How do we navigate practice knowing that gender bias overlays the way we frame and understand architecture? Kerstin Thompson outlines ten lessons learnt over her career.

I hope to be respected as an architect. Full stop. Similarly, I hope that kta buildings are judged by the criteria we  expect to apply to any architecture, not a special one reserved for “women architects”.

Nonetheless, as a woman practitioner I am acutely aware of the language and concepts that frame and describe architecture and the extent to which these are overlaid with gender bias. How can we be mindful of this in the thinking we bring to bear upon our buildings and our profession?

I do not ascribe a gender to our buildings and am somewhat perplexed when people remark that many of them are “masculine”. How do they determine this? It seems to be something to do with straight lines and an at-times-Brutalist, direct use of materials – apparently this can be attributed to the masculine rather than feminine.

In contrast, I was once asked if a project I describe as an “interval building” – one wedged between two iconic towers – was a feminine response. There is no simple answer. But I certainly think my interest in building-as-interval stems from my late-eighties postmodern/poststructuralist education, which involved the rethink of classic oppositions in architecture. That same awareness flows on to how the business of architecture and practice is conducted and the kinds of roles that can come to be expected depending on our gender.

So here are some lessons I’ve learnt, in no particular order, and relevant to men and women in architectural practice.

Be competent.

The best antidote to any potential critic is to be good at what you do, whatever aspect of practice that may be. You don’t have to be exceptional but being competent is pretty handy and is hard to undermine. It eventually commands respect from even the most reluctant of colleagues.

Be aware of gender roles.

Girls do interiors, boys do technical – so it goes…. Actually girls do towers too and boys select curtains. Maintain vigilance around gender-based expectations in terms of where you situate yourself in practice and the kinds of jobs you work on. Embrace them if they fit, but feel free to resist if not. This may mean moving out of your comfort zones.

Have babies early. Have babies late.

Have them somewhere in the middle.… Whenever, it will be a juggle. But architecture is a slow burner profession. Delaying children till your late thirties problematically coincides with the time when carefully accrued professional experience begins to pay dividends with greater opportunities and advanced seniority within a practice. Drawing upon my own experience, have them early – if you can.

Be very wary of taking on a job ‘because you’re a woman’.

Sometimes the dubious reason we have won a job – “because you’re a woman” – is the same reason we have lost it later. It’s a double-edge sword, the gender card. It inevitably contains built-in assumptions –you’ll be good at kitchens (but don’t know about a fire station), you’ll listen (but won’t question) or you’ll be sensitive (but not authoritative).

Choose your partner wisely.

Practice is an endurance test and can be demanding. At some stage find you’ll probably yourself wanting a “wife” – that is, significant domestic support with household and children when work demands are high. Is your partner really going to share the hard yards of household management and children? Even if you do manage to find an agreeable arrangement, we are a long way from aligning what we rationally know is possible with what we subconsciously expect.

Work life imbalance knows no gender.

Men who share in child rearing also have to fight against the prejudices of the world, which – however liberal it may profess itself to be – still deep down expects a man to put work above family if tested. These same men long for a world that also allows them the option of partial commitment to the work sphere. In this regard men and women are in this together – both damned if you do damned if you don’t. So support each other.

Find a match between yourself and the culture of a practice.

If you can, choose a practice that aligns with your values. There is no point aspiring to work somewhere you know will, in reality, operate counter to your own priorities and then being disgruntled. If in doubt start your own practice and define your preferred way to work with like-minded colleagues.

Spend time on site early in your career.

Enjoying site and knowing you also have a place in this sphere is empowering. You don’t have to be “mate”. Just show respect, learn from questions about buildability and enjoy – improvise with the messy, imperfect process that is construction.

Embrace uncertainty.

The future of practice is characterised by uncertainty.  It will involve teams, increasingly bigger ones, and more risk for less pay. Contrary to the lament of many, I don’t think the profession will die. It can exert significant influence over day-to-day quality of life and environment, especially if we pay more attention to ordinary, everyday buildings. Icons only get us so far.

Maintain your optimism or don’t become bitter.

Sometimes practice can feel like you’re beating your head against a brick wall. You probably are. But if you are prepared for how really hard it is sometimes and how really joyful it is at others – this will help you stay keen and resilient. Laughter and humour helps enormously.

Finally, what do women bring to the profession? What any good architect brings – empathy, insight, anticipation of people’s needs, flexibility, spatial intelligence, poetics to daily life, a collaborative spirit and capacity to improvise, respect for people and place. Respect for life.

Because ultimately architecture is not about things, it’s about life.

This is an edited version of a talk Kerstin Thompson gave at the 2013 Diverse Practice Symposium at Victoria University of Wellington. This was a response to the following questions posed by the organisers:

  • If you could share one insight about architecture with a female graduate entering the profession what would it be?
  • What do you think the future of architectural practice is/should be?
  • What do you think women bring to the profession?