What Would Happen If More Women Designed Buildings?

It’s no secret that many fields of study — and the careers they lead to — are still heavily male-dominated, and while the gap is closing, the numbers don't tell the entire story. Women working traditionally male jobs are likely to encounter a slew of challenges that are largely unheard of amongst their male coworkers; a new study, for example, suggests that women are more likely to leave high-paying careers in medicine, finance, and engineering than they are other jobs, perhaps in part because these fields — once virtual boys’ clubs — don’t adequately address the needs of working mothers.

But while there is a real movement both to interest girls in the sciences and to publicize institutional sexism in “STEM” fields, one area that has not gotten a lot of attention is architecture. As Marika Shiori-Clark and John Cary’s op-ed piece for CNN notes, however, this is yet one more field in which the gender gap persists; while women study architecture at roughly equal rates, only 16% of American architects are female. As is true of many other fields, architectural programs tend to place the most onerous demands on their students at a time when women are likely considering motherhood. As of 2010, only 32% of men with working wives cared for the child or children at least one day per week. For many women, one assumes, juggling a career and a family simply proves impossible.

What’s more, those who do become licensed architects are likely to face gender-based discrimination. Zaha Hadid, though in many ways a rarity amongst female architects, nevertheless reports facing the same kinds of challenges that prove insurmountable to some of her peers; she points, for instance, to the fact that women tend to be shoehorned into designing interiors, leaving the truly eye-catching projects for men. Even those who tackle more ambitious designs may not receive the recognition they deserve. Shiori-Clark and Cary, for instance, mention the 1991 snub of Denise Scott Browne, whose collaborations with her husband Robert Venturi won a Pritzker Prize for him and nothing for her. Browne also makes ArchDaily’s list of the “10 Most Overlooked Women in Architecture History.”

As this list makes clear, working to make the world of architecture friendlier for women is not simply a matter of fairness; the long-term danger, as is often the case in cases of employment discrimination, is that real talent is being passed over. And talent — particularly innovative thinking — is something that is sorely needed in the field of architecture. As James S. Russell notes, today’s architects can no longer focus solely on design, but must also factor in various social and environmental concerns. Green (also known as "sustainable" or "environmental") architecture that aims to reduce our ecological footprint through careful placement and the use of sustainable energy has been around since the 1960s, but it has gained momentum in recent years and is seen by many as the wave of the future.

Of course, this is not to say that female architects are inherently more creative or more environmentally-conscious. There is, however, something to be said for revitalizing an old profession with fresh blood. If nothing else, women represent a largely neglected resource that a field in the midst of refashioning itself should be working to attract rather than shut out.