I first read Denise Scott Brown’s “Room at the Top? Sexism and the Star System in Architecture” as an undergraduate at the University of Auckland, New Zealand, not long after the essay was published. Although far removed from the scene of the discussion, we had been well educated in the conjunctions of feminism and architecture and in dismantling the canon. We were excited and invigorated. Feminist theory was “cool.” It informed our student work and opened up new ways of seeing the world and imaging the parts we might play in it.1
So, my colleagues and I were a receptive audience for the essay. And yet, with the bravura of youth, the world described also seemed far away—and not just in terms of geography and status. Surely this wouldn’t happen to us? Surely people like Scott Brown, and less famous women closer to home, had fought these battles well? Surely we would be the beneficiaries? Surely our road would be less difficult? (And this despite the fact that Scott Brown draws the essay to a close with a clear description of how difficulties increase as women’s careers advance.)
A quarter of a century on, I speak frequently to students about our recent research into women in architecture. I show them statistics that chart the disappearance of women from the profession. I quote women and men on the frustrations and challenges that greet them in the workplace, and as they progress through it. I urge them to understand the structural issues and to be strategic about navigating them. I quote Scott Brown herself from a 2012 interview, “I say to young women today, don’t cast out your feminist awareness: when the glass ceiling hits you, you will think it is your fault, unless you know a bit about feminism, and it will destroy you.”2
These students are also interested and engaged, and yet many feel the way I did all those years ago—that “women in architecture” is a cause mostly pursued by slightly batty older women. “I am smart and talented and I work hard,” they think, “It won’t happen to me.” This is one of the ongoing challenges. How do we equip clever, enthusiastic young women and men with the skills and insight they need both to navigate the profession, and to change it? As Scott Brown so eloquently articulates, the system is deeply entrenched. We are playing a long game here—one that stretches back far into the past, and one which will be active well after we have handed the baton on.
Of course a lot has also changed since 1975, when Scott Brown penned the first part of the essay, and 1989 when she published it accompanied by further reflections. There are many more women in the profession and we have all benefitted greatly from the campaigning of Scott Brown and her colleagues all over the world. And yet, here we are in the midst of another international wave of interest in women in architecture. A wave driven, in part, by my generation’s realization that, regardless of our youthful enthusiasm, all did not workout so easily. Despite women graduating in almost equal proportions for over two decades, there are still very few women at the top.3 And, as Karen Burns so astutely observes, the feminist theory, design work, and experimentation that inspired us in the late 80s and early 90s is now being sidelined as the theory anthologies are compiled and histories rewritten.4 (A process that echoes Scott Brown’s own experiences in the hands of the kingmaker-critics.)
Sexism is still with us.5 The international star system, is still with us, still bizarrely beholden to the idea of the singular genius (despite the dismantling of the idea of the “author” half a century ago, despite Christine Battersby’s Gender and Genius, also published in 1989, despite Scott Brown). The architectural prima donnas are (mostly) still all male. The star system is still, as Scott Brown points out, based in class as well as gender and other distinctions. This is fed by an endless stream of underpaid or unpaid labour; young architects who are spat out the other end, exhausted but carrying the prize of having worked for a “star”—and some will manage to use this to underwrite their own career rise.6 This is exclusionary in multiple ways—only those who can afford to work for nothing can access this rather slippery route to the top. The profession is narrowing at a time when it needs to be opening to change and possibility.
One of the most striking things about rereading Scott’s Browns account is the familiarity of the themes—the desire to be known for the quality of one’s work, rather than the fact of one’s gender; the misattribution of work and the inability of some to recognize collaboration as a core part of architecture; the “social trivia”; the self doubt that creeps up in the wake of sexism; the discomfort of being the person always calling out the problems; the hostility of those challenged; the camaraderie and optimism for the future that comes from talking about these matters in “safe” environments. These correspond to issues raised in survey of women (and men) we conducted in Australia in 2012, and the events we have run as part of the project.
Another intensely familiar aspect is the sheer relentlessness of it all. Scott Brown writes:
“For me, things are much the same at the top as they were. The discrimination continues at the rate of about one instance per day.” This ongoing accumulation of indignities, large and small, is a widely shared experience. It is a significant part of the story of many women’s careers and impacts on their progression—as psychologist Virginia Valian points out, “success is largely the accumulation of advantage, the parlaying of small gains into larger ones.”7
This is also one of the reasons many women leave, or consider leaving, the profession. Regardless of their commitment and the pleasures of architecture, for many there comes a time when it simply isn’t worth it any more.
This reminds us that the star system doesn’t only affect those at the top. It reflects embedded attitudes and structures that impact on everyone in the profession to some extent.
So, what of the women of the middle? Recent research has shifted emphasis to investigating architectural workplaces and work cultures (as well as representation and public culture)—this means we now know more about these women. In 1989 Scott Brown observed, “We have no sociology of architecture.” This is slowly changing. A couple of years later, in 1991, Dana Cuff published Architecture: The Story of Practice.8 Our own research project includes a similar “ethnographic” approach—Gill Matthewson has spent time “embedded” in three large Sydney practices, observing and interviewing the women and men who worked there. Her PhD, recently awarded, contains a wealth of material.
This focus is important because it allow us to explore the gap between training and opportunity (to use Karen Burns’ phrase), and the mechanisms through which both advantage and disadvantage accrue. It also allows us to deploy insights from broader studies of the workplace. One of the most important is the idea of “unconscious bias.” This is based in the work of Valian who shows that we all (men and women) tend to underestimate the abilities of women and overestimate those of men. Gill explains the impact of this in the architectural workplace: “Because of gender bias, it is more difficult for women to demonstrate competence in a workplace, particularly when they are few in number. Women tend to be judged on their accomplishments, men on their potential.” The effects of this are often hidden—Gill points out that gender “most often interacts with the complicated economic, political, and social imperatives that control much of the work of the architecture profession. As such, bias due to gender is able to be obscured, and then dismissed as not existing.”9
There is also a now well-established “business case” for gender equity, which goes something like this—a more diverse workforce, especially at senior levels, delivers better outcomes for multiple reasons. Diverse voices lead to more creative approaches to problem solving, more robust overall decisions, and better economic performance. A diverse, inclusive culture helps avoid “groupthink,” and brings significant gains in retaining staff and reducing “churn.”10 These findings are relevant to architecture—creative problem solving and better overall decisions are obvious assets in architectural practice—but they are also relevant to the wider profession. The attrition of highly educated and skilled architects who happen to be women diminishes architecture’s potential for change and renewal. If the profession is to adapt effectively to new environments we need more people who think in diverse ways, not fewer. As British architect Sarah Wigglesworth comments, “Architecture is too important to be left to men alone.”11
So where does this leave us? One of the many outcomes of our research project are the Parlour Guides to Equitable Practice, which provide practical, productive strategies to help the profession move towards more equitable work practices, and thereby a more robust and inclusive profession.12 There are eleven guides. Each outlines a particular issue, why it matters and what “we” might do about it. This last section is addressed to multiple audiences—individual employee architects, employer practices, and institutional and professional bodies. The guides recognize that different parts of the profession have different types of agency—and propose that we all have a part to play in facilitating change. Many of the recommendations are about putting transparent procedures in place to ensure that systems and processes are equitable and recognize ability and effort rather being based in perception and bias, unconscious or otherwise.
The guides are part of a broader advocacy project, run through the online platform Parlour: women, equity, architecture.13 In setting up Parlour we became activists and advocates as well as researchers and scholars. We realized that to seed change in the profession we needed to mobilize the community and create a demand for action. The site has generated remarkable interest and now has many participants from all over world. It has benefitted particularly from the online environment, which brings heightened opportunities to build “communities of interest” that cross generations and geographic boundaries.
This brings me to Scott Brown’s own essay ending. She conveys enormous dignity in the face of relentless sexism—a dignity maintained over many years. But, importantly, she also reminds us that there is more than one system—we all also have colleagues, clients, and friends who are respectful and respected. These are alternative networks and they are flourishing in the world of online and social media. We must cultivate these old and new allegiances and alliances so that together we can build the profession we want and need.
You can read Denise Scott Brown’s “Room at the Top? Sexism and the Star System in Architecture” from our Debate issue.
As this issue went to press, the Board of Directors of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) voted to award the 2016 AIA Gold Medal to Denise Scott Brown, Hon. FAIA, and Robert Venturi, FAIA. Congratulations to both of them on a much-deserved recognition of the lasting impact of their work in the field of Architecture.