Architecture has a culture of quietly condoning sexist behaviour, just like Hollywood, argues Anna Winston.
“To be dangerous is to be artistically daring”. In all the comment pieces I have read so far on the Harvey Weinstein scandal, this, from British playwright Lucy Prebble’s piece in the London Review of Books, stood out. This was the piece that came closest to pinning down what it was about this whole debacle that made me feel both relieved and angry.
If you’re a woman working in architecture, you might not be so surprised to hear that it reminded me of your industry – an industry I have been writing about for more than 10 years.
Prebble’s comment hit home because it reflected a common trope in architecture – the eccentric but brilliant man who is allowed, even encouraged, to behave badly and is thus tacitly allowed to treat other people like things.
Architecture, like Hollywood, has a culture of quietly condoning and facilitating gender-related power games and sexually inappropriate behaviour from men while publicly wringing its hands about equality. I have been directly affected by this, and I’m not even an architect. Even architecture journalism is infected with this disease of silent acceptance.
Does architecture have a Harvey Weinstein hiding somewhere within its ranks? The simple answer is, probably, yes. But wherever he is, he is being enabled by a much wider problem, and one that the seemingly endless debate about women in architecture – with its worthy awards programmes and debates – has sadly had too little effect on.
Prebble’s text contains more than just the one parallel. “Today’s monster is yesterday’s ‘character’…” it reads. “Hollywood is run on charm as well as tantrums. There are elements of machismo that are glorified as an eccentricity of showbiz power. The flare-ups of big producers and agents are legendary… Ex-assistants will exchange war stories with the relish and nostalgia often reserved for remembering a classic Broadway production.”
This too: “In the arts, professionalism can be interpreted as a sort of inauthenticity, and those who can’t control themselves are seen as more ‘instinctive’.” Now doesn’t that sound familiar?
It’s not always easy to put your finger on why something made you uncomfortable
Weinstein was enabled by an industry caught up in a sticky and insidious web of power and control. Architecture is not the same as the film industry. But when pundits scratch their heads about the disparity between the number of women who study architecture and the number of women who actually end up working in senior positions within the industry, it’s hard not to want to bang your head against a brick wall.
How is it that so many people can’t see that the problem is not women deciding to have children? It is not the long hours, or the bad pay. It is the power structure. It is the condoning of otherwise unacceptable behaviour in the name of genius or talent. It is, in the words of actress Emma Thompson “a system of harassment and belittling and bullying and interference”.
To give you some idea of the scale of this problem, more than half of the women who took the 2017 Women in Architecture Survey said they had experienced direct or indirect discrimination in the past year. Of those, 14 per cent experienced sexual harassment, while 32 per cent reported sexual discrimination. One architectural assistant was even told “women do not belong in architecture as they bring too much emotion to the subject”.
The findings included incidents where women had been expected to flirt with clients, been ignored and talked over, and been expected to prepare food and drink when male colleagues were not.
A survey carried out last year in New Zealand found that women accounted for only one per cent of senior roles in architectural practices. Architecture schools in the country have had more than 50 per cent female students since 2000. It takes a long time to qualify and even longer to make it to the top in architecture, but this incredible disparity can’t be accounted for by time alone.
The stats vary, but they tell variations of the same story. In 2013, 44 per cent of architecture students in the UK were female, while just 12 per cent of partners in practice were women. In the US last year it was more like 50 per cent of students and 18 per cent of registered, practicing architects.
All of these stats are easy to find, thanks to a small handful of women who pushed for the data to be gathered and disseminated. You don’t really need the stats though. A quick glance around the industry will quickly demonstrate that in architecture, women are still largely the facilitators, while men are the feted geniuses.
This has been changing slowly, and there are an increasing number of female-led practices, but it will take more than a handful of visionary women to change the culture of the profession.
It will take more than a handful of visionary women to change the culture of the profession
The Architecture Foundation – one of the rare examples of an organisation that actively promotes equality through its programming instead of just talking about it – still struggles to sell tickets to lectures by female architects in the same volume as it does for lectures by men of equal professional standing.
For more of what we’re up against, read some of the comments on stories about inequality in architecture on Dezeen – and bear in mind that the worst sexist comments don’t even get published, thanks to the poor moderators who have to read them.
Or attend one of the international festivals or exhibitions where men regularly put their colleagues into uncomfortable positions by pursuing younger, less powerful women within the same field in plain view, often cheating on their wives – who are sometimes their colleagues or professional partners as well.
Or remember that Zaha Hadid is still the only female to have won both the Pritzker and the RIBA Gold Medal in her own right. Or that she was often described in disparaging terms for behaviour that, in men, generally becomes part of their genius mythos.
There is a pattern that recurs across architecture. Women handle the promotion, organisation and dissemination of the work and ideas, creating space and platform for the men to do the actual architecture – or at least to take credit for it. It is no coincidence that most of the biggest and best-known architecture firms are led by men, but the most successful architectural PRs and specialist PR practices are led by women.
“I think the design world’s Harvey Weinsteins are a special breed of horrific and especially prey on the intellectual labour of women,” one architect told me.
I don’t think many women in architecture and its related fields would ask for positive discrimination
It doesn’t just affect women either. The culture of bullying and belittling affects people of all genders, colours and backgrounds.
Many of the powerful men in architecture are wonderful to work for and with – capable of engaging in fiery debate, and pushing us to do better without making it a power play and without bringing sex into the dynamic in any way. But most of us know the stories about those who might be described as more “problematic”. You are warned about them before accepting jobs or commissions. You go in knowing that you need to focus on the positive effect the association will have on your careers long-term and grit your teeth to get through a few months or years. Your livelihoods hang in the balance if you say anything. Architecture is a small world – much smaller than Hollywood.
It’s not always easy to put your finger on why something made you uncomfortable, to pinpoint exactly when you realised that something was awry, to explain why you left that job or didn’t go to that event. It isn’t an easy thing to publicly identify specific examples and talk about solving this problem.
In a recent Facebook thread relating the Harvey Weinstein, a Seattle-based curator, writer and educator – who studied architecture at Yale – wrote: “In architecture, art, academia, they are too genteel for anger. Instead we’ll get frozen out and gaslit with the implication that the confrontation is evidence of our lack of analysis and intellectualism.”
Women have their own secret language of warning and sympathy when it comes to handling unwanted sexual attention. There is the quiet suggestion to watch out for wandering hands and bat away inappropriate comments. The sympathetic glance when the inappropriate hug from that older male architect goes on a bit too long at a social event. The gossip about the womanisers and the late night sharing of knowledge over drinks on the rare occasions when there are no men around. The quiet support for women who have held on and made it through despite everything. Some might argue that these quiet support systems are part of the problem. But for most of us, it’s the only coping mechanism available, and the pressure shouldn’t be on us to name and shame.
This pervasive problem is all over the design industry too. Perhaps it seems more pronounced in architecture, as the role of the architect carries more historic baggage and more anxiety about its relevance and power today. Perhaps it is because being a “character” was, for a long time, the best way to get a building through all the hoops from inception to opening without compromising on absolutely everything, and it just became a habit. Perhaps it’s that seven years of education produces a sense of entitlement, swiftly followed by disillusionment and an endless angst. Perhaps it is because it is to do with the way practices are structured, how much work you need to do before you get paid, and how hard it is to go it alone. Or perhaps it is because it is so closely in contact with the development and property industries, where the sexism is both rampant and often far more blatant. Perhaps I just know more architects. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter why the problem is there. What matters is that it stops.
Let us do our job without all the gender-based power games
I don’t think many women in architecture and its related fields would ask for positive discrimination. And they don’t necessarily want to be labelled as “women architects” or “female architects”, or even “female architecture journalists” or “female critics”. Some women in architecture have pointed out that this kind of language can be useful in recognising and focusing on the achievements of women who would otherwise be neglected. But you could easily argue it also normalises the idea that men are more entitled to be architects because they don’t need to qualify their job title with an extra word.
“I am not a female architect. I am an architect,” argued Danish architect Dorte Mandrup in a piece published by Dezeen. “When we talk about gender, we tend to talk about women. Men do not really have a gender. They are just… neutral. Non-gender. That is why you do not recognise the term ‘male architect’.”
We are not asking to be the female equivalent of anything. We are just asking to be architects, designers, journalists, critics, consultants, directors, partners, professionals, without having to be wary or to make ourselves small, without being overlooked or having to be a “bitch” and “difficult” to be heard. Let us do our job without all the gender-based power games, pay us fairly for it, and I promise you that the entire industry will benefit.
In the process of writing this piece, I spoke to a number of people who shared their experiences of abuse, assault, harassment, discrimination, gas-lighting, predatory and manipulative behaviour and more. Some of them have given very specific examples and have named names. They include some of the most famous architects in the world, as well as rising stars in respected practices, curators, heads of schools, tutors, colleagues and friends. They are not easy to talk about or read. This is a problem in every kind of practice and at every level. Anyone that would like to share their own experiences is welcome to contact me.
Photograph is by FangXiaNuo.
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