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"Why Do Women Really Leave Architecture" Is the Wrong Question

"Why Do Women Really Leave Architecture" Is the Wrong Question
"Why Do Women Really Leave Architecture" Is the Wrong Question, Birmingham Library / Mecanoo. Mecanoo's Francine Houben was named Architect Journal's Woman Architect of the Year. Image © Christian Richters
Birmingham Library / Mecanoo. Mecanoo's Francine Houben was named Architect Journal's Woman Architect of the Year. Image © Christian Richters

Maria Smith, shortlisted for The Architect's Journal's Emerging Woman Architect of the Year, has just published an article in The Architectural Review titled "Why do Women Really Leave Architecture?" - an article that, like many over the last year, attempts to tackle the tricky question of why women (who make up over 40% of architecture students in the US but only 23% of the profession) leave architecture. For the first few paragraphs, I was nodding in agreement, eagerly reading something that - finally - promised to offer a different perspective on the "women in architecture" question. 

Unfortunately, a few paragraphs later, all that promise falls terribly flat. Smith spends a good amount of time setting up a fabulous argument, and then - disappointingly - falls into the very traps she was hoping to break wide open. By the article's conclusion, I was less satisfied than when I started, wondering: is this even the right question we should be asking? 

Smith starts off with an excellent, concise summary of the three arguments that have been made so far in answer to why women leave architecture:

  • One: Being an architect is horrible – long hours, low pay, stress and poor job satisfaction.
  • Two: It’s very hard to balance architecture with motherhood.
  • Three: Architecture is sexist, stuck in the wattle and daub ages when it comes to sexual discrimination with a macho culture, unequal pay and unequal opportunities.

Her next task is to go through each of these arguments and reveal how little they do to answer the question, nor move the conversation forward. She points out, and rightly so, that Argument #1 isn't really a women's issue, but rather an issue for architecture in general (the success of Andrew Maynard's article "Work/Life/Work Balance" is testament to that) - one that leads us to an uncomfortable conclusion:

"Our first explanation, that architecture is horrible, must ring true for the majority of practising architects, but that does not make it a women’s issue. At best this explanation is a red herring; at worst it supports dodgy statements that architecture is too tough for girls. You can say architecture-is-competitive-and-aggressive-in-a-way-that-women-tend-to-identify-less-with until you’re blue in the face, but until architecture is less eager to revel in its own agony, how can we expect healthy, non-masochistic individuals, male or female, to become architects? So indulge me a minute, and let’s put this aside."

I want to agree with Smith here. This argument, although absolutely valid, suggests that women are leaving architecture because they're too weak to "stick it out." If not, why wouldn't men be leaving too? As such, it seems a counter-productive explanation. 

What's more, Smith points out, that since Argument #2 is really just an extension of #1, it should equally be discarded: 

"It is absolutely true that until maternity leave and paternity leave are legally equivalent and transferable and culturally acceptably so, the burden for early childcare will continue to rest predominantly with the mother. [...] But that men still have to abandon family for architecture goes to long, inflexible hours, and that takes us back to [explanation] one, that architecture is horrible, and that fool’s errand."

At this point, I was eager to see where Smith would take us next; unfortunately, by point three, she begins with some unusual leaps of logic:

The battle of the 20th century sought to remove gender from the equation and this resulted in a polarisation of women: super feminine (traditional) or super masculine (in order that their gender didn’t come into the office with them). So being a woman is now acceptable, but being feminine is not. [...]

The AR’s survey showed that of architects who claimed to dress like architects, women were much more likely than men to answer that their gender obscured their identity. Do female architects dress how they feel an architect should in fear of their gender getting in the way? I’d believe that. The new battle then is less for women in architecture than for femininity in architecture, whether it’s brought by women or men. Success will be marked by a fluffy pink jumper worn unnoticed.

I've bolded the text to emphasize Smith's point: sexism is no longer targeting women per se, but rather femininity, which, to extrapolate, is discomforting women enough to leave the profession. 

This is a plausible argument, I suppose, but... success is a fluffy pink jumper? Really? I find it hard to believe that clothing should be the measure by which we evaluate how successfully feminine women/men have integrated into the workplace. Indeed, I'm sure Richard Rogers has happily worn fluffy pink jumpers to the office for the better part of a half-century. Farshid Moussavi on the other hand probably wouldn't be caught dead in a pink jumper - which is also absolutely fine. Considering the extent to which many architects use style as a signifier of their creativity, I would wager a guess that many women and men architects use their clothing to convey - not obscure - their identity (feminine or nay). 

Which brings me to another point: what does it even mean for "gender to obscure identity"? If I were asked this in a survey, I'd be utterly confused. 

Moreover, the statistics Smith cites only further cloud the issue. Of those architects who responded that they dress like "architects" (Smith doesn't say if this is a big percentage or not, nor what "dressing like an architect" means - I must assume wearing black and round rimmed glasses?), many more women than men felt that gender obscures their identity (again, I must assume here: this feeling is the reason they dress like 'architects' - not that, by dressing like architects, their gender is obscured, which is also possible). However, looking at the respondents overall, only 12 % of females said gender sometimes obscured their identity, while more than double of men felt this way (so about 25%, let's say). If no more than 12% of all female architects feel this way (but almost a quarter of men do), is this even a relevant piece of data upon which to form an argument at all?

At this point, despite my qualms about these claims of sexism and femininity, I was still ready for Smith to surprise me with "two new (or at least previously little acknowledged) key points that don’t fit into the usual three explanations."

Point one. Architecture is not as creative as it purports to be. ... Does this mean that women tend to have more lofty creative expectations? Or does this mean that men are more likely to settle for something they didn’t bargain for? Discuss.

Wait, isn't this just part and parcel of Explanation #1 - that architecture is "horrible" and nothing at all what most grads had bargained for?

Point two. Architectural education is horrible. [...] Because architectural education prepares students so poorly for architectural practice (let’s debate that later, a lot of people agree), students with not one but two degrees end up spending years of their early professional lives monkeying which is unsurprisingly unattractive. [...] are men happier than women having a more abstract existence, monkeying away for a decade? Or, of the men and women that won’t settle for big practice, are the men more likely to strike out on their own, and if so why?

Wait, isn't this essentially the same as Point one? And, thus, also part and parcel of Explanation #1? 

But why, I hear you ask, am I saying that it’s not OK to say women can’t hack a horrible profession like architecture, but that it might be OK to say that women are less impressed by their hopes being dashed? Excellent question! 

Yes, Ms. Smith, please explain!

I think it comes down to the difference between saying ‘men are better than women’, and ‘men and women are different’. Do we believe that men and women are fundamentally, biologically different? Or are our variations simply due to our being treated differently by society for squillions of years? If we are different (and I accept that there are persuasive counterarguments to this) then surely we can interact with the world differently.

And this is where, for me, Smith's argument falls apart. It's perfectly rational to argue that the differences between men and women account for their different priorities/responses to the architecture profession. However, I could use the same logic to defend everything - including the original Explanations #1 and #2 - which Smith was supposedly attempting to avoid in the first place (remember that line: "You can say architecture-is-competitive-and-aggressive-in-a-way-that-women-tend-to-identify-less-with until you’re blue in the face"?). As Smith puts it:

The women-in-architecture conversation has become stuck on issues of poor working conditions, straying over to parenthood that brings it right back into poor working conditions again. If we can’t break free of this cycle then the debate will inevitably deteriorate from ‘why do women leave?’ to ‘why do men stay?’

In attempting to break out of this cycle, Smith finds herself squarely back in the middle of it. Plus, her conclusion falls terribly flat:

A fresh gender debate is afoot and what’s more it’s wearing pink and saying ‘girl’ without blinking.

This just doesn't ring true for me. So, is there a way to break out of this cycle beyond resorting to "wearing pink"? I certainly don't have the answer, but the way I see it we have three possible options.

One, you accept Smith's explanation of difference. Perhaps the reality of architecture is just not what many women were anticipating when they entered architecture school in the first place, and so they leave it. Or, to put it another way, perhaps architecture, with all its many "horrible" facets, is just more unacceptable for women than men - no matter how unsatisfactory that explanation may feel. However, if we are willing to accept this - and, indeed embrace it despite the discomfort - then we must take it as a call-to-action to reform the industry - for the good of both sexes.

Two, you return to Smith's point about the differing forms of sexism in the 21st century and search for different explanations.

Or, three (and bear with me, perhaps this is a wild flight of fancy here), but maybe you re-frame the question. What if women aren't leaving architecture. What if architecture is just not recognizing its breadth? Is architecture only designing in an architecture firm? Getting licensed? Must it be? 

For example, for many, The Architect's Journal Emerging Women Architect of the Year, Julia King, a female architect who's been working in India to expand its insufficient sewer system, wouldn't even count as an architect. But they couldn't be more wrong; everyday, Ms. King uses her architecture education to enact real change in a rapidly growing urban environment. Now, Ms. King is licensed, but perhaps many female architects are choosing to enter architecture or design related fields - not necessarily because of the issues associated with the profession (although I'd imagine those are factors), but because they want to. Of course, we need to see data measuring this, but isn't it possible that "Why are women leaving architecture" is the wrong question? Perhaps we should be asking: "Why isn't architecture claiming women for its own?"

Read Maria Smith's article "Why are Women Really Leaving Architecture" at the Architectural Review

Interested in more? Check out our other articles on women in architecture (including our popular infographic).

Cite: Vanessa Quirk. ""Why Do Women Really Leave Architecture" Is the Wrong Question" 20 Feb 2014. ArchDaily. Accessed . <http://www.archdaily.com/478910/why-do-women-really-leave-architecture-is-the-wrong-question/>