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Women in architectural academia

The state of gender equality in architectural education alongside a growing cohort of influential female academics

While women in professional practice remain thwarted by the seemingly insurmountable challenge of achieving equality in the discipline, women in academic life often steer debate or, at the very least, contribute to it equally.

Disciplinary knowledge is a powerful thing, and those who produce it and pass it on manage, cultivate and renew that power through their teaching and research. Many cited in this article suggest that considerably more of that power, today, is in the hands of women.

Should we therefore assume sexual equality to now be business-as-usual in architectural academia? Has so much changed since the pedagogical pioneers − figures like Denise Scott Brown, appointed to a faculty position in 1960, or Christine Hawley, the first woman to head a British architecture school − refuted the establishment notion that the knowledge economy might not be safe in female hands?

Today’s leading women agree that times have indeed changed. Critical perspectives have evolved, and the opportunity to reopen debate is, according to Gordana Fontana-Giusti of Kent University, ‘exciting and timely’. Beatriz Colomina agrees: ‘Think about Scott Brown’s research studios at Yale − fifty years later this is still the model used in most schools. [It] changed the whole field of architecture’. And she should know; Colomina is one of what Edinburgh academic Suzanne Ewing refers to as a cohort of ‘established female thinkers who have influenced some of the most interesting reconfigurations of the discipline.’

Jane Rendell, a prolific innovator at the intersection of architectural theory and art criticism, has had a hand in Ewing’s ‘reconfigurations’. Drawing on feminist thinking, Rendell’s work generates strands of institutional critique that question conventional systems of power − systems often embedded so entirely in our way of life that they go unnoticed. ‘Many of the advances feminism has made … have found their way into all kinds of architectural research,’ she explains, noting drily that mainstream adoption of such hard-won principles tends to obscure the fact that women invariably had to battle, argue and suffer to reform the knowledge base upon which new norms have been built.

‘If research and teaching have, in recent decades, been shaped by influential women and enriched by feminist analysis, are we on the cusp of a sexually equal horizon?’

If research and teaching norms have, in recent decades, been shaped by influential women and enriched by feminist analysis, are we on the cusp of a sexually equal horizon? ‘Of course not!’ comes the broadly unanimous reply. Some commentators, Noeleen Murray of the University of the Western Cape among them, warn of the negative impact of prematurely celebrating victory. Naomi Stead, who leads the Australian research project behind the website, argues that despite changing attitudes the numbers speak of stagnation.

Far fewer professors are female than male, and the only employment category in which women dominate is research-only posts: typically part-time, fixed-term, comparatively insecure jobs. Hannah le Roux of Wits, Johannesburg, makes the observation that ‘the so-called success of women in education is a bit of a red herring’. Increasingly we see intelligent, responsible women winning top administrative positions, ‘but often at the price of a creative career.’

The public profile of Sarah Wigglesworth suggests that while sacrifice (or at least hard work) may be inevitable, compromise is not. A lauded practitioner with an inspiring built portfolio, Wigglesworth is equally well-regarded academically. As co-editor of Desiring Practices: Architecture, Gender and the Interdisciplinary, published in 1996, she was instrumental in reframing debate at that time. Although upbeat about gains made since, she is quick to identify the need for the profession to ‘get its house in order’. This entails many pressing tasks regarding the history of our discipline, its epistemological structure, professional identities, combating marginalisation, and ensuring the proper distribution of relevant issues throughout the architectural agenda ‘so that the debate is shared at a broader political level’.

By comparison, the emerging generation of academic architects seems sanguine. ‘What gender issue?’ says Hayley Eber of the Cooper Union. ‘Perhaps I’ve been spoilt’, she continues, acknowledging formative experiences first as Elizabeth Diller’s pupil, then her employee: ‘I have been mentored by exceptional women’. Ana Serrano, visiting professor at Beirut Arab University, gets ‘quite bored’ when the topic of women in architecture comes up: ‘I personally find positive discrimination insulting … though I can see the need for it in certain environments.’

And while these young, energetic voices may have the wherewithal to face the world, on a footing engineered not for them but by and for men, their self-assurance hints at the defining importance of personal charisma on the journey to success.

Recent graduate Beatrix Frankfurt wrote for her final-year dissertation about what she called ‘the elephant in the room’: the profession’s failure in relation to women. Basing her research on interviews with her female heroes, she found that ‘women have to take on a prominent role and speak out when they have an issue, otherwise their concerns get left behind’.

The sense that those with ambition have to do much more − to be superhuman in their efforts, or adopt what Ola Uduku calls a ‘Thatcher syndrome’ strategy in order to make their voices heard − rings true. The choice of personae available to aspiring women seems preposterously limited in scope: from diva to ball-breaker. Echoing this point, Alexandra Stara cautions women against adopting ‘starchitect’ tactics, which ‘reinforce the unacceptable model of the architect as egomaniacal tyrant’.

Credible though these concerns may be, what we find is that there is a wealth of alternative role models, and enormous diversity − a diversity that, for Hannah Vowles of Birmingham University, characterises the pedagogical challenge of our time. Accounting for this diversity, in the teaching and reproduction of architectural knowledge, is crucial to academic practice.

Mpho Matsipa’s doctoral research at Berkeley addresses this challenge by asking how entrenched forms of power, including gender and race, shape the built environment. Matsipa cites role models including Ananya Roy and Mabel Wilson; for Le Roux, in her research, Lina Bo Bardi and Lygia Clark are inspirational. Ewing notes, among her cohort of influential women, Jennifer Bloomer, Julia Kristeva and Mary Beard.

And while Ewing’s pantheon − like her intellectual horizons − extends beyond the discipline, she is careful to give equal weight to roles she fulfils closer to home. For many mothers, academic employment has pragmatic appeal: ‘the school run can coexist with teaching commitments’.

Karin Thiele Watson of the University of New South Wales tells a similar story: ‘I have been equally comfortable and respected in practice and academia. However, where academia wins hands-down is in the flexibility it has offered since I had children.’ Watson, who specialises in online learning, suggests that flexibility has, for her, translated into a capacity to move between (or work concurrently in) different patterns of time.

To some, this may sound like a juggling act, but to women like Watson the syncopation of differently geared modes of disciplinary engagement provides an opportunity to secure a more comfortable fit between their architectural aspirations and personal endeavours.

Readers' comments (2)

  • I applaud Matthew Barac for showcasing this roll call of excellent women who are leading the education and training of the next generation of architects. I recall my delight in being taught by Sarah Wigglesworth in my second year and my dismay at the thought of a lack of female mentors in third year (which prompted me to take action with Studio Master Eric Parry who then recruited the inspirational Carolyn Steele). At the same time, I am struck by the success of women in education in penetrating the glass ceiling (for example becoming professors) relative to the low proportion of women running practices and working in the rest of the profession.

    What does this contradiction say about working in education?

    Women value flexibility and are prepared to accept the low pay, which comes with part-time, short-term contracts, and which in turn demonstrates women's vocation.

    What does this state of affairs say about practices and the rest of the profession?

    Practices are missing out on an extremely motivated and dedicated talent pool. Technology allows amazing flexibility - and we all know that time spent in the office does equal amount of work done.

    I believe astute practices should value 'life skills' and not be afraid of 'career breaks' in their teams. I am convinced it makes sense for the profession to take advantage of recruiting and retaining women architects. I am cheered by the increased visibility of women in architectural education and hope it will lead to parity in the profession within my lifetime.

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  • Correction 'and we all know that time spent in the office does NOT equal amount of work done'


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