Arts & Culture

Panel discusses paucity of designing women

5 min read

‘The structure of the profession [architecture] makes it so difficult for women to progress.’

Women in Design, a student group at the Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD) that aims to increase the visibility of women in the field, kicked off its four-part spring symposium, “Progress in Process,” Thursday night (March 13) with a panel discussion on where women in architecture are now and where they are headed. Department of Architecture Chair Toshiko Mori moderated the event, which was held in Gund Hall’s Piper Auditorium and attracted a crowd of about 150 people — mostly, it was noted by panelists, women.

“Where are all the male faculty members?” asked Sarah Williams Goldhagen, the architecture critic for New Republic magazine and formerly a professor at GSD. “This reinforces how important [this discussion] is and how marginalized the status of women is in the department and in the academy.”

Despite impressive progress made in other businesses and professions since the beginning of the women’s movement in the 1960s, architecture remains a field dominated — some would say nearly monopolized — by men, who make up about 90 percent of practitioners. “There seems to be so little change from the early days when I started practicing in the ’50s,” said 80-year-old Beverly Willis, who founded her own firm, Willis and Associates, in 1976. She pointed out furthermore that there is very little research devoted to women in architecture, but noted that studies have shown the vast percentage of women become mothers during their working lives, and that in America, women still do 80 percent of child care and most housework.

With its tight deadlines, long hours, and emergency all-nighters, architecture, the panelists agreed, is not a career suited to a family-oriented lifestyle. “The structure of the profession makes it so difficult for women to progress,” Goldhagen said. “It’s such a hostile environment for women who are caregivers.” One study, she said, found a 50 percent attrition rate for women entering the profession.

“Today,” said Denise Scott Brown, “daddy and mommy are both on the mommy track.” But there are solutions. For example, Scott Brown’s firm, Venturi, Scott Brown, and Associates, has found that allowing people to work part time “gets them into management because they have their own projects.” Then, when their children get bigger, they are able to build on their early accomplishments rather than having to start over — or give it all up.

“When I was in school I thought the generation before me would make it easier for my generation,” said Monica Ponce de Leon, a professor of architecture at GSD and principal of the firm Office dA. “It was a real shock for me when I [graduated] and got into the profession, how male-centered it is.” Every time she goes to a construction site or client meeting, Ponce de Leon continued, “there are 25 men in the room and me.”

Ines LaMuniere, a founder of Devanthery & LaMuniere and a professor at the Swiss Institute of Technology in Lausanne, agreed, adding “when you come to a certain age, you realize that things have to be done. So I asked myself these past five years, ‘How can I act?’” She suggested giving women access to more work and a better quality of work, encouraging them to take part in professional associations and competitions, increasing research on gender in architecture, starting foundations that can provide grants for research and for postdocs, and reaching out to women in education, particularly as professors. “Every woman should think she has an action,” LaMuniere said. “And there is understanding of an action, but you have to start it.”

Goldhagen also pointed out the “obligation” of women in the field to mentor younger female architects, and Beverly Willis mentioned the need to write the significant contributions of women into the histories of architecture — including in jobs on which they worked as collaborators with men, but were never given credit. She recounted what one colleague said to her: “I would love to teach classes about women in architecture, but where are the books? Where are the references?”

After briefly discussing architecture as business as well as design and whether alpha males — who seem to make up a large percentage of clients — work better with men or women, Mori concluded that there’s “no such thing as a glass ceiling. I think it’s just one thick layer of men.”

When a questioner in the audience asked whether amplifying the issue “so much in terms of feminism” might not alienate young architects like herself, the panelists agreed that framing the issue as one of gender is in fact necessary.

“I worry for young women architects who say we don’t need the women’s movement,” said Scott Brown. All groups that are oppressed, she added, “need a time of nationalism,” and if younger people don’t understand that the issue is societal, then when they come up against it they are likely to blame themselves for any problems they encounter. “It’s no use putting yourself out of your group,” she said. “You will be persecuted. Solidarity is needed. It would help a lot if we were seen for the work we do, but also we have to have solidarity or we won’t get anywhere.”