An article published in The Telegraph last week has been getting a lot of negative attention for its headline: “For safer, prettier cities pick a woman to build them.”
Oh dear. It’s certainly hard to get past that third word – prettier. The Globe and Mail lamented the word’s “sexist twinge.” A blogger for bricksandclicks suggested that the unflattering adjective “would never have headlined in an article about male architects.” And as Kristen Richards, the Editor-in-Chief of ArchNewsNow.com perfectly put it in her Newsletter: “‘prettier’?!!? this headline wins our groaner-of-the-year award.”
But, groan-worthiness aside, it seems rather unproductive to spend time poking at “pretty,” when the central thesis of the article is so darned sexist in itself – for women and men architects alike.
The article makes two claims: one, that women, thanks to their experience as mothers, are more attuned to the ways cities can be safer, more child-friendly, and, generally, more liveable; and two, that if there were more women architects, our cities would reflect that fact by being (you guessed it) safer, more child-friendly, and, generally, more liveable.
I find these statements exaggerated at best, and sexist at worst. Because they translate to this: women are more humane and empathetic than men, thus are better designers than men (in certain realms of design), and thus should be given priority over men (in these realms).
This twisted logic, of course, completely obfuscates the supposed point of the article: to expose the gender imbalance in the architecture profession (including a significant over-representation of males and a noteworthy salary discrepancy), and to argue that, by lowering the barriers to women (and people of diverse backgrounds in general), the design process will only be made stronger.
As Hannah Lawson, Britain’s emerging woman architect of the year and a director at John McAslan and Partners, astutely explains in the article: “[Cities] will only be richer with the contribution of a more pluralist and diverse mix of designers.”
Lawson is dead-on. The article, is not. To suggest that women (mothers or not) have more to offer architecture in the realms of “high streets, schools, and open spaces” and so should be “picked” to do so does injustice (1) to the many women who excel outside these (“maternal”) design realms, (2) to the women who excel in these fields (what, they’re only good at them because of their sex?), and (3) to the men who excel in these design fields (who, we must assume, aren’t as capable as their female counterparts?).
It is the job of an architect to put him or herself in the perspective of the user (no matter his sex, race, or physical limitations); to suggest that a women or a man is better/worse than this (and hence a better/worse designer) is not just unfounded, but unproductive. The industry should be working on easing barriers to make it more inclusive (starting by reforming the educational/workday systems, both of which make it nigh impossible to be an architect and a primary caregiver to ones children) – and stop wasting its time wondering who makes things “prettier.”