Sexism in architecture: structural inequality

25 May 2018



In the wake of a litany of scandals encompassing a range of industries, sexism in all its guises dominates the cultural conversation. How does this pertain to architecture, a famously male-dominated profession? Abi Millar asks writer Anna Winston, and architects Dorte Mandrup and Cynthia Phifer Kracauer.


When the Harvey Weinstein allegations first surfaced in October 2017, the floodgates opened in a way that few anticipated. For weeks afterwards, it seemed you couldn’t turn on the news without another scandal coming to light, as dozens of powerful individuals were accused of sexual harassment, and countless women (and some men) shared their stories.

It became clear – if ever it had been otherwise – that the Hollywood producer’s sexual misconduct was not simply an individual failing. Rather, it was the product of a culture in which abuses of power are systematically overlooked.

To date, most of the men who have been publicly accused fit a similar profile: they work within entertainment, politics or media, and preyed on those with less professional leverage. However, the post-Weinstein reckoning extends beyond the headlines, with people from all industries asking whether this applies within their ranks.

Architecture is no exception. Although no architects have been ‘outed’ to date, the industry does have a notorious gender imbalance, with conspicuously few women at the top. On top of that, creative professions can be overly lenient, at least when it comes to the ‘temperamental geniuses’ in their midst.

“In terms of the ways that the industry operates to condone certain behaviours, I think there is an interesting comparison to make,” says Anna Winston, a writer, curator and former editor of Dezeen. “It really did ring some bells for me based on conversations I’ve had with women who work in practices.”

During the post-Weinstein fallout, Winston wrote a widely circulated piece drawing parallels between architecture and Hollywood. Although careful not to go too far with the comparison, she feels the two have similar dynamics at play.

“There hasn’t been any naming of names in architecture, and that’s because people are still scared – they don’t feel they can point the finger without repercussions for their career,” she says. “It would be nice to believe that this is a moment for change, and I think it might be for some professions, but the problems in architecture are, maybe, a bit more insidious and harder to untangle.”

Winston takes aim at “the eccentric, but brilliant man who is allowed, even encouraged, to behave badly and is thus tacitly allowed to treat other people like things”. She points out that women are never included within this bracket. Genius is mythologised as a strictly male preserve. “If you look at Zaha Hadid, she was described for most of her career as being scary or difficult. These words don’t tend to get used around male architects of a similar standing,” she says.

Dorte Mandrup, the Danish architect, agrees that the language used to describe female architects can be less than helpful. Her own work has been lauded for its ‘femininity’ – a term she describes as “nonsense, plain and simple” – and she finds using gender as a descriptor distinctly othering. This extends to special exhibitions of women’s architecture or lists of inspirational women in design.

“If we continue to accept a discourse that pigeonholes women as a coherent, uniform – and therefore manageable – group with identical needs and thoughts, we are doing everyone a disservice,” she says. “The lists saluting female architects are part of this discourse, in my opinion, because they assume that women should be compared with each other and not to male architects.”

Beyond the myths about the male creative genius, and his supposed right to maniacal behaviour, Mandrup believes there is a simple reason why women often don’t thrive within architecture. “It’s the same reason why women don’t thrive in many other businesses,” she says. “As long as parental leave is not distributed equally among men and women, there will be no real equality on the job market. As long as men and women do not have equal pay, there is no equality. And more often than not, female architects – often married to male architects – somehow accept that the responsibility of balancing home, children and work falls heavier on them than on their spouses.”

As long as men and women do not have equal pay, there is no equality.

There is no shortage of statistics to bear this out. According to the 2017 Women in Architecture survey, conducted by the Architects’ Journal and Architectural Review, men earn more than women at each stage of their architectural career. Over half the women surveyed said they had witnessed sexual discrimination at work, and just 40% of respondents said women are fully accepted in the industry.

In another survey by the American Institute of Architects, more than 70% of female respondents stated that women were under-represented in the profession, while Dezeen has found that just three of the world’s 100 biggest architecture firms are headed by women.

Compound disadvantage

Cynthia Phifer Kracauer, an American architect who serves as executive director of the Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation (BWAF), adds that inequalities tend to deepen over the course of a career.

“In the US, women make up 50%, or sometimes even more, of the students in architecture schools,” she says. “So females are not under-represented in the pipeline to architectural practice in any way. What happens is that, from the outset, a woman graduate is paid less than her male classmate and this disparity is compounded over the years.”

She adds that women with small children are often taken off more serious assignments – the baby is a penalty for the professional woman, whereas men receive a ‘baby bonus’.

“The persistence of this unfair practice sustains the significant number of women who leave the profession, because they are not seen as eligible for the most important design positions,” she says.

The upshot is to create a culture in which women feel less than welcome, a culture that BWAF is trying to change through education, action and advocacy. As many women see it, the higher echelons of the industry function like a closed-off boys’ club. “Wherever large amounts of money are in play, not to mention media attention and cultural affirmation, there will be a certain extent of power play. And that’s what the boys’ club is. A systematic way of keeping competition manageable while perpetuating a discourse that acts in your favour,” says Mandrup.

Kracauer recalls her time on the admissions committee at a private university. She was discussing a potential student’s application with two male colleagues and was very much in favour of the candidate. Her colleagues ducked into the men’s lavatory to continue the conversation, where they decided that the candidate would be rejected.

A more obvious example would be architecture events where the panelists are all male. This issue is often tackled with great fanfare, only for things to quietly slip back to how they were. Beyond this, female architects are frequently scrutinised for their looks or subjected to disparaging remarks behind their backs. And they can face a drip feed of expectations that takes its toll over time.

“Women are expected to flirt with clients to get jobs, or to be the ones who make the tea and coffee, or take notes,” says Winston. “They don’t necessarily get to talk to clients about the work that they’ve done, because they’re in a junior position and someone else takes credit. These are little things but they really add up.”

Power struggle

Of course, it is an axiom of the post- Weinstein conversation that the little things are linked to the big things; that structural imbalances in the job market create a breeding ground for sexual harassment and worse. Kracauer believes there are ‘plenty’ of male architects who could be outed, while Mandrup feels the solution lies in stripping offenders of their power.

“No-one will ever relinquish power willingly. It must be taken. And that’s what we’re seeing these days. The great thing is that the big, angry mob has traded pitchforks for words,” she says.

She feels that there is strength in numbers – the very act of speaking up creates a momentum, which can now be felt across the culture at large. “Personally, I am the boss of my own company, so I don’t experience sexist behaviour anymore. This, of course, is proof that sexual harassment has very little to do with actual sex, and everything to do with power,” she says.

But what is happening further down the ranks, for the average female architect seeking to realise her potential? It is hard to say whether or not the recent #MeToo outpouring will affect any real improvements. As Winston explains, many people lack the job security to speak out about their experiences, or don’t want to damage their reputations. She feels the conversation needs to come back to what is tangible and easily verifiable – the long-standing battle for equal pay.

“I’d really like to shine the spotlight on this issue, because there is a perception among men in architectural practices that this is no longer a problem and it absolutely is,” she says. “That is a very basic level of respect that needs to be dealt with, and once we can deal with that, we’re on our way to dealing with the wider problem.”

It may seem beyond frustrating that we still need to talk about these issues in late 2017. However, calling out the problems – until they are no longer problems – is the only way anything will change. “The good news is that most of the men who insist on stupid, sexist behaviour are getting older,” adds Mandrup, sounding a note of optimism for the generation below. “Soon they will be retired and out of everybody’s hair.”

Danish architect Dorte Mandrup runs her own company.
Anna Winston, architecture commentator.
Cynthia Phifer Kracauer, executive director of the Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation.


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