Pressing for Evolution in the Field

I will not begin with an anecdote about my 25+ year long career, about transgressions I’ve experienced in the work environment and not to mention in life, being referred to as “cute” or “babe” is really the least of it. We’ve all been there, and we all bear the weight of these experiences. Rather, I will focus on numerical representations: nearly 50 percent of architecture graduates are women, yet only half remain in the profession, making up around 31 percent of the profession. A few of those rise at the level of principals and partners, constituting only 20 percent in the field. Ultimately, a handful of woman make it in architecture history books or curricula, serving as symbols of progress for women in or aspiring to be in the profession.

Gender inequity is there, the elephant lurking outside our pristine offices rearing its giant head, waiting to be called out. Through an arguably reductive process of statistical calculations, often relying on voluntary participation and problematic in its own methodologies, we are beginning to quantify a litany of inequalities that persist in the field of architecture and its ancillaries. The numbers, conservative at best, indicate a stagnant progress for women in the workplace. While this essay focuses on the issue of gender inequity in architecture, it is important to point out that it does not exist in a vacuum; it is intrinsically connected to other forms of inequality concerning sexual, racial and economic disparity.

Conditioned as the custodians of society, we challenge inequity by “leaning-in” and “doing it all,” finding ways to integrate our architectural aspirations with our primary task still as caretakers of those around us; of our families, our partners, our homes, etc. This is progress, indeed, but it does not tackle the way the patriarchy has structured our societies such that they continue to restrict women’s professional growth. We are often seen as women first and architects second, and we are often confronted with the difficult decision of choosing between our personal lives or our careers. Hardly ever are male architects questioned about their ability to balance fatherhood and a steady career progression—society rarely expects that of them.

Yet, ever the positivist enterprise, we envisage a future where biases, implicit or blatant, are no longer a part of architectural culture. We begin by talking about it, collecting and (re)writing the history of women in the field—those who have been excluded and erased—and we insist on mending the injustices we encounter. Then we act; we deconstruct elements that seek to limit us as women and as professionals, those that we can tackle on an everyday basis and in a practical manner. One thing that is beginning to challenge these anachronistic societal structures is the recent and stronger family leave policy, something we’ve been practicing here at Selldorf Architects for many years. When a woman goes on family leave, she is not only given the time and space for care-taking, but the security of knowing her job is safe and her career progression is not hindered. To do away with the notion that women are the primary caretakers, men are also offered the same leave opportunity, a way to encourage them to share the responsibility of child care and to defy hetero-patriarchal structures that have become embedded in our policies, an exclusionary practice that exacerbates forms of gender and sexual discrimination.

To call out discrimination in the workplace one needs a support system offered by work superiors to disclose forms of discomfort experienced in the workplace. Although gender-based discrimination is a civil violation in every state, the policies put in place are fractured. Thus, it falls upon firms to shoulder the responsibility of providing safe spaces and opportunities for growth for women and minorities in the workplace whilst pushing for policy changes that would concretize forms of professional progress. As a women-led office, Selldorf Architects has always supported equal opportunities and we strive to create an office culture where women are encouraged to take up leadership positions. Alongside me are three female partners and one male partner, and the majority of our senior staff are women, many of whom have been expanding our practice for many years and are on a steady path of progress in their careers.

For us to move forward as a society and within our architectural coterie we need to tackle the structures that seek to curtail women’s progress. This is both an issue of policy and individual responsibility. Ultimately, gender equality is an issue of humanism and respect. It is only until we eliminate the notion of “the other” that we will begin to truly achieve a fully evolved and equitable society. It is both an internal and personal endeavor to overcome our own biases as well as an external one to push for change within our field and broadly.

However, policies are hardly enacted when our voices are muted. The architectural field is now tasked with facing its own forms of economic and political impotence that continue to hinder its evolution. To press for progress is to unrelentingly negotiate forms of disparities within and outside our profession. In this era of political contradictions and social revolution, architecture remains hopeful against systems of power that continue to constrict its appendages of influence. Yet for the field to accrue enough power to wrest it from these limitations there has to be a restructuring from within: beginning with the individual and moving towards the models of practice that have long excluded women and other minorities—gender, sexual and racial. Today we are more influential and louder than ever, and power can rest in our hands, if we choose it.