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.

Evan Agostini/Invision/AP/File
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.'

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.

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.

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.

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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