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.
7 years ago