“Why Architects Need Feminism
Despina Stratigakos. September 12, 2012
Defining a New Wave
On three evenings this past March, architects and scholars gathered at the Van Alen Institute on West 22nd Street in Manhattan to explore an issue both old and new: what feminism contributes to the architectural profession. The roundtable discussions, organized and moderated by Syracuse University architecture professor Lori Brown and focused on the theme of “Feminist Practices,” brought together ten speakers who have long grappled with this question with an audience of dozens of young women (and some young men) just beginning to ponder feminism’s role in their own careers.  In the intimate space of the Van Alen bookstore, the debates grew lively and the tone resonated less with academic discourses than with the all-too-real and messy challenges of carving out a career in architecture today.
The roundtables were well timed: these days there is heightened interest in the status of women in architecture. From the flurry of media attention to Architect Barbie to new studies on workplace conditions  and growing online forums about architecture’s sexual politics, the profession’s ongoing diversity struggles have lately been more widely recognized and discussed than in previous decades. Yet feminism as a potential force of change has received less attention, at least from the mainstream press. Through the lens of the roundtables, which addressed alternative practices, design research, and pedagogy, I’d like to explore some neglected issues that contribute to gender inequities in architecture and to suggest an expanded definition of feminism in the field.
At the opening roundtable, Kyna Leski, head of architecture at the Rhode Island School of Design, described the inescapable awareness of being a watched woman. As theorist Karen Burns has noted, women in architecture may wish to be seen first and foremost as architects (not as women architects), but they cannot control the gendering gaze of society. Acting or dressing “like a man” — the advice women have received for decades as the means to blend into the workplace — only entrenches a masculine norm. Yet difference in itself is not the issue. Indeed, feminism encourages practices that accommodate differences among people and cultures. Difference that grades into discrimination, however, is something else. A recent survey of some 700 female architects published inThe Architects’ Journal shows that discrimination remains, if not a universal experience, then surprisingly commonplace. From lower pay and fewer promotions to stereotypes about their design skills, the survey documents how women architects continue to struggle to be accepted as equal players. For example, 47 percent of the female respondents believed they would be paid more if they were male, while 22 percent experienced sexual discrimination at work on a weekly or monthly basis.
A young woman attending the third Van Alen roundtable, on pedagogy, described her hunger for a theoretical basis that would help her understand the “man’s world” that confronted her in architectural practice as well as her strong reliance on female colleagues for support. She also noted that her academic training had done little to prepare her for these realities. Her implicit challenge to the academy — in essence, to give fair warning of the rough conditions that lie ahead — is an uncomfortable one. As educators, we want our students to embrace the professional world as if there were no barriers, while knowing that these persist. Do architecture schools have a responsibility to better prepare their graduates — male and female — for the profession’s gender politics? Do we increase the possibility of failure by glossing over these issues with the rhetoric of progress and equality? Indeed, by acknowledging a less-than-level playing field, architecture schools might help their female graduates to persevere by providing theoretical and practical coping skills that could lessen the dramatic attrition rate of women in the profession. At the same time, male graduates would develop greater understanding of the need for and their role in fostering a better-integrated and equitable workforce.”
Via: Design Observer
Photo: Van Alen Institute Bookstore, Feminist Practices Panel. [All images courtesy of Van Alen Institute]
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