Ideas

Perspectives on Women in Architecture – A New Series

Posted by: Stephanie Vasko

This is the first in a new series of posts titled Perspectives on Women in Architecture submitted by:

Stephanie E. Vasko1, Sara W. Clough2, Lauren Monsein Rhodes3
1Post-doctoral Research Fellow, Dept. of Philosophy and AgBioResearch, Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI.
2Research Administrator, The University of Texas at Austin, Austin, TX.
3Independent Scholar, Amherst, MA.

Recently, I began a new position at Michigan State University and as I commute in each morning, I walk past the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum. This museum was designed by Zaha Hadid, who was the first woman to win one of architecture’s top honors, the Pritzker Prize, in 2004. As someone who is not an architect by trade, but as someone who comes from a STEM background (Ph.D. in Chemistry & Nanotechnology, 2012) and who has an interest in design and representation, my everyday exposure to the Broad Museum caused me to wonder if women in architecture were suffering from the same biases and bottlenecks as women in STEM? I found myself asking further questions, such as: What happens to and for women who are interested in architecture? How do women advance in the field? Are partnerships and collaborations helpful or detrimental to women architects?

Over the years, my work in STEM and my newer work in design and craft have allowed me to create a social network to whom I pose these questions or observations. Two scholars in particular, Ms. Sara Clough and Dr. Lauren Monsein Rhodes, were especially intrigued by the ideas of diving deeper into looking at issues surrounding women in architecture. For this opening piece, we’ve focused on looking at design partnerships (Dr. Vasko), career bottlenecks (Ms. Clough), and the international experiences of women architecture students (Dr. Rhodes). This piece serves an introduction to forthcoming long form pieces focusing on these and other issues facing women in architecture today.

Specifically in this moment, we are interested in bringing these discussions into the realm of education, which is why we have chosen to work with MooreWomenArtists.org for this series. We also are indebted to the many pieces before us who have touched on these issues, including pieces in Metropolis, The Guardian, Al Jazeera, Dezeen, CNN, and Places Journal’s “Women in Architecture” series among others, and to Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation and Women in Design (among others) for their work in supporting women in architecture.

Stephanie E. Vasko: Partnerships and Visibility
Driven by viewing the Broad Museum every day, my experience this summer at the National Endowment for the Humanities’ “Teaching the History of Modern Design: The Canon and Beyond” Summer Institute at Drexel University (in particular, discussions of Ray and Charles Eames and a viewing of Contemporary Days), and my own viewings of documentaries such as Design Is One, the first questions I wanted to tackle are the following: Where are the women, both as solo designers and as collaborators? And, relatedly, what do the histories and partnership dynamics of partnerships involving women look like? Why aren’t we talking about this more?

Returning to Hadid, she is one of only two female Pritzker winners, the other being Kazuyo Seijima (who won in partnership with Ryue Nishizawa in in 2010). However, much controversy has been made of the omission of women architects and partners who are married to the eventual prize winner as co-winners, specifically Lu Wenyu (with Wang Shu, 2012) and Denise Scott Brown (with Robert Venturi, 1991). Denise Scott Brown has been vocal about her exclusion from the prize and has stated “They owe me not a Pritzker Prize but a Pritzker inclusion ceremony. Let’s salute the notion of joint creativity.”

In (a delayed) response to the controversy, a change.org petition, entitled “The Pritzker Architecture Prize Committee: Recognize Denise Scott Brown for her work in Robert Venturi’s 1991 Prize,” was created by Women in Design (a student group at the Graduate School of Design at Harvard) in 2013. This petition received over 19,000 signatures. While this petition and the work of this group was not successful in changing the Pritzker Prize, it was successful in getting the American Institute of Architects to allow two individuals to win their Gold Medal as of January 1, 2014.

But what about women in married partnerships who are not at the Pritzker or AIA Gold Medal-level of architecture?

It turns out that we are talking about these issues, but perhaps they aren’t sticking in the public consciousness or we are not doing enough to ensure the uptake of the message.

Coverage of husband-wife partnerships has been cyclical, from pieces in the 1990s in the LA Times, to coverage in 2007 in the New York Times, to recent pieces, including 2013 pieces in New York Magazine’s Arts Section and in the Wall Street Journal.

New York Magazines’ unfortunately-titled “Mr. & Mrs. Architect” contains the interesting line “…the married-­partner model has proved powerful, not because it fosters a homey atmosphere of concord and compromise but because it allows two loyal but opinionated people, with compatible levels of obsessiveness and drive, to feed off each other’s energies.” However, without the case studies to back this up, this not only sounds like wishful thinking, but diminishes soft-skills such as compromise. However, the spirit of this sentence is what we should celebrate: namely, that women do not (and should not) take the backseat in a partnership and that partnerships benefit each partner.

Finally, in Despina Stratigakos’, “Unforgetting Women Architects: From the Pritzker to Wikipedia,” she discusses the erasure of women (even when they have attempted to stand up for themselves) and points to the fact that “among older generations, some women in partnerships have chosen to stand in the shadows in order to shine the spotlight on their husbands.” While Stratigakos gives one unnamed example, she also pushes for visibility of women architects. This author agrees with Stratigakos’ push for increasing visibility, and would like to underscore the idea of integrating this into the classroom. Specifically, from STEM classrooms to architecture classes, from K-12 to undergrad to graduate work, readings on these pioneers and readings on those who have hit the glass ceiling in architecture. I would also be remiss in not pointing out the salient comments made by Prof. Emily Wolf and Prof. Sara Deversnine Reed on the need for research into the rise of starchitects, how this trend could possibly lead to an unwillingness to collaborate or acknowledge collaborations, and how these issues could be tied to the marginalization of women in the industry. Below, we’ll explore issues of women in architecture both domestically and internationally, and in the future, I will be exploring issues of collaboration on these fronts as well.

Sara W. Clough: Where are the Bottlenecks in Architecture?
And What Can We Do?
I can’t agree more with Stephanie’s opinion above: discussions of roadblocks should happen early and often. Such conversations benefit both women and men as well as a profession as a whole. In good faith, I’d like to share my own architectural stint: while pursuing a B.A. in Physics, a fine arts instructor urged I pursue both my talent with visualization and technical skill via architecture, recommending Harvard Graduate School of Design’s summer program, Career Discovery (CDisco). Interdisciplinary appetite whetted, I dove eagerly in–and surfaced six weeks later convinced architecture wasn’t for me. And it turns out I’m not alone–but why? To understand, let’s take a look at some patterns in women’s experiences throughout their careers, beginning with schooling.

In 2012-2013, 43% of architecture students in the U.S. were women, while in 2011, women comprised only 17% of AIA-member firm principals and partners. This difference motivated the development of Equity by Design (EQxD, also know as The Missing 32%). While prior studies (by U.K.’s Royal Institute of British Architects and Australia’s Parlour) documented global gender trends, EQxD’s 2015 study analyzed American practice. Their investigation identified six “pinch points” in an architect’s post-education career–hiring, paying dues, licensure, caregiving, and glass ceiling.

Men encounter similar obstacles, but standouts from EQxD’s survey illuminate how women’s experiences diverge by degree and, in aggregate, lead women to leave architecture. Only 28% of women reported satisfaction at work, versus 41% of men. Women were four times more likely to cite work/life flexibility as a main factor in a decision to start their own firms–however, when defining career success, this flexibility is the most often cited factor by both men and women. Ultimately, all architects leaving the profession name long hours, lack of confidence in the promotion process, a dearth of role models, and a toxic culture as key reasons for their departure. But which of these is the culprit when it comes to women? Architect Deborah Berke says seeking one answer for why women leave misses the point: “it’s more like death by a thousand cuts.”

Meaning what, exactly? It’s the small, repeated experiences; the possibly imagined slights that recur just enough to substantiate themselves. Studio critiques can be notoriously withering, perhaps needfully; but when does constructive feedback become destructive bullying? The job hunt can be draining; but what of women (not) taught to negotiate salary? When does the personal question of reproduction become professional liability? When do late nights sacrificed to passion become unhealthily unsustainable?

The ideas I experienced at CDisco were the heady stuff of human goodness; the culture wasn’t quite. I felt painfully aware of being a woman, comparatively poor despite my admittedly significant advantages, and remarkably lonely. Later, I will address what is to me the obvious next question: what can be done to advance equity in architecture? Again in the spirit of visibility, I plan to highlight several successful initiatives and their lessons.

Lauren Monsein Rhodes: Global Perspectives
Thinking about Sara’s statement that her time in architecture made her “painfully aware of being a woman”, I feel the need to reflect upon how such an experience does not just pertain to architecture in the United States. My experience in Latvia, as an instructor in both anthropology and architecture, has taught me about how this awareness “of being a woman” plays out in the Latvian context.

A Riga-based travel blog once stated that for women in Latvia, the ceiling isn’t made of glass, it is made of concrete (allaboutlatvia.com, blog no longer accessible online). In architecture circles, while there are those, like Zaiga Gaile, that have been able to develop their careers by slowly chipping away at the ceiling, there still exists barriers that act in silencing female architects’ voices both during and after their initial professional studies.

I was able to see this first hand as a visiting lecturer at RISEBA Faculty of Architecture and Design (RISEBA FAD), where I taught a course introducing undergraduate architecture students to ethnographic methods. The classes were overwhelmingly female and my female students were also the ones that consistently turned in the best work (which was echoed in their output for their studio design courses). But, even if a female student received the highest end-of-semester or end-of-year project honors, upon graduation it would be less likely that she would be asked to join her male classmates in starting up a design consulting firm or expected to establish a firm of her own. To RISEBA FAD’s credit, they do have female architects and designers as instructors in their studio design courses – there are at least three full time female studio supervisors currently on staff. However, one of my former colleagues, who has also worked in Germany and the Netherlands, mentioned in multiple conversations over email and Skype that silencing practices were particularly acute in Latvia. She felt that in the classroom “the voices of my male colleagues had much more impact on the students than my voice (…) within the teamwork with my male colleagues I had difficulties to be heard”.

This is not just true at RISEBA FAD, other architectural programs in Latvia have had similar issues when it comes to recognizing female voices and professional potential. Another former colleague told me over an email interview, that during her bachelor studies at Riga Technical University, a male instructor said “this [architecture] is not a perspective and suitable field for women”.(1) In this quote, the instructor was specifically referring to work-life balance, that women cannot be (or become) wives/mothers/adult women and be able to devote time to architectural studies and practice (a line of thought that is not unfamiliar to women professionals in the United States). This is an issue that both of my former colleagues refer to in their interviews, by emphasizing that this perception is one that follows them (and their students) outside of the university walls. I will elaborate more on this topic, including individual perspectives and their complexities, in a future piece.

Parting Words
Considering the global, socio-cultural, and normative barriers for women to achieve success, as each individual woman defines achievement, it may help us begin to design ways to break down barriers and bolster the careers and interests of women architects. This collection of authors, some whom were not previously known to one another, was able to take our vague notions and the gut feelings that we had and explore them with each other, bolstering the need for collaboration and insights that can come from that. We look forward to exploring these issues in future pieces and invite you to suggest future topics in the comments! We also want to encourage you to reach outside of your own discipline(s), engage with and challenge views other than your own, and unpack how structures, incentives, and education work. The more of us that are engaged in this work, the more pervasive it will become!

(1) My former colleague clarified that by “perspective” her instructor meant that architecture “is not a field where women can operate successfully, build a long career, and their future there”. In Latvian the term is perspektīvs and the meaning is like “something future oriented”.

 

S.E.V. would like to thank the National Endowment for the Humanities’ “Teaching the History of Modern Design: The Canon and Beyond” Summer Institute at Drexel University. Her views in this piece are her own and do not represent the views of Michigan State University (MSU), the MSU Department of Philosophy, MSU AgBioResearch, or the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum. You can follow her on Twitter: @stephanievasko

L.M.R. would like to thank her former colleagues at RISEBA Faculty of Architecture of Design for taking the time to speak with her about their experiences as architecture students, practitioners and instructors. Both gave consent to use their words in this article.

 

Image:
Prosek, Jennifer, ‘Be The Architect Of Your Life. And When It’s Not Working, Renovate!,’ Unboxed Thoughts: Because There’s Always Another Side,’ published June 15th, 2012, accessed September 27th, 2015, http://www.unboxedthoughts.com/2012/06/15/be-the-architect-of-your-life-and-when-its-not-working-renovate/.

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