

We aren't saying don't study architecture, as others have wilfully misinterpreted us. Just warning you to bring your sunscreen rather than your snowboots.

Research about women in architecture

In this article, we're only offering our own observations.

First, visit the Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation. Then read Why do women leave architecture by Anne de Graft-Johnson et al (2004) of the University of the West of England. To its great credit, this report was funded by the Royal Institute of British Architects. Even those idiots at the RAIA have managed to put together something decent. The architecture librarian at the University of Nevada has also assembled this brilliant bibliography.

Then take a look at the writings of Prof Sherry Ahrentzen, probably the world's leading theorist on the subject of women in architecture and in architecture school. You should also certainly check out Designing for Diversity: Gender, Race, and Ethnicity in the Architecture Profession (University of Illinois Press, 2001) by Prof Kathryn Anthony. And we would also direct you to some stuff by Dr Carla Corroto. From the emails we've exchanged, it's clear that she knows more about these issues than we ever will. Take a look at The Architecture of Sexual Harassment which appears in In the Company of Men (Northeastern University Press, 2004).

When you've done with all that, read Women Architects and Their Discontents by Bridget Fowler and Fiona Wilson Sociology 38(1): 101-119. Then take a look at the website of Igea Troiani. Unfortunately – no doubt to fulfill her contractual obligations – every second page of the pdfs of her papers are unintelligible. Finally, read the entire issue of Architectural Theory Review (2012) 17:2-3. The ratbag publishers are asking a pretty price for that.

A recent update on the topic can be read at this page by Gill Matthewson.

One theory why there are few great female architects

Writing in Slate, our favourite critic, Witold Rybczynski, discussed how many of the dead-white-male great architects (Corbusier, Wright, Van der Rohe, Khan, Gehry) only made it into superstardom in their mid- to late 60s. We performed a similar analysis many years ago in The Favored Circle, but failed to make gender distinctions. Mea culpa!

In a 2007 article for the New York Times, Nicolai Ourousoff wrote:

A young architect with serious creative ambition is routinely expected to work endless hours for little pay. Recognition and high-profile commissions, if they materialize at all, typically arrive in an architect's 50s — well past the typical age for starting a family. Not surprisingly, many of the most famous men in architecture today — now in their 60s and 70s — depended heavily on the support of their wives as they rose through the ranks. The wives ran their offices, raised their children and loyally bolstered their egos. But you won't find their names on the front door.

In the Western world, women typically retire from the workforce before men. If men are often expected to retire at 65 years of age, women are expected to do so at 60. Which means they miss out on the super-star status that their near-geriatric male colleagues finallly achieve. Our advice is: sisters, hang in there for five more years!

Women in architecture school

An architectural education is, in its own whacky way, much more enriching than the usual university sit-in-a-lecture-hall-all-day sort of thing; the gender split is tolerable (but not perfect); and everyone gets to meet lots of nice upper-middle class people and have a lot of fun (which, as Paul Krugman notes in one of his books, is the whole point of universities). But it can also be terrifying, especially for the less-gifted. And, once out of school, many female graduates either never enter practice or leave a few years after graduation, as we discuss below.

Easy targets for harassment

There is a moderate amount of sexual harassment in all architecture schools, Australian and otherwise. Whether this is more or less than in any other discipline in the universities, we do not know. However, the unusually intimate nature of architectural education gives any form of harassment a decided edge.

Of course, there are special counsellors employed by the universities for people thus threatened. But don't think they are there to help the complainant. They are there to protect the university— who pays them, after all? We can think of several examples from our days as an academic at the University of Sydney where the complainant was not only discouraged from contacting the police over an alleged rape attempt; but pressured by very senior figures in the University administration to quietly drop the matter entirely.

Special Note: For a contrary opinion, you should read this former female architecture student's belief that there is no such thing as sexual harassment at a university.