Canada's Condominium Magazine

Women drawn to architecture, but it’s still a man’s profession

In 2013, more than half of the University of Toronto’s architecture graduates were female. That should be reason to celebrate, given that in 1920 just one female graduated in architecture. She happened to be the first in Canada. The chair of the architecture department at the time did not attend the convocation, protesting the lone woman’s graduation. The woman, Esther Marjorie Hill, had to take work as an interior decorator at Eaton’s department store in Toronto because of discrimination against women. She did eventually get work as an architect, after much persistence and many obstacles overcome.

Before celebrating all those new female graduates and the great progress women have made since 1920, consider this: while women make up about half of all students enrolled in architecture programs at universities, they made up (as of 2003) just 13 per cent of practicing professional architects in Canada. Where did the rest of them go?

According to an investigation into the role of women in architecture carried out by the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada just over ten years ago, female architecture students do well at school, taking more than their share of awards and honours at the university level. But then they “drop out of sight” to the point that there is a “negatively disproportionate amount” of females doing professional architecture in Canada.

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Canada’s best known female architect, Phyllis Lambert, was honoured at the Venice Biennale earlier this year for her contribution to world architecture, though the honour was more for her work as an enabler than a practitioner.

The RAIC investigation uncovered the usual depressing array of women-in-the-workplace issues—lack of awareness in the profession about matters that concern women in the work force; lack of awareness of women’s accomplishments in the field of architecture; denial of equal opportunities and equal remuneration to women entering the field; failure of women in their attempts to set up independent practice as a way to avoid the frustrations of trying to make it in a traditional male-dominated practice.

It is a little bit ironic that Canada’s best known woman associated with architecture, Phyllis Lambert, was honoured with a lifetime achievement Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale not so much for her own work as an architect, but for making possible the work of a more famous male architect, Mies van der Rohe. It was Lambert who hired Mies to create the now iconic Seagram Building in New York City.

Women entering an architectural practice after completing their degree are not afforded the same opportunities as their male counterparts. They are typically given the more menial work and very often not included in site visits, client meetings or discussions in the same way or at the same level as their male peers. This results in an inequity in the experience gained by male and female architects at similar stages in their career, limiting for women the opportunities and timeframe for advancement in the profession.

Royal Architecture Institute of Canada

It is not a problem confined to Canada. The prestigious British publication Architects’ Journal revealed this year that two-thirds of women architects in Britain and the US who responded to a survey on the subject had experienced sexual discrimination at work and unequal pay.

Discrimination at the highest levels

The discrimination against women architects reaches to the highest levels. In 1991, the Pritzker Prize for architecture, the most prestigious in the world, was given to Robert Venturi. His wife and partner, Denise Scott Brown, was not included, though he and many others insisted that she had worked alongside him every step of the way. A campaign was mounted in 2013 to persuade the Pritzker prize committee to retroactively award Brown the prize. A petition that  included over 18,000 names, including big-name female architects like Zaha Hadid and a number of Pritzker laureates, was sent to the Pritzker committee.

The committee rejected the appeal last year, however, saying essentially that it was too late, and that a present-day jury could not “second guess the work of an earlier jury.” This decision was immediately challenged by students at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, who pointed out that the Pritzker committee had essentially committed the same offence in 2012, awarding the prize to one half—the male half—of a Chinese husband-and-wife architecture team. The students accused the Pritzker committee of “systemic bias” against women, and a philosophical position that perpetuates the “myth of the lone male hero in architecture.”

The Wall Street Journal reports that the “glass ceiling” in architecture is still firmly in place in the US. Just 19 per cent of licenced architects registered with the American Institute of Architects are women. That is up from 11 per cent in 1994, but, the WSJ reports, “top-tier positions” in architecture are still dominated by men.

Check the Wikipedia list of “notable” female architects around the world and you get a sense of how scarce they are. Just three names are on the list for China, half a dozen living female architects for Canada, and about the same number for the UK, including the most famous of them all, Zaha Hadid, who is from Iraq but works out of London.

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