Women in Architecture: We Need Them

No other profession can make the proverbial male measuring contest more visual and dramatic than architecture. Whether it is about being the tallest, most lavish, most modernist, most minimalist, most post-modernist, or most deconstructed, too many, but not all, of history’s celebrated architects come across like a bunch of juvenile boys standing on a stream bank trying to project their urine further than the next. Even with noble ambitions, their narcissistic “fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love,” have often put them out of touch with the plight of their fellow human beings.[1] I will offer a simple and very unoriginal solution to this problem; hire more female architects.

As of 2005, nearly 80% of US architects were male. That dominance seems to be waning, as 90% of architects over 55 were male, while fewer than 70% under 35 were male.[2] However, the economic downturn might have slightly reversed that trend. At least that is the case in Britain where the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) found a 7% decrease of female representation in architecture firms between January 2009 and December 2011 (28% to 21%).[3] This imbalance can be worrisome for many reasons, but I will focus on the possibility that it hinders the profession’s ability to be relevant to the general public’s needs.

Studies from psychology and neuroscience find that women, on average, tend to be more empathetic, sympathetic and less prone to narcissistic traits than their male counter parts.  They are less likely to get caught up in struggles over dominance and ego that lead to visions of grandiosity.[4] For these reasons, Steven Pinker in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature argues that the world would be a much more peaceful place if more women were in charge.[5] Piggy backing on this idea, I argue that architecture would be far a more relevant and justifiable enterprise if there were more female architects. Beyond making the profession more compassionate, a greater number of female architects would be a stalwart force against pernicious ideologies that dismiss common concerns for the idealized tomorrow.

Before you paint me as some self-hating male and fill my in-box with endless examples of celebrated compassionate and humble male architects, let me reassure you that I do not see gender differences as some kind of men are from Mars and women are from Venus cliché.[6]  No individual should be judged by her/his gender when being considered for a position. What matters is the skill set that a particular individual brings to the table, including empathetic and sympathetic skills. Traits possessed by the two sexes overlap considerably, so that many men are much more empathetic and sympathetic than many women.[7] Hiring based on gender alone, with the desired goal of making your firm more in touch with humanity, is asinine. You might pass up a far more qualified individual just because he is male.  In reality, I am not arguing directly for more female architects, but for the profession to place a higher value on empathetic and sympathetic skills. The resulting effect would naturally be a more gender-balanced profession.

That is why the current lack of gender diversity in the architecture profession concerns me.[8] Like other male dominated professions, architecture leaves itself susceptible to undesirable narcissistic traits that can creep in and take over the profession’s culture.[9] Even if the base rates for empathy and sympathy were equal among women and men, it is hard to believe that firms are hiring the best of the best with the current gender ratio.  The base rates aren’t the same so this gender biased profession is most likely ill equipped to understand and address people’s needs.[10]

Thankfully, many professional organizations recognize the gender disparity as a problem. There are more and more initiatives supporting , like the one by RIBA. This push for demographic change cannot come soon enough when architects like Peter Eisenman curmudgeonly say architects do not have a responsibility to help solve human problems (starts minute 1:20; in fairness, he completely contradicts himself in this speech minute 34-38).[11] Perhaps when the profession achieves a better gender balance, statements like Eisenman’s will fade into absurdity.

If you enjoyed this article check out more by Christopher N. Henry here.


[1] Le Corbusier thought architecture could solve the social unrest and housing problems of the early 20th century. This he thought would stave off a horrible revolution. Yet, he did not care how his grand utopian visions were realized. When his plans were not coming to fruition he, at times, actually welcomed the thought of working with the Vichy government (see Boyer 2011 p. 612-618 also see p. 555 about his blindness to the Algerians’ plight). His collaboration with the Vichy government jades his image as some kind a moral force concerned with social ills. He appears more concerned with his own grandeur. From a design standpoint, many of his buildings were built to a scale out of touch with at least half the human population. The Modulor’s height is arbitrarily based on the 6-foot good-looking detectives (all men) that populated English novels at the time. (I found it somewhat amusing and ironic that the Women in Architecture’s press release last year depicted a female standing next to the Modulor. Women never figured into the Modulor’s calculations. See: Henry, Christopher. The Plato Effect in Architecture for further discussion on archetypal human forms used by architects.)

Similarly, Brasilia by Lucio Costa and Oscar Nieymeyer was completely a noble endeavor but its monumentality and utopian grandeur was out of touch with the Brazilian people.

It is hard not to draw parallels between many of the modernist architects and the behavioral psychologists of the day like John Watson and B.F. Skinner who had a strangle hold over psychological thinking for decades. The modernist architects, especially those of the international style, like Watson and Skinner, were trying to improve people’s lives of every socioeconomic status, a noble endeavor. Unfortunately, the ideology of many modernist architects reigned supreme over all over concerns. At least many modernist architects had good intentions. Surely the measuring contests between starchitects in the midst of societies with high levels of socioeconomic inequality have left a sour taste in the public’s mouth.

Even more depressing, the majority of the celebrated architects before the modernists concerned themselves with serving the elites and not the rest of humanity. From the Pyramids of Giza to the Palace of Versailles, both architects and rulers, loved competing in male measuring contests. As the architectural historian Thomas Sapolsky put it, “For too long architects have been the whores of the wealthy and powerful.” (This is a quote from his son Robert Sapolsky who used to attend his lectures.)

[2]  National Endowment for the Arts, Artists in the Workforce 1990-2005. May 2008. This research used the 1990 and 2000 U.S. Census data and the 2003-2005 American Community Survey.

http://www.nea.gov/research/ArtistsInWorkforce.pdf

[4] Singer, Tania, Ben Seymour, John P. O’Doherty, Klaas E. Stephan, Raymond J. Dolan, and Chris D. Frith. “Empathic neural responses are modulated by the perceived fairness of others,” Nature Vol. 439 January 26, 2006, p. 466-469.

This study looked at the empathetic responses towards people the subjects liked and disliked. If treated unfairly by an individual, men were much more likely than women to turnoff their empathetic responses toward that person. Additionally, the men demonstrated a noticeable uptick in their seeking system part of the brain, which indicates an enjoyment of revenge. This uptick was not found in the women.

Pinker, Steven. The Better Angels of Our Nature. Viking, 2011. “Surveys of personal values in men and women find that the men assign a lopsided value to professional status compared to all the other pleasures of life.”

Also see: Harris, Judith Rich. The Nurture Assumption. Free Press; Revised Updated edition. Chapter 10: Genders Rules

[5] “Several ethnographic surveys of traditional cultures have found that the better a society treats its women, the less it embraces war.” Pinker, Steven. The Better Angels of Our Nature. Viking, 2011, p. 527.

I, personally, found Pinker’s book to be a fascinating read. Although, Age of Empathy by Frans de Waal and Beyond Revenge by Michael E. McCullough were also pleasures to read, I felt Pinker’s book was more encompassing and really brought home the context of violence in human history.

[6] There are numerous examples of male architects doing great sympathetic work without concern for ego and ideology. Most likely there are more examples of men doing this kind of work than females, but do not get the base rates confused. People who have a Ph.D. are more likely to read the New York Times, but what is more likely that the person reading the New York Times next to you on the subway has a Ph.D. or a high school diploma? Female architects might be more likely to understand and address the needs of the general population than male architects, but what is more likely that firms like Architecture for Humanity are founded by a female or male architect? Like the New York Times example, the base rates of females in the profession make it more likely that male architects head up firms like Architecture for Humanity. Update: (I was incorrect to say that Architecture for Humanity was solely founded by a male architect. See the comment from below from Architecture for Humanity: “Architecture for Humanity was co-founded by a woman, we have over 50% of our staff and board are women (as has been the case for the past 12 years),” Cameron Sinclair. Apologies for the bad example.)

[7] I once heard Zaha Hadid speak at the University of Virginia. Her arrogance that permeated the room made me physically uncomfortable. So, it is not that any particular female will be more sympathetic and less egotistical than any particular male, but there is a general trend.

[8] Waite, Richard. “New RIBA stats show large drop in women architects,” The Architects’ Journal. January 16, 2012.

[9] I cannot speculate whether architecture is more or less narcissistic than other male dominated professions. Perhaps it attracts more compassionate males than other professions, but there really isn’t anything, as far as I know, to suggest this is or isn’t true.

[10] As noted in Pinker’s book empathy and sympathy are not the only ways we have of relating and understanding the needs of others. In the some cases empathy/perspective-taking doesn’t help at all. The fact that a sports fan can take the perspective of an opposing sports fan doesn’t necessarily make him more likely to treat the other with more compassion when the other loses. How many Red Sox fans revel in knowing that a Yankee fan is upset that his team was just beat, and vices versa? Pinker points to other sources such as reason to supplant wayward wanderings of empathy. Still, it doesn’t hurt that women tend to be more sympathetic than their male counter parts.

[11]  Considering that architects, in general, hold more privileged positions in society than a majority of people on earth, John Rawls must be rolling in his grave. A basic understanding of John Rawls’ work, i.e. the veil of ignorance, is enough to make one realize how ridiculously juvenile Peter Eisenman’s statement is. For architects’ socioeconomic status see Henry, Christopher. “Are Architects depressed, unhealthy, and divorced?Archdaily.com. December 14, 2011. The part on socioeconomic status is toward the end of the article when health is discussed. As mentioned Eisenman completely contradicts himself in this speech Architect Peter Eisenman: “Architecture Matters”. I don’t understand how he can give this lecture and then turn around say architects don’t and shouldn’t solve problems. These two Eisenmen wouldn’t recognize each other if they saw each other on the street.

Cite: Henry, Christopher N.. "Women in Architecture: We Need Them" 08 Mar 2012. ArchDaily. Accessed 30 Sep 2014. <http://www.archdaily.com/?p=214742>
  • jeb

    That’s all well and good, but i would go one step further and suggest that women form the basis for governments and large companies. You know, positions of actual power.

    • http://www.archdaily.com Christopher Henry

      Tsutomu Yamaguchi, one of the few people to survive both of the only two nuclear strikes in history would agree with you. He said, “The only people who should be allowed to govern countries with nuclear weapons are mothers, those who are still breast-feeding their babies.” (Pinker 684) A bit of an overgeneralization, but Yamaguchi’s story is pretty compelling.

    • Kim Ngoc

      You mean like Margaret Thatcher, Zaha Hadid, Meg Whiteman or Hilary Clinton, all examples of compassion and fairness….

      • http://www.schmolldesign.com Gisela Schmoll

        I would argue (as I stated below) that these women are the examples that prove the rule. When women are in the extreme minority they tend to act more like men in order to succeed. I have also noticed that this behavior is generational. Women of the baby boomer generation felt they had to be aggressive like men as they broke into male dominated fields. This behavior seems to be less prevalent in young women in male dominated fields.

  • Chris Ball

    I’m currently an architecture student, and interestingly enough, our class is 2/3 female, 1/3 male, which in in stark contrast to all the classes before us which has been at least 50-50 male/female. I think, as will any amount of change, progress won’t be instant, but is definitely being made.

  • http://www.schmolldesign.com Gisela Schmoll

    As a female industrial design (and now also architect)I do think gender imbalance is a serious problem. Happily things are changing, my graduate program in architecture (graduated three years ago) was almost 50% female which was a welcome change from the testosterone dominated industrial design profession. One of the odd dynamics I’ve witnessed in ID is that when the men dominate, the few women in the field often start behaving as poorly as the men (Zaha Hadid is a prime example). I think the women feel that this is the only way they can compete. When there is a greater gender balance, all parties tend to behave in a more civilized and empathetic fashion.

  • Cameron Sinclair

    Chris,
    great article but just to note (as you single us out) Architecture for Humanity was co-founded by a woman, we have over 50% of our staff and board are women (as has been the case for the past 12 years).

    Other questions that have not been addressed are equal pay – a huge issue – and whether the deign media pay equal attention to women architects. Just more food for thought.

    Cheers
    Cameron

    • http://www.archdaily.com Christopher Henry

      apologies for the mistake. Thanks for pointing that out.

    • http://www.archdaily.com Christopher Henry

      I have added your correction to the note to point out that I used a poor example.

  • http://tsarchitect.nsflanagan.net цarьchitect

    Respectfully, the gender essentialism in this post is part of the problem. Particularly your citatino #4, which implies that women are more likely to accept poor treatment.

    It’s one thing to elevate values defined as feminine or otherwise denigrated. It’s silly, though, to suggest that men are incorrigible and require the civilizing influence of women. It’s an excuse to avoid introspection.

    Instead, the discipline could start by accepting that taking care of a household is part of life for both men and women, and stop making women make hard choices and incentivizing men to pass it all off on their spouses. Just, for example.

    • http://www.archdaily.com Christopher Henry

      Agree with your point on not making it a choice between having a family and a career. There should be more acceptance and services in place to allow for both.
      Here is an article I suggested to Anne. https://www.americanscientist.org/issues/feature/2012/2/when-scientists-choose-motherhood/1

      The article addresses the issues you are talking about but in different careers. I think you might like taking a look at it.

  • Anne Whitacre

    The “women in architecture” thing is an uphill battle becuase some firms actively encourage the work-all-night studio work ethic.
    when I started college in 1971, women were admitted to architecture programs pre-emptively to try to mitigate the lack of women in the profession. When I graduated in 1975, there was no longer a lack of women applying to the programs – the applicants were about 50/50. Yet here 40 years later, the management of large firms is still 90% men, even after the architectual press has castigated many large firms for their lack of women partners.
    I don’t think we need more “empathy and consensus decision making” — which is one of those cliches about how inclusive women are. I don’t work like that, and many firms that actually are profitable don’t work like that either. What we need is less emphasis on “produce at any cost” work hours; an ability to say “no” to some obsessive clients; and a thought process that allows for a regular work day. You typically don’t see engineers pulling an all-nighter, because if engineers are tired and mess up, someone dies. Yet architecture glorifies the 80 hour work week.
    I have worked in firms where the managing partners (men typically) simply cannot conduct their lives without a full time assistant in the form of their wife or paid help. Most women don’t conduct their lives in quite that same way. I would say that the real difference between men and women employees is that most women still try to have some balance in their lives, either with obligations to friends, family or creating a home; having outside activities or simply having to take care of themselves. I see more men “outsource” those activities.

    • http://www.archdaily.com Christopher Henry

      I really like your analysis. I found this article about the gender disparity in math based sciences and I think it is much more insightful into the reasons for the disparity exists than the piece I have written. https://www.americanscientist.org/issues/feature/2012/2/when-scientists-choose-motherhood/1

      The authors boil it done to life-style choices, and the professions they talk about are not friendly to women who wish to have children. The structure of the system makes many choose one or the other rather and be able to do both. Perhaps some of these things apply to architecture, but I am not sure. Towards the end of the article they have suggestions that could help and I really think some could crossover to architecture firms. I would like to hear your thoughts if you have a chance to read it. I think you will get more out it than mine little blurb.

    • sarah

      This is spot on. As a 29 year old with a 5-year B Arch, I am working for low wages in a part-time job where I can’t complete my internship hours… because I want balance in my life. Sure, I could go climb the ladder at a big firm- I have the skills and resume for it- but I want to be able to cook dinner and walk my dog once in a while, and most architecture firms expect complete dedication, and minimum 50 hour work weeks. Until we can change the culture of architecture, where time spent trumps quality of work, I believe the imbalance will continue.

  • Stephen Mallory

    And just like Peter Eisenmann you refute yourself halfway through the article. The position is a complete generalization and untenable, and saying that its some how ‘obvious’ and something everyone just knows does not help the argument.

    Similarly saying that the ‘social worker’ architect types are the better architects and what we need is a complete generalisation. I remember at univerity there were the types that only did analysis after analysis as to how ‘responsive’ and ‘egoless’ their buildings were, and were successful in this context, but in practice lacked the experience to resolve form aesthetically, especially under time pressure. Ultimately the overemphasis of one aspect of architecture leads to unsatisfying results.

    How about architecture that is responsive to peoples needs and is nice to look at, and a profession where peoples merits count more than just their gender?

    And if this is just an attempt to ‘shake things up’, then well thats just lame. Ugh.

  • jt

    how will being more empathy or compassion make architecture more relevant?

    how are male egos getting in the way of architecture?

    be explicit – generalizing, sweeping claims are not helping.

  • Chris Carlton

    Well if Zaha so quickly joins in the pissing match with the men, perhaps the state of ego in architecture is an endemic condition that is contracted by most that enter into the profession. I don’t think you can solve anything by simply plopping in more of the opposite sex. I see work by Diller, Gang, Sejima, et al, that in no way betrays their womanhood in the slightest. I think that architecture is an intellectual pursuit that fosters narcissistic attitudes over concern for our fellow man (or woman). That’s just my take, and I could be wrong..

  • Kim Ngoc

    Like someone said in France, real equality between men and women would be when women would find it elegant to be bold…

  • Kim Ngoc

    Very interesting argument in a country, the US, where men in the work place are scared of being alone in an elevator or in an office with a woman, where sexual harassment has become a corporate weapon to get rid of too ambitious colleagues….

  • bill bill

    “too many, but not all, of history’s celebrated architects come across like a bunch of juvenile boys standing on a stream bank trying to project their urine further than the next”

    No they do not.

    I’m getting so tired of the gross generalisations about architects that seem to feature so often in Archdaily commentary.

    I wish the level of writing would even remotely approach the typical levels of care, thoughtfulness, energy and passion required to get even a half-way building completed and published.

  • dados

    Speaking from experience, many of the less talented architecture students and practitioners tend to whine a lot about stararchitecture and egotism while attempting to diminish architecture to a discipline with zero autonomy. I think it is more of an issue of just not understanding architecture fully as a discipline and falling into the trap of politics because these issues are far less complex to understand. Most of the “bad guys” in this article care very deeply about architecture, not themselves, and I feel we fail to recognize their dedication and contribution to the field.

  • C.

    Dear fe(male)architects,
    Why do you hide behind this so called balance between work and private life? If an architect has passion for his work, this doesn’t mean that he doesn’t have a personal vivid life. It’s just a matter of option; if a person do not want to give more to any kind of job, than let it be … It’s a tuff job, with lot of regrets, but still worth to live it every day. I enjoy to be a female architect !
    Single mother of 3, Architect (own practice)

  • ALEXANDRA TIMPAU

    I heard C Sinclair in an interview, saying that most of the people who apply for a job/volunteering program with Architecture for Humanity are females in their 20s. I heard this as i was thinking of applying myself( 26,f).
    My feeling is that especially around this age, women that are used to working in a male dominated environment and aren`t satisfied with the slow and full of sacrifices way up look for work satisfaction in another place, and where better than Architecture for Humanity. Also, knowing that when they will have a child and the option of applying for such a job then, is almost impossible they try and go right before it.
    As far as the profession goes, as an young female architect myself, I feel that my boss favors my male colleagues just simply because there will be a pissing contest with the client( male developer) and I would probably loose at it.

  • Luis Real

    I didn’t read the article. I won’t. Imagine the headline of the article is: Men in architecture, we need them. Realize what I’m trying to say. The headline implies architecture is for men and made by men and that men needs women in their teams, offices or the like. And that pisses me off, seriosly. I don’t care what the article says as long as the headline is a statment on male corporate power…

    • Soledad F

      100% de acuerdo, no quise leer el artículo por su título y quise saber de inmediato si alguien más pensaba los mismo. Qué lástima arch daily

  • Munter Roe

    Yawn. Whens the dinner ready?

  • Christiane

    The fact is that we are living in 2012 and still half of the world population is considered in huge parts of the world (let’s be honest, almost everywhere) as less worthy…not only in architecture but in so many other jobs, too. That’s the real problem and that normally – as it has been already stated – women have much more to do always trying to square the circle…
    But just because it is an architectural website (I love so much) there is another question I thought of in this context: Do you know some famous woman photographing architecture?

  • dan

    Feminist rubbish.

    • Luis Real

      There’s no feminism in my statement. I’m only pointing out the mistake that is treating women like they need our help as if they played in a minor league than us men, when the fact is that we men always have been living in our corporate dream of dominant males and set all those minor leagues for them women.

  • Soledad F

    Disappointing title of the article … who on earth are the ones that needs us? …