Listen: A Gendered Profession

James Benedict Brown, Harriet Harriss, Ruth Morrow and James Soane’s new book A Gendered Profession seeks to address the fundamental issue of representation within architecture

For a profession that claims to be so concerned with the needs, not only of architecture but also of society - namely ‘better buildings, communities and the environment’ according to the RIBA - the continuing gender imbalance in architectural education and practice is a difficult subject. Difficult, because it’s been stagnant for some 30 years. In 2016, 92 per cent of female architects reported that having children would put them at a disadvantage in architecture; five per cent more than in the previous year (source: Architects’ Journal Women in Architecture survey 2016). That so many women feel that their profession is prejudiced against them is shocking enough; but the fact that we have no reliable statistics to report male architects’ opinions about fatherhood is equally telling.

Beyond the confines of our discipline, a new generation of inclusive feminist critique is emerging, much of which (like our own profession’s stated ambition) is characterised by a broader civic commitment. But whereas, after the Second World War, the architectural profession rallied around its obligation to fulfil a social need, the mainstream of our profession has capitulated its servitude to capitalism.

Harriet Harriss (Royal College of Art)
Harriet Harriss (Royal College of Art)

We believe that feminist thinking is a meaningful mechanism to respond to the inequalities of capitalism. But as we watch its ‘fourth wave’ unfold, we are met all too often with the stubborn misconception that feminism is only for and about women. The conversation has to be collectively critical: women cannot dictate a solution to men, just as men cannot dictate a solution to women.

Ruth Morrow (Queen’s University Belfast) Ruth Morrow (Queen’s University Belfast)

One could argue that it is a failure of our profession to resolve its own internal inequalities. At stake is more than just the lack of female representation. Sexism and gendered practices in architecture condemn all of us to a set of expectations around stereotypical behaviour. Male architects suffer from the same ingrained mechanisms of gender stereotyping that prejudice women, obliging us to place professional commitments above those to our family and children. And for those whose gender and sexuality do not fit comfortably within the binary conception of male or female, gay or straight, we find that the progress made in improving workplace conditions in the architect’s studio has yet to be matched in other aspects of the profession, not least the construction site.

It is therefore critical to dispute not only the traditional binary definition of gender, but also a mono-dimensional conception of gender along a spectrum, one that ultimately categorises everyone between the same binary. We need to think beyond women’s experiences of architectural education, practice and culture; gender is instead the key for a broader and more inclusive understanding of how our identity affects our experience of life and work. In order to recast the role of the architect in society it is imperative to take on the political and economic challenges entwined within the gender debate, in order to practise ethically and inclusively. It is critical to recognise that we operate within relative frameworks. As we age, climb the ladder of progression, grow as an architect we change too, more than we might like to think.

James Benedict Brown (De Montfort University)James Benedict Brown (De Montfort University)

This is why we turned our ideas into a book: A Gendered Profession — which sought to address a fundamental issue of representation, one that is inconclusive and emerging. This issue of representation is being played out not only in books such as this, but, more tangibly, in the built environment around us. It also questions why it seems so difficult to teach architects about gendered spaces, arguing that if we are to change our starchitect culture then we must change how we train students. This also requires us to scrutinise the ‘master-pupil’ relationship, and how competition and long working hours can reaffirm stereotypical ‘hegemonic masculinity’, arguing for new and different labour practices and hours of work that suit both genders; that resist traditionalism, discrimination and academic capitalism.

Whether architecture can learn from other disciplines’ efforts in order to create more gender-equitable environments is also brought into focus, concluding with a statement of hope for a profession in which tacit values and judgements made on stereotypical assumptions will become a thing of the past.

We need a diagnostic check on our profession. The condition is on-going, and the case is not closed. An inclusive discussion on the subject of architecture and gender is needed, one that can address some of the injustices facing our discipline. We are under no illusion that the gender question will ever go away, but instead embrace the principle of the fourth wave of feminism — that an attitude of inclusion will nurture a more discursive and enriched forum.

A Gendered Profession is published by RIBA publishing and priced at £35. 

Main image: James Soane (The London School of Architecture)

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