Women, America, & the Architecture Profession

Women can excel in science and industry
Women excelling in science and industry

It wasn’t until I spent a year as a Construction Volunteer Lead with Habitat for Humanity that I truly noticed a disparity in the treatment of men and women in the field of built environment.  It was the rare off-hand comment, such as how sexy women look with power tools, or a general disregard for our authority in the given situation that heated my blood and produced a deluge of questions – am I not confident enough? should I voice my feelings of disrespect?  am I being overly sensitive about the situation?  In my graduate studies, this newfound realization led me to understand our gender treatments much more, mostly through a women’s studies class, that disentangled gender roles and expectations, as well as a class by an excellent DAAP Professor, Dr. Edson Cabalfin, called Place & Dwelling, where we discussed the spatial implications of gender roles, mostly in America in the last two centuries.

In terms of the role of professional, as defined in America today, I have a few immediate strikes against me: 1. I am a woman, 2. I look even younger than I actually am, 3. I value problem solving on a smaller level that typically falls outside of the big-business paradigm.

What’s a girl to do?

Well, what is easy to do is wallow in bitterness.  This is unproductive and immediately separates oneself from thinking clearly of their own goals, ambitions, and yet the balance of fitting into society in perhaps an ‘unanticipated’ way.  Unfortunately we sometimes fall into the trap of self-victimization, which does nothing for empowerment from others or from oneself.

Therefore, remaining in a tight, encouraging network of other accomplished women is key.  I have appreciated a recent book by Diane Paddison, a successful Harvard business school graduate currently working as a Chief Strategy Officer  for a global corporation, entitled Work, Pray, Love (a review of this book and additional resources can be found on my other blog, Meghazine).  Also, if you are on LinkedIn, there are several region-based Women in Architecture groups to gain insight and articles from, as well as a national group (and groups with real-life meeting times and places, of course).  There was a book recommended on a thread of the Women in Architecture group by Doris Cole, From Tipi to Skyscraper: A History of Women in Architecture, which I will review on a later post.

Another article which also spoke of the value of a community of supportive women in the profession was a recent gathering of female Yale architecture alumni.  It is on Arch Record, by Brigid Williams, “Yale Celebrates Women in Architecture.”

To counter the very conscious response to sometimes visible, sometimes abstract forces felt against our gender in what was formerly considered a male-dominated profession, equal opportunity laws may still he necessary.  This is arguably because we are still discriminated against – some may say this starts at childhood, when we are unconsciously steered by teachers against quantitative reasoning and critical thinking towards the arts and ‘softer’ professions.  Others may argue the ‘old boy’s club’ in conservative mindsets will deny our voice in more serious design and professional discussions.

While I currently can speak mainly only about the success of other women as I anticipate my own career, I am encouraged that there is a heritage of hard work and successful female architects in our country and abroad.  Perhaps the greatest opportunity is the value placed on interdisciplinary work today – this can allow space for the female perspective not only in humanitarian and the not-for-profit sector (where stereotyped idealism reigns), but can provide a platform for other strengths we bring to the workplace: I cannot provide examples, as possibilities are endless.

What I can say, from my own experience in architecture as a woman, is that I have had opportunities to work with and gain understanding from women of America, women abroad, men in America, and men abroad.  Lots of individuals are willing to share their knowledge and wisdom, and a few will withhold insight and encouragement, and scoff at your endeavors (whatever your goals may be).  Both instances can strengthen resolve and a sense of purpose.

As a revolutionary designer once said,

In order to be irreplaceable one must always be different. -Coco Chanel