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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.

By Mia Scharphie / May 1, 2013

Architect honoree Zaha Hadid attends Glamour Magazine's 22nd annual 'Women of the Year Awards' at Carnegie Hall on Nov. 12, 2012 in New York. In 2004, Ms. Hadid was the first woman to receive the Pritzker Architecture Prize. Op-ed contributor Mia Scharphie says women now 'have the opportunity to bring closer a future where talented women in design don’t get passed over.'

Evan Agostini/Invision/AP/File

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Cambridge, Mass.

Women make up almost half the graduating architecture classes, but only 17 percent of architecture-firm leadership. Even as women have made great strides in the field over the last several decades, that disconnect hasn’t gone away.

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So a few weeks ago, Harvard architecture students Caroline James and Arielle Assouline-Lichten launched a campaign on Change.org, an online petition platform, which has garnered more than 11,300 signatures. Some of the world’s premier architects have signed it – including Rem Koolhaas, Jacques Herzog, and Pierre de Meuron

These signers are petitioning the Pritzker Architecture Prize committee to formally and equally recognize the work of Denise Scott Brown in the 1991 award given exclusively to her male collaborator Robert Venturi. Now in its sixth week, their campaign continues to gain signatures – including from Mr. Venturi and nine other Pritzker prize winners – and media attention.

More important, the campaign has raised questions about the challenges facing female architectural designers today – and how talented women can face them down. 

Why would two young female architects take up Ms. Brown’s cause 22 years after the fact? I am inadvertently responsible for setting into motion the events that led to this petition. But I hesitated to write this article because my contribution did not come from a moment of insight or inspired action; it came from a moment of desperation and self-doubt.

A few weeks ago, as a student at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, I came to campus distressed and deflated. I had been working hard on an application for a prestigious fellowship that was due later that day, but was convinced that my proposal wasn't good enough. I felt naive and that my work was that of an amateur.

Looking for absolution and emotional permission to give up, I turned to a classmate, Caroline James. Instead of the kind shoulder I sought, she gave me a challenge and asked, “Have you ever heard of leaning in?”

This is the concept popularized recently by Facebook chief operating office Sheryl Sandberg, who believes that women need to put doubts aside and confidently “lean in” to positions of leadership, even if they don't feel ready. “Good is better than perfect,” Caroline told me. “You may not get it, but you’ll never get it if you don’t apply.”

I instantly felt both shamed and called to action. In the preceding weeks, as graduation approached, time and time again I had heard female colleagues sigh wistfully, reflecting on how they’d love to get a job at some particular dream firm of theirs, but they’d never stand a chance. These are talented women about to earn a degree from one of the most prestigious universities in the world.

While it can be hard to get any job fresh out of school, some of my friends were convinced it wasn’t even worth trying for their top choice firms. I have made it my personal crusade to fight this kind of thinking, but much to my dismay, I found myself in the exact same mindset.

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