Whether it be the overly-dainty posture of scale model figures or the assumptions of being the in-house decorator, the portrayal of women in architecture is often one of subservience. Despite Despina Stratigakos' hands-on efforts behind Architect Barbie or the global impacts of the legacy of starchitect Zaha Hadid, there continues to be a lack of visibility of women in the profession.
In a recent article in the New York Times, writer Allison Arieff poses the echoed question that the architectural community keeps asking itself, "Where are all the female architects?" No longer an issue of uneven gender ratios in architectural schooling, the persistence of dwindling numbers of women principals at the top of firms simply does not resonate. She postulates, that perhaps more significant than the statistics, the real problem lies in the definition of success.
Rampant within architecture schools, the histories and teachings of white male architects dominate, while there remains to be a stark deficit of female names on course syllabi and occupants in boardroom chairs that perpetuate this lone idea of aspiration. In this increasingly multiplicious profession, these single stories are no longer sufficient.
Landing high-end commissions for corporate skyscrapers or prominent museums is commendable, but certainly not the only way to succeed in the profession. If these alternative paths or different individuals in positions of power are not represented, how can one start to envision different goals? Perhaps, this is why the low numbers of women recur in practice.
Arieff discusses the types of success for three different practicing women that are accomplished by anyone's definition, yet they receive inadequate recognition for their contributions in the field. Liz Ogbu, a trained architect at the Harvard Graduate School of Design prefers her self-dubbed title of a "social innovator" as she designs homes for low-income urban dwellers in Ghana. She shares her own definition of success:
In many ways, architecture is a profession that has been the epitome of the dominant white patriarchy, from most of the celebrated starchitects to the all too frequent obsession with buildings that are better known for the beauty of the object than the quality of life that they enable. I’m black and female; my existence is the exact opposite of that system. So perhaps it is no accident that as I’ve built my own path in this field, I’ve been committed to a design practice that is rooted in elevating the stories of those who have most often been neglected or silenced.
Receiving commendation for being a "good woman architect" or promotions for balancing the gender ratios in a firm devalues the resultant goal. In promoting true equality, Arieff quotes Jeanne Gang, the founder of Studio Gang, who writes, "Unlike other measures of value, pay is a number. It’s tangible and objective." These efforts by Gang represent the simple and immediate change to encourage and sustain female participation and success.
As Amale Andraos, the dean of Columbia GSAPP and co-founder of WorkAC, puts it, "There is so much available to be reinvented. The definition of success is up for grabs.”
News via The New York Times