Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Bringing it to the Table

In the 16 May 2010 Chronicle Review, there is a series of short essays by scholars and professionals who discuss Women in Architecture: "What do they bring to the table? Do they offer a working style or leadership style different from those of men?"

I know nothing about architecture, and I found these questions a bit depressing (in particular, I think "bring to the table" was a poor choice of words, although I know it is a common, generic expression). I was nevertheless interested to read what the scholars and professionals had to say. Were there any similarities with "women in science/engineering" issues?

The first essay is by Thomas Landsmark, president of an architectural college. He mentions the common view that women are empathetic and like to collaborate, and that women architects tend to work on projects with a "human" dimension -- e.g., homes/interiors or projects related to education or health care. Men go more for the big corporate and major cultural projects. He lists some excellent women architects and praises the work of women who lead architecture schools, in particular for their emphasis on "symbiotic integration of interiors and exteriors", "aesthetically pleasing.. spaces", and "sensitivity to the needs" of various people, including children. These women also have "the management skills to deliver projects on time and on budget."

Despite the perhaps well-intentioned praise, I thought this essay made women architects sound like stereotypical excellent housewives who are nurturing and can manage a budget, and some have just happened to transfer these skills to a profession (often, he notes, in collaboration with their "marital partners or other professionals").

This was depressing, but then I read the awesome essay by Karen Schwennsen, a professor and associate dean in the College of Design at Iowa State, who takes a no-nonsense, no-nurturing approach. With a few word changes to substitute "scientist" or "engineer" for "architect", this essay could be describing the situation for women in other professions in which we are underrepresented.

In answer to the question about whether women architects design, work, or lead in a different way compared to men, Schwennsen notes that "for most of history, being different has meant being less. Questions about whether or not female architects bring something different to the table .. make most of us crazy." Women architects want to be respected for their accomplishments as architects, not as female architects. "They also want to be given a fair shot at competing for work or advancing in their careers".

She lists some women architects who have designed academic buildings, gives examples of their projects, and states: "There is nothing inherently feminine about any of those buildings."

She takes issue with the questions she is supposed to address; these aren't the right questions to ask. She wants to know instead why there aren't more examples of architecture by women. Why is their participation in the profession increasing so slowly? If 40+% of architecture students are female, why do women represent only 10% of architects at major firms?

Schwennsen's answer: It's not because women only want to design daycare centers while the men are off designing gleaming corporate towers. The reasons for the underrepresentation of women in architecture "..are many and complex, but not the least of them are assumptions about gender and the accompanying expectations about behavior and abilities that underlie the opening questions of this forum."

And: "I look forward to the time when we are no longer asking these questions—when professional parity has been reached and is based on merit and talent rather than gender, and when architecture by women is not considered unusual."

It's a great essay.

There are two other essays, both by women. One, by the president of an architecture firm, says she can't "believe differences are defined on gender lines as much as they are on philosophical foundations and beliefs." The other essay, however, is by an academic who believes that there are differences in architecture designed by men vs. women: men and women have different bodies and the body is our "first and primary environment", so "it follows that gender could play a significant role".

It could, but can you really show that it does? Does the body mass index of an architect also affect his or her designs? Do gender/body differences of men vs. women scientists affect how we design scientific research projects? Can you look at a building (or read a scientific paper) and know right away that it was designed (written) by a woman?

I went back and re-read the elegant essay by Schwennsen because I liked it so much. It reminded me that perhaps I can look forward to a time when we are no longer asking what women "bring to the table" in any profession; a time when "professional parity has been reached and is based on merit and talent rather than gender", and when women scientists/engineers/mathematicians/architects/presidents are not considered unusual.

10 comments:

Anonymous said...

Two professors in my department at a R1 university: 1) graduates students, writes grants, teaches well, publishes papers. 2) does none of the above. What do they have in common? They are both FSP's in their mid40's with children about the same age. It is not about gender, it is about personal drive.

GMP (GeekMommyProf) said...

men and women have different bodies and the body is our "first and primary environment", so "it follows that gender could play a significant role".

Gender plays a role in everything, such as affinity for shoes, ability to bear children... I don't think anyone says women and men are the same (world would be dull if so). But that doesn't mean gender should be a basis for discrimination of one's intellectual
products...

Does the body mass index of an architect also affect his or her designs? Do gender/body differences of men vs. women scientists affect how we design scientific research projects?

This is a great point! Does science produced by fat scientists differ from that produced by thin scientists?

Can you look at a building (or read a scientific paper) and know right away that it was designed (written) by a woman?

Sigh. I have dropped my first name and gone to first initial a long time ago to avoid this bias when submitting papers for publication. It did make a difference with referee reports.

Anonymous said...

I'm just relieved no one wrote, in answer to the first question: "Breakfast, lunch and dinner!"

(Sorry, FSP, but I'm sure I wasn't the only one thinking that.)

I can easily imagine gender-based differences in interior design - the heights of lab benches and shelves. Other issues of accessibility. Designing some equipment so that you don't need as much upper body strength to use it. Stairwells where one can't stand at the bottom and look up skirts.... I wouldn't be surprised if there are some more architectural gender-based differences as well, but I'm not very familiar with the field.

Gerty-Z said...

Great find! This reminds me of my mother (an accountant). She was once asked to head a panel about women in business. She did it, but her basic point was that women should be judged as "business people" not "women in business". Let's hope more people can get on board with this view.

Bashir said...

Isn't this how it goes on the road to parity. Once we've moved past a complete lack of representation of group X in profession Y it then becomes "well but people in group X are really only good at group X type things".

Anonymous said...

Excellent piece.

What do women bring to the table in nay profession? 50% of the world's talent, creativity, intelligence and drive. Sort of sad to miss out on that!

Similar things could be said about what the world is losing by missing the contributions of most of those those born outside the developed world--think of how much faster we could progress as a planet if we made best use of all of our talent.

Mark P

Doctor Pion said...

I found that initial essay to be very funny. You see, I have a cousin who has designed some spectacular houses. Really spectacular. One was featured on one of those "houses you wish you could afford" TV shows. I guess that college president must think my cousin needs to get a sex change operation because he designs like a girl. What a joke.

Anonymous said...

Architecture is a particularly depressing subject to consider for "gender differences". Having watched my wife go through 5 years of getting a masters in architecture, I can only look back in horror at the rampant machismo sexism on display.

It is claimed that 40+% of architecture students are female. Does that mean that all 40% graduate? My observations lead me to conclude "no". The majority of women who started the program with my wife simply left. The extra punishment received by women in their critiques was infuriating. And for those unfortunate enough to carry a few extra pounds, well don't even think about having a nice time. I could never blame those women for leaving. What rewards could there be in an industry run by such fools? In fact, in my wife's department, many years the only students not to pass their thesis defenses were women. It was never the quality of their work. You get the gist... I assert that women make up 10% of the architecture workplace because of a systemic inability to accept and include women.

So what do women have to "bring to the table"? The same damned thing that men do: ideas, lots brilliant and beautiful ideas!

(What a moronic article. Leave it to architects to single out women once again by asking "what do have to offer, missy?" sigh....)

Anonymous said...

"can you look at a building (or read a scientific paper) and know right away that it was designed (written) by a woman?"

YES -- call on Sherlock Holmes.

Ur next post should be on the dearth of first class female detectives in fiction, compared to male ones.

Bagelsan said...

This is something I kind of like about the gender ratio of students in the life sciences flipping to majority-female. If your grad department is 2/3 female, asking what female students bring to the table is silly -- we are the table, now! Prove that you deserve to stay, entrenched old male viewpoint. :D