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. 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. 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%). 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. Like other male dominated professions, architecture leaves itself susceptible to undesirable narcissistic traits that can creep in and take over the profession’s culture. 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.

Thankfully, many professional organizations recognize the gender disparity as a problem. There are more and more initiatives supporting women in architecture, 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). 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.

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.)

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.


RIBA Future Trends Survey

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

“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.

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.)

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.

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

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.

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.

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.

About this author
Cite: Christopher N. Henry. "Women in Architecture: We Need Them" 08 Mar 2012. ArchDaily. Accessed . <https://www.archdaily.com/214742/women-in-architecture-we-need-them> ISSN 0719-8884

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