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Why Women in Architecture matters more than just representation

By March 8, 2019 No Comments

Naomi FisherDirector | Architect

Today is about celebrating Women In Architecture as part of International Women’s Day, but it is also a chance to reflect on what is still to be achieved with regards to women’s role in architecture.

In politics as well as in architecture, most would agree that those who are shaping our world should reflect the people living in that world, which, as it happens, is majority female (just!).

I don’t disagree. It’s pretty clear that the make up of architects should reflect society, and whilst it doesn’t yet, it’s improving. However, to concentrate solely on number risks missing out on the influence women can have on challenging and changing the ingrained systems that have been developed by an almost exclusively male perspective. In other words, it’s not enough for women to be ‘at the table’ if the table is laid out wrongly.

This is not helped by the fact that the distribution of women in architecture is problematic. It’s understandable that diversity in gender at all levels takes time as there are more young women in architecture than older ones, and it will take time to filter through. However, when I started my architectural education in 1995, my course comprised about a third women, which I recollect was fairly typical of most schools of architecture, and yet, the senior roles occupied by my 40+ generation is distinctly absent of women. Indeed, in the 2017 survey by online magazine Dezeen, of the world’s largest 100 architectural firms, women only represent 10% of the senior positions. When I did my own brief local research in the West Midlands, it was no better- possibly worse. Anyone in architecture knows who makes most of the design decisions, and it’s not the junior staff.

The APEC Architects team

Furthermore, it’s not just about numbers and distribution. It’s about what we value as success in architecture and good buildings. If women in architecture just ‘join the club’ and subscribe to the same ideals and measures of success as our predominantly male predecessors, we do the profession a disservice. We should be challenging the notion that bigger is better- both in terms of individual buildings, monetary value and what size a practice needs to be to be considered successful. We also need to re-evaluate how we measure good design. There are still too many buildings lauded and pored over that fundamentally don’t work for their users. The architectural profession is still guilty of a self-congratulatory culture, removed from the public’s experience. This is not solely a male phenomenon, but could more influence from women in the profession see more value given to innovative, sustainable and sometimes more modest interventions that can bring both function and delight to somebody’s every day over time, without shouting out on the pages of a glossy magazine?

Finally, let’s address individualism. Architectural history is described in terms of a building and its architect, evoking the image of a white male sitting up late at a drawing board translating his flashes of genius onto paper, and walking around construction sites gesticulating wildly, while firing instructions in all directions. Indeed some architects still go for this look, and many practices carry the name of The (one) Architect, much more so than in other professions. Is it all about (the)’me’? I feel uncomfortable when clients introduce me as their architect, as rarely would I feel comfortable saying ‘I designed that’. Architecture is a team sport. Members of the team play different but complementary roles and the sum of parts is greater than the individuals. Leadership is critical, but in my experience, the sparks of creativity happen more frequently in, or as a result of the exciting design discussions that take place in the studio, or with clients. In order to do this successfully, there’s no room for egos or pre-conceptions, but instead, we apply our skills in empathy, deep listening and open-mindedness.

Thatcher joined the boys club in politics, and Zaha Hadid, in architecture, but they had the excuse that they were the trailblazers, pushing on a firmly shut door, so achieving in the male way was their only option to get to the top. Today though, women in architecture, we have much greater strength in numbers, so let’s not do ourselves a disservice by joining the club. Instead, let’s move the goalposts and together with our like-minded male colleagues, let’s challenge the status quo.

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