Last year, I attended a "Women in Architecture" event in Vancouver. At the time, I wasn’t in the “job” I wanted being on the proposals, marketing, and graphics side of an architectural office but figured that I was at least working in the field after graduation... a foot in the door, right?
The event took place at the office of a prominent architecture firm in Canada who has 7 female principals—unheard of! Unfortunately, that was out of a total of 48. A little under 15%.
The event was hosted by an Associate (ok, good sign) but it was the icebreaker that was problematic. To keep with the theme, each attendee was given a first or last name of a female architect, and you were to use your quest for a match as a conversation starter.
It was jarring. I eventually met the girl who organized the game who shamefully admitted she was barely able to find household names, let alone names that people IN the industry would recognize — I don't think she hit 20.
I've since transitioned to working on the architecture and design side of an office but this remains on my mind more and more often. With the Women's March in January, today's celebration, articles like this being published, and the fact that after all our progress, we still have so far to go (and perhaps also stopping us from going backwards)... this topic couldn’t be more prevalent. And with Zaha Hadid’s sudden passing last year, this has been brought to light:
"Where were her heirs? Why have so few women ascended to the intellectual heights of the profession?”
With rooms of men deciding what’s best for reproductive rights, the same can be said for design. How can we shape spaces and cities for all if so little women are at the top leading the process? Good design requires multiple perspectives, but what usually comes to mind is variety among disciplines — designers working with engineers, planners, politicians, business people, etc.
But what kind of city is being designed when across the top level of all of these disciplines are men?
"I'm a woman. I'm an Arab. I'm an architect. Biology and geography define the first two; the third has taken forty years of hard work. But hard work is not always enough. For a large part of those forty years, some of the biggest difficulties I faced were brought about not by my work, but my existence as a woman, or as an Arab, or indeed, as an 'Arab Woman'" – Zaha Hadid
I surely can't speak for all industries, but in architecture, bottom line is that it's still a boys club run by middle-aged white men. And though women are climbing the ranks, it's still not enough to bridge the gap as many are forced to choose between family and career advancement. How is it that we go from women making up 50% of graduate students, to <40% in the workforce, to <5% in leadership you might ask? Because truth of the matter is, the industry isn't forgiving with time off. I've heard of female partners who come back to work right after they give birth (rumour has it, the next day) - but that can't be how you get to (or stay at) the top?!?
In addition, this idea of parity or hiring women to hit a quota / for optics / or to just get more people in the industry has always left me uneasy. Hire someone for their skills, what they bring to the table, and their potential - regardless of gender. So then what?
After a lot of thought and my own experience, I think it comes down to: Work culture change.
How is it that other industries have found a way to empower women and encourage healthy work-life balances for their employees, but architecture lags behind? For an industry that claims to "innovate," we're still stuck working interns and juniors like dogs, and paying our dues by how long you stay in the office. We can't begin to reclaim the "female" in female architect, nor blindly say "I'm just an architect," when we continue to drink the one-flavour kool-aid that didn't have us in mind when it was made.
So we wonder why we live in a world that still has to celebrate International Women's Day?
Simply put: It's because a woman didn't design it.