Editorial: Gender Equity Starts at School

The more we talk about gender inequity in architecture, the more disturbing the conversation. As Despina Stratigakos, author of the book Where Are the Women Architects? has said: “The simplistic explanation, trotted out for decades, that women leave practice to have babies doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.” Instead, “it is the presence of significant subtle (and sometimes overt) attitudes and biases that both exclude women, and disproportionately lead them to abandon architecture as a profession.”

Gender Equity
The banner response of GSD students at Harvard to the “Shitty Men in Architecture” list. Photo via twitter.com/missmaliaaaa

Earlier this year, the Architects’ Journal published the results of a poll of nearly 1,500 United Kingdom-based professionals, revealing that one in seven female respondents reported having experienced sexual harassment in the past year. Then, the New York Times reported allegations of sexual misconduct against Pritzker Prize-winning architect Richard Meier, who then took a six-month leave from his practice. And then someone created the “Shitty Architecture Men” list, an open spreadsheet of alleged misconduct. It was aimed at the profession, but it collected multiple citations of sexism, harassment, bullying, intimidation and assault in architecture schools, including the Harvard Graduate School of Design. That prompted some GSD students to hang banners to actively seek out a change of culture. Just last month, GSD female faculty signed a letter with the following assertion: “We too have suffered and still do from this culture in our own daily encounters, both here and in the broader design community.”

Harvard is not unique. Other schools across the United States have been fielding growing complaints of a “boys will be boys” mentality that normalized “toxic” behaviour, and investigations and apologies have resulted. But what about Canadian schools? With their healthy gender ratios, architecture schools barely registered in our debates on gender equity in the profession. This might have been an oversight. The long hours of one-on-one studio teaching, the theatrics of reviews, the virtual quarantine of students with their thesis directors during the now-mandatory Master’s degree, the protection offered by tenure and deeply entrenched pecking orders on many a faculty all contribute to creating a fertile ground for sexism and harassment.

Pressed as they are to defend studio against the pressure brought by universities to use more lucrative teaching formats, schools lack incentives to bring sexism and harassment issues to the fore. Going down this path also risks deterring talented men and women from applying. And once registered in a programme, most students fail to identify sexism and harassment for what it is. Those who do ask for help usually receive support that is centred on their personal well-being; from there, very few will negotiate the fraught process of lodging a formal complaint. A whisper culture is the safer option, until one gets out of school—and into the workplace.

The profession inherits the problem. It can also be key in addressing it, by requesting that architecture schools perform yearly evaluations of the potential toxic culture at their institutions. Standardized questions can be folded into the evaluation forms that students fill in after every course. Results can be broken down by course for Equity Offices; and by school for prospective students, employers and the wider public. A comparable system is in place in the federal public service and at the larger architectural firms bidding on federal contracts. As one element in an expanded tool-kit, it can help us chart a responsible way forward.

Brigitte Desrochers is an alumna of the Harvard Graduate School of Design and the former Architecture Officers at the Canada Council for the Arts.