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Opinion

A blueprint for women architects to overcome doubt, discrimination

An online campaign to have the work of architect Denise Scott Brown recognized by the Pritzker Architecture Prize committee has shed light on the ongoing struggles of women in architecture. Women must push themselves to 'lean in' more to fight internal and external obstacles.

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These patterns of self-doubt are culturally ingrained from an early age, and are incredibly pervasive among female designers. I’ve spoken with a number of women about passing up opportunities they shouldn’t have because they worried they were underqualified. I’ve spoken with plenty of others who have realized that they had allowed themselves to play the behind-the-scenes role in a project in which they should have been front and center.

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I myself realized that I have been doing a huge amount of invisible “housework” in the collaborative projects that I’m a part of, working behind the scenes to smooth team dynamics and make sure everyone’s on the same page. This work is vitally important, but it’s neither visible, explicitly valued, or creditable. It sets up my own professional version of the classic “second shift” many working women face, where they work full-time outside the home but are still responsible for most household and child-rearing duties. In this case, I'm responsible both for a “full time job” on these projects and the group’s “family dynamics” and “housecleaning.”

The everyday patterns of behavior women fall into have insidious and far-reaching consequences. When we undervalue our work and our worth, the people around us don’t see it either. It’s not that professors, firm principals, or the leaders of our field mean to be sexist; it’s that when they think about who should sit on design review juries, who should open the new branch office, or whom they should invite to the panel, they make choices that reflect perceptions and internalized social norms we all uphold.

So what must women, like me, do about our lack of leadership? How can we start to change the long-ingrained patterns that hold us back?

First, we have external work to do, such as calling attention to lower pay for women with the same qualifications or the dearth of women in senior leadership.

But we also have quite a bit of internal work to do, and mere affirmation is not enough. We need to be forming groups of women that take on individual challenges, such as applying for a number of opportunities that we feel are slightly out of our reach. We need to be learning together to improve our self-advocacy skills, running workshops or programs in which we learn to negotiate for better pay, benefits, and opportunities. We need to be working together to change individually, holding each other accountable to “lean in” more and supporting each other in doing so.

I submitted that fellowship application. While I didn’t win, my proposal opened doors for me: A professor of mine thinks my ideas are strong and wants us to write an article together.

More important, after thanking my classmate Caroline for pushing me in my moment of despair, we decided to re-launch the student group “Women in Design” at Harvard. After our first meeting, group member Arielle Assouline-Lichten proposed the petition for architect Denise Scott Brown. A few weeks and thousands of signatures later, the conversation on women and the nature of credit and collaboration in design is starting to change.

It is these everyday decisions that add up to larger profession-wide realities. If we women push ourselves to “lean in” more, working on external and internal fronts, we have the opportunity to bring closer a future where talented women in design don’t get passed over. And we are working toward ensuring Denise Scott Brown’s cause becomes a symbol for a new era of equal leadership – an era whose time has certainly come. 

Mia Scharphie is a master of landscape architecture candidate at Harvard University where she specializes in design as a catalyst of social and environmental change. She helped to relaunch Harvard's student group Women in Design this spring and is a member of the Women's Founders Forum run out of the Harvard Business School

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