In 1989, Denise Scott-Brown, a renowned Architect, published a piece entitled, Room at the Top? Sexism and the Star System in Architecture.
In this exploration of her time in Architecture, Scott-Brown describes how, ‘most professional women can recount horror stories about the discrimination they have suffered during their careers. Mine include social trivia as well as grand trauma.’ For Scott-Brown, married to another Architect, these ‘social trivia’ ranged from being shunted to the wives’ table, to being told by a fellow Architect that they’d believed her work was in fact her husband, writing under her name.
These days, that wouldn’t seem so trivial. Especially since little quips about being ‘the Architect’s wife’ were accompanied with much more serious offences, ‘grand trauma’ in the words of Scott-Brown. Her work was consistently misattributed to her husband, or she just wouldn’t be credited at all, and brushed off as ‘hostile’ if she complained.
With her husband as her partner in their joint firm, her designs became subsumed by the industry assumption that it was the man driving the projects, and her achievements were lauded as his.
This article was republished in 2009, where it continued to resonate. Women were, and still are, the minority in the field, and it’s fair to say that the world of Architecture has not necessarily made the strides one might expect since the late 80s. Scott-Brown describes a career on the periphery, as almost an interloper in the industry; dismissed, uncredited, and overlooked.
This idea of women as interlopers hasn’t wholly dissipated. You only have to look at the most recent ARB findings to see the disparity in male and female representation; only an alarming 29.6% of the nation’s 42,340 qualified Architects are women. Just as Scott-Brown described, women in the industry still seem to be denied a seat at the table.
Danish Architect Dorte Mandrup puts it most succinctly; when mentioned on Dezeen’s 2017 list of 50 Inspirational Female Architects, Mandrup responded, ‘I am not a female architect. I am an architect’. A perfect little soundbite that captures the underlying issue of segregation faced by women across Architecture.
This criticism wasn’t about shrugging off the importance of celebrating female achievement (goodness knows women in Architecture need the exposure), rather about questioning the instinct to distinguish between male and female success, rather than celebrating both as equal.
Instead of creating an insular space in which to honour women’s achievements, distinct and separate from that of their male peers, we should ensure that women are getting their much-deserved credit in existing industry accolades. To quote Kristen Scott Thomas in season two of Fleabag, women’s awards are ‘infantilising b*llocks…the f**king children’s table of awards.’.
The very act of separating female and male awards relegates women to a secondary tier, alienating them from traditional (and traditionally male) prizes. To this day, the formidable Zaha Hadid remains the only woman to be the sole recipient of the Royal Gold Medal; something she was awarded in 2016, a mere 168 years after the award was established.
Women’s awards are intrinsically linked with gender, praising women for doing well because of, or despite of, their gender. There is no such consideration for men. Maleness equates to a neutral baseline. Women are awarded outside of this industry standard, in a distinctly gendered space. This is clear even in the phrase ‘female Architect’, the gendered moniker that women in Architecture find so hard to shake.
The very act of distinguishing a ‘female’ Architect implies that it’s a deviation from the norm, that ‘Architect’ is inherently male. The discrepancy in the distribution of awards serves as a microcosm for the imbalance between men and women that is prevalent across the industry as a whole. As awareness increases and strives are made for change, heralded by the rise of the ‘Women in Architecture’ movement, why is it that women are still being routinely overlooked?
I sat down with Rachel Bell, National Chair of Women in Property and Board Director of B Corp Architectural firm Stride Treglown, for the benefit of her insights; ‘You have doctors, and dentists, and police officers. You don’t hear of a ‘female dentist’ in the way you do with female architects. The importance of inclusive language can’t be underestimated’.
You can see this gender bias, even in young children; Rachel tells me about a gender stereotyping study, in which a group of 5-year-olds were asked to draw a doctor, a police-officer, and a firefighter. They all drew men. When they were then introduced to a doctor, a police-officer, and a firefighter, all women, they were shocked and excited. This demonstrates how engrained this instinctive correlation between gender and specific professions is. We need to be careful to ensure we’re retraining people’s assumptions, and over time, neutralise terms like ‘Architect’.
Boosting inclusivity is something we can do now, encouraging more diversity within Architecture and Property as a whole, but seeing the results of that, that will take time. ‘When I was at the start of my career, going out on site, there was definitely a different feel to it – there were page 3’s stuck up and you had to request a key to unlock the women’s loos. It wasn’t set up for women in the same way, and this was the early noughties, so only 15 or so years back. I think it’s definitely improved since then’.
Change is incremental and must be sustained. ‘People talk about the fact that university intake for Architecture is now roughly 50/50, and that’s great, but it’s got to be about retention and keeping women in the industry as well as attracting them to it.’ According to new data from UCAS, more women than men started Architecture undergraduate courses in 2021, improving from a 57% male in-take just ten years ago. So, if this is the case, why are so few women making it to the point of qualification?
As Rachel points out, getting qualified is a lengthy and financially cumbersome process. Long hours and constant presence in the office have very much been the norm pre-Covid. At the point of qualification, when people are normally getting to their late twenties, there are more considerations than merely professional. You may be thinking of starting a family, wherein the time demands, and financial pressures, may not be feasible alongside maternity leave and childcare.
The infamous inflexibility of the industry can make this difficult for women to navigate. With more flexibility, access to part-time work, and support, more women may be in a better position to qualify. As that leads to an increase of female presence in the market, we will hopefully start seeing more women on the award lists. ‘For a long time, there’s been a bit of an old boy’s network, helping and supporting one another, and now we’re moving away from that, we’ll see new, more diverse, talent being celebrated…it’s about the pipeline and great female talent is beginning to come through. Now it’s about getting them to senior positions.’
So, it looks like patience is the word of the day. The sector is working for parity between men and women in the industry, and huge strides have been made, but it’s going to take a bit of time to start seeing the results of the hard work being done.
A light has been shone on the sad lack of diversity within Architecture, and with people like Rachel Bell and Sumita Singha (founder of Architects for Change, and past Chair of Women in Architecture) leading the charge, the issue of diversity and representation in property is at the forefront of industry thinking.
The support is there for those who need it; for Rachel, that support came in the form of Women in Property. ‘Sometimes it can feel like one step forward and five steps back…but just as long as people recognise that there is support out there like Women in Property that they can reach out to, be that for networking, friendship, or mentorship’.
An Architect is not just a white man in a turtleneck; an Architect is black, white, Asian, male, female, or neither. And it’s time that that was celebrated.