Beyond the Pritzker

Women, architecture, and the politics of paid family leave.

[Image from Media Girl]

Cautious, careful people always casting about to preserve their reputation or social standards never can bring about reform. 
— Susan B. Anthony, 1860

Women will only have true equality when men share with them the responsibility of bringing up the next generation.
— Ruth Bader Ginsberg, 2000

Recently I moderated a panel on leadership at a symposium organized by the San Francisco Chapter of the American Institute of Architects. The Missing 32% was prompted by a stubborn statistic: “women represent about 50% of students enrolled in architecture programs but only 18% of licensed architects.” The event was sold out, and on a cloudless day a couple hundred people crowded into a windowless auditorium at California College of the Arts. Which actually was no surprise, for lately the topic of women in architecture — long dismissed as unnecessary, essentialist, unfashionable — has bounded back onto the agenda.

Lately there have been anthologies like Feminist Practices, and articles analyzing the persistence of discrimination, the changing dynamics of female leadership, the evolving nature of professional partnershipsmid 20th-century efforts to integrate the AIA, the legacy of women critics, and the role of Architect Barbie1 There have been exhibitions on contemporary women architects in Southern California and Latin America. There have been calls to write women into the historical record on Wikipedia and in an open-source archive of American practitioners. Beyond the U.S. there have been unsettling surveys from the Architects’ Journal in England, and the rise of organizations like the Australia-based Parlour: Women, Equity, Architecture. And there was the campaign organized by a student group at Harvard, petitioning the Pritzker Architecture Prize Committee to retroactively honor Denise Scott Brown for her contribution to the prize awarded more than 20 years ago to her partner Robert Venturi.

As all this activity so eloquently attests, the full integration of women into architecture — 140 years after Mary Page became the first woman to earn an architecture degree in the U.S. and 125 years after Louise Bethune became the first woman elected to the AIA — remains a fraught and unfinished business. To say the least. I remember, as a graduate of an M.Arch program many years ago, receiving as a gift Architecture: A Place for Women. The anthology was published to commemorate the centennial of Bethune’s achievement, yet in her introduction the co-editor Ellen Perry Berkeley seemed caught between celebrating recent progress and conceding persistent obstacles:

For the vastly increased and increasing number of women in this profession, the times are peculiar and uneven. The gains, however large, have not been fully consolidated. Women’s membership in the American Institute of Architects, for instance, which made the leap from zero to one in 1888 but was still only 250 in 1974, was suddenly past 3,700 by the end of 1987. The mood of most of these women is to “get on with it” and not dwell on “grievances.” Yet as recently as 1987 a session on women at the AIA’s national convention became what was later recalled as “one long gripe session.” Pervasive sexual harassment may be a thing of the past, but many women could still write an entire résumé in terms of incidents major and minor. 2

A quarter-century later the times are still peculiar and uneven. The statistics remain discouraging as ever. 3 A couple of graduate students can still find ample grounds to circulate a petition with what would seem a thoroughly uncontroversial assertion: “women in architecture deserve the same recognition as their male counterparts.” And the conversation still circles the same contradictory loop, the desire “to get on with it,” to be recognized as architects, unqualified by gender, and the reluctant realization that this isn’t happening. Just glance at the June issue of Architectural Record, with the cover headline: Women in Architecture Now.

One of the essays in A Place for Women is Scott Brown’s “Room at the Top: Sexism and the Star System,” in which she puzzles over these contradictions.

Some young women in architecture question the need for the feminist movement, claiming to have experienced no discrimination. My concern is that, although school is not a non-discriminatory environment, it is probably the least discriminatory one they will encounter in their careers. By the same token, the early years of practice bring little differentiation between men and women. It is as they advance that difficulties arise, when firms and clients shy away from entrusting high-level responsibilities to women. On seeing their male colleagues draw out in front of them, women who lack a feminist awareness are likely to feel that their failure to achieve is their own fault. 4

Denise Scott Brown was 44 years old when she first wrote her now-famous cri de coeur. 5 But now as then we struggle with this question of “feminist awareness” — which is to say we continue to frame the goal of women’s advancement almost entirely in terms of personal achievement and individual effort, and to construe the challenge largely as a discreet process of persuading those in  power to do the right thing. At the Missing 32%, a motivational speaker delivered a keynote in which she exhorted women to “play bigger” at work, and to move beyond “self doubt” and “self sabotage.” On a panel about “Finding Work/Life Balance,” three women described their efforts to raise a family and maintain a career; not surprisingly, they credited supportive spouses and professional mentors, and for two panelists the solution lay in leaving big firms and setting up their own small practices. At a roundtable organized last fall by the Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation, and held near New York City, social psychologists and management consultants spoke about “making the business case” for gender diversity and described the need for “cultural change” in the field. Yet the speakers acknowledged the barriers that remain, and advised that ambitious women must cultivate — and rely upon — professional sponsors who would further their careers.

Now and then: Left, San Francisco, 2013, The Missing 32%, sponsored by the San Francisco AIA. [AIA San Francisco.] Right, San Francisco, 1973, members of the newly formed Organization of Women in Architecture.

I was glad to attend these symposia on the east and west coasts. The conversation was lively, the mood was upbeat, the general attitude was: onward! Yet somehow the network solidarity, the feelings of communal energy, didn’t outlast the closing remarks. But this has, I think, less to do with the events themselves than with the absence of any larger framework that would support continuing action; with the fact that we are still grappling not only with the problem itself but also with the longstanding unease toward the very subject of feminism, the very idea of movement politics. In an essay published here on Places, Despina Stratigakos describes a roundtable series held at the Van Alen Institute in conjunction with the publication of Feminist Practices; as she writes, the audiences, “which were about 85 percent female and largely in their mid-20s to early 30s, made it clear that the ‘F word’ appealed little to their generation. At the same time, all agreed that the current model of practice was ‘broken’ and that ‘something’ needs to be done — although what that ‘something’ might be remained vague.”

This seems to me a dead-on summing-up of the current moment. But more important, it also points to the crucial next steps; which are to build upon all the heartening and heady conversation and extend the discursive energy into the broader sphere of political and social activism. In other words, we need to translate the widespread awareness of tenacious inequality into an ongoing campaign with concrete goals.

To be sure, there are signs this is starting. At the Missing 32%, the president of the San Francisco AIA announced a new initiative, 50/50, a petition campaign to encourage organizations to achieve 50 percent representation of women on staff rosters as well as design juries, institutional boards, lecture series and the like. Lori Brown, the author of Feminist Practices, and Nina Freedman, director of projects at Shigeru Ban Architects, have raised money via the crowdsourcing site Indiegogo to start the group Women in Architecture; the goal: “to transform the profession.” In reaction to the Pritzker’s refusal to overwrite its earlier decision, Arielle Assouline-Lichten and Caroline James, the Harvard students who created the petition campaign on behalf of Denise Scott Brown, have recently founded Design for Equality as a way of “generating a prolonged response to the Pritzker Jury.”

My own conviction is that the most meaningful prolonged response to the Pritzker — but much more, to the entrenched discrimination it both reflects and reinforces 6 — will involve political action directed toward measurable change. It will involve ramping up the current discussion — now focused on sharing experiences, promoting awareness, influencing leaders — and articulating specific goals, definable outcomes. In other words, it will involve not only waiting for the slow drip of cultural change to weaken longstanding frameworks but also pressing for solutions that are structural. And indeed, there is an obvious structural goal to be championed here in the U.S.: paid family leave.

Way back in the early days of the Clinton administration, Congress passed the Family and Medical Leave Act, which mandates that large organizations provide twelve weeks of unpaid family leave; but in the past two decades the U.S. has fallen shockingly behind other nations in adopting policies that empower women and men to maintain their professional identities — and incomes — while raising children. As The New York Times put it earlier this year: “While the United States takes great pride in its family values, it is the only high-income country that does not offer a paid leave program.” The Huffington Post published a colorful infographic that clarifies the gap at a glance, highlighting the generous benefits enjoyed by citizens not only in old-world social democracies  like France, Germany, the Netherlands, et al., but also in newer players on the global scene like China, Brazil, Indonesia and Saudi Arabia. And as if the HuffPo diagram were not demoralizing enough, the International Labour Organization lands this further blow to American pride when it reports that the U.S. is one of only four nations — the others are Lesotho, Papua New Guinea and Swaziland — that do not mandate paid maternity leave. 7

Upper left: Suffragist march, October 1917, New York City. [Wikimedia Commons] Upper right: Votes for Women pennant, ca. 1900, collection of the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis. [Wikimedia Commons] Bottom left: Mapping Paid Maternity Leave, 2012. [Think Progress] Bottom right: Women’s liberation march, Washington, D.C. August 1970. [Wikimedia Commons]

By now these asymmetries are depressingly familiar. So it’s a measure of how distanced we’ve become from the sphere of politics that very little recent discussion has focused upon the prospect of transformative policy and benchmark legislation — that is, upon the advancement of new rights guaranteed by law. Yet without new rights — and the new arrangements they propel and protect — it’s likely the unsatisfying status quo will stick; powerful people rarely relinquish their privileges, and institutions seldom self-reform. Without new rights we will all remain more or less on our own, dependent upon personal good luck and opportunity — upon the generosity of enlightened employers, the endorsement of well-connected mentors, the encouragement of understanding spouses. At the Missing 32% symposium, I couldn’t help but wish that the “work/life balance” panel had included not just success stories but also less triumphant accounts from women whose promising careers had been undercut by the demands of childcare, and who were perhaps feeling, again to quote Scott Brown, “that their failure to achieve is their own fault.”

In this light it’s worth recalling that the rights we enjoy today were hard fought, the result of resourceful political activism that spanned decades, even centuries, and that was sustained from one generation to the next by the force of unifying goals. It was 165 years ago this July that a few hundred women (and some men) gathered for two sweltering days in the Wesleyan Methodist Chapel in Seneca Falls, New York, and after contentious debate agreed upon the goal of the fledgling women’s movement: in the words of feminist pioneer Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the “inalienable right to the elective franchise.” But it would take another three-quarters of a century before the 19th Amendment to the Constitution granted U.S. women the right to vote. 8 Likewise, it was almost a century ago that Margaret Sanger founded the American Birth Control League (known today as Planned Parenthood) and began the campaign to legalize contraception in America; but it would take another half century before the Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade would make reproductive rights widely accessible.

Family leave policy might seem a wonky and — given the studio-art culture of so many design firms — even a limited goal. Certainly no policy can engage the deeper causes of inequality, the paradoxical vision of the creative hero that has long shaped the deeply collaborative field of architecture. (Ironically, in upholding its decision — and in framing its rationale in the appalling language of Lord Palumbo’s letter — the Pritzker Committee might have inflicted more damage to its reputation than the petition campaign.) But in eliminating the most obvious obstacle to gender equality in the workplace, and in extending the rights to men as well as women, paid family leave would surely begin to erode the hard lines that have long divided the spheres of career and family. No doubt a campaign for new national rights — undertaken in productive collaboration with related professional and activist groups — will require serious new organizational energy. But without that new energy, without unifying goals, the current conversation will drift and dissipate, as did those of earlier generations. Personally I do not think it matters much whether or not we use the F word. But it does matter that we seize the moment and take up the unfinished business of equalizing professional and academic opportunities, so that a quarter century from now no one need start a petition on behalf of women in architecture.

About the Series: Women in Architecture

Places is pleased to present an occasional and ongoing series on the longstanding — and newly active — issues of women in architecture.

  1. On the subject of the “persistence of discrimination,” see Sarah Williams Goldhagen, “Crashing the Boys’ Club,” Architectural Record, June 2013. (You can access the article here if you have a subscription.) See also Hilde Heynen, “Genius, Gender and Architecture: The Star System as Exemplified in the Pritzker Prize,” Architectural Theory Review, Vol. 17, 331–345. The article is behind a paywall, though earlier this year Parlour arranged for free access.
  2. Ellen Perry Berkeley, editor, and Matilda McQuaid, associate editor, Architecture: A Places for Women (Washington: Smithsonian Institution, 1989), xvi.
  3. See Women in Architecture, in which Lori Brown and Nina Freedman have assembled a variety of statistics for both the profession and academia.
  4. Denise Scott Brown, “Room at the Top: Sexism and the Star System,” in Berkeley and McQuaid, Architecture: A Place for Women, 245. See also Denise Scott Brown, Having Words (London: Architectural Association, 2009), 88.
  5. Scott Brown notes that “Room at the Top,” though not published until 1988, was written in 1975. As she says, in A Place for Women: “The foregoing is an abridgement of an article I wrote in 1975. I decided not to publish it at the time, because I judged that strong sentiments on feminism in the world of architecture would ensure my ideas a hostile reception, which could hurt my career and the prospects of my firm. However, I did share the manuscript with friends and, in samizdat, it achieved a following of sorts.”
  6. Some of the discussion sparked by the Women in Design petition to the Pritzker Prize Committee has focused on whether Denise Scott Brown truly deserves the honor. As is always the case with a prize, this is a fair question; but here it seems to me beside the point. Like most prizes, the Pritzker is more about validating power structures than honoring excellence. And of course the Pritzker is itself part of the power structure of the discipline; by now it has become as important an any of its individual honorees. In fact, I’d argue that the chief value of the Pritzker lies in the fact that its annual rites draw attention to a field that most of the time remains on the far margins of public interest. In March 2005, on the occasion of Thom Mayne’s award, I argued this point in a blog post on Arts Journal: scroll down the page and see “A Chancy Business.”
  7. Reports vary on exactly which African and Pacific Island nations also offer no paid family leave. In a chart that accompanies an excellent article on “Why Gender Equality Stalled,” by Stephanie Coontz, The New York Times reports that eight countries, out of 188, have no paid family leave programs: along with the United States, these are Liberia, Nauru, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Suriname, Tonga and Western Samoa. It should be noted that within the U.S., as is often the case, some states have moved more swiftly than the federal government; California and New Jersey, for instance, offer paid family leave insurance programs.In her New York Times article, Coontz argues that as a result of the discrepancies in paid family leave policies, the United States’ ranking in women’s labor-force has declined: “In 1990, the United States ranked sixth in female labor participation among 22 countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which is made up of most of the globe’s wealthier countries. By 2010 … we had fallen to 17th place, with about 30 percent of that decline a direct result of our failure to keep pace with other countries’ family-friendly work policies.”
  8. Prior to ratification of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, in 1920, a number of states had granted women the right to vote on a full or partial basis.
Nancy Levinson, “Beyond the Pritzker,” Places Journal, July 2013. Accessed 03 Oct 2023.

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