More than a numbers game. Jeremy Till explains his 30% pledge as an affirmative stance and as a means to resist the tired discourse of the ‘thrusting heroes’.

Another all male panel.

As I write this, a nasty little spat is developing over the annual conference of the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland (RIAS). Out of the 19 chosen speakers, not one is a woman. That is bad enough, but sadly not unique.

What is really unacceptable is the justification by the RIAS Secretary and Registrar, Neil Baxter, set out in a letter to someone complaining about the imbalance. He starts out by saying, “As you will be aware, the Incorporation has never pursued a positive discrimination policy.” Since when, Mr Baxter, is having even just one woman a form of positive discrimination?

I hate the term ‘positive discrimination’ for the very reason that Baxter unforgivably reveals in his final sentence: “I know there are many who would advocate positive discrimination for all fields of human endeavour. There are others who would see that as discrimination.” This implies that addressing the issue of numerical imbalance is a form of discrimination against men. Such attitudes betray the sexism at the very heart of the issue, based on a complete inability to engage with, or take seriously, the historical constitution of gender politics.

Baxter uses the word ‘happens’ twice: “As it happens, the senior architects and clients on many of the very specific topics of this year’s Convention … are male,” and: “so we end up, not by intent or design, with an excellent group of speakers all of whom happen to be male.”

But things do not just happen; they are the result of inbuilt institutional values, and those values in this case ended up with a completely skewed roster. In a subsequent tweet the Brisbane architect, Brooke Kidley, wrote: “maybe the representation should = % rep. of women registered!” But as I pointed out in a tweeted response, this just perpetuates the inequitable status quo.

The ignorance and insensitivity that Baxter displays is of course symptomatic of a wider malaise in the architectural profession, in which women are not only underrepresented in relation to the overall population, but also offered a yet-more-limited platform in relation to their numbers.

One of the problems is that architects like to think of themselves as a liberal profession, wrongly conflating creative innovation with social innovation. This means that issues such as gender are often not engaged with, in the belief that the overriding liberal ethos deals with them. This is very different from the more ‘conservative’ professions such as law and medicine, who have stared their own imbalances in the face, found them uncomfortable, and started to address them, resulting in a much better gender balance than in architecture.

It is therefore beholden on all of us, male and female alike, to understand the underlying causes of the unequal representation, and to start to deal with them. In a very small way this is what I attempted to do in publically pledging to only sit on platforms, contribute to books or engage in lecture series that had at least 30% female representation.

My stance is more than just a numbers game. It is often said that knowledge is power. These male dominated platforms are the means for the perpetuation of male models of knowledge, and with them the perpetuation of male systems of power. To some extent, my 30% pledge is an act of self-preservation – not just because I suspect invitations will fall off because many platforms cannot reach my modest target, but also because I am increasingly intemperate of male-dominated discourse and the values it represents: the architect as thrusting hero, the endless ‘show and tells’ with the architect at the centre, the clubiness of the whole scene with women excluded from those all important informal networks (I bet those 19 men have a few whisky-fuelled evenings swapping stories and maybe jobs).

Although this sounds churlish of me as a privileged male, my pledge is actually, to use Rosi Braidotti’s term, affirmative. As she so persuasively argues, change at a societal level will only happen if we go beyond the male-female dualism, and see feminism as a positive agent in the realignment of values.

Yes, a move to equity in numbers is important (but not sufficient), and yes the very presence of female role models is crucial (but not enough), but still more vital is the opening up of new lines of discussion that a truly diverse platform would engender.

The response to my pledge has generally been positive. Some have asked why not 50%? I discussed this long and hard with my partner, Sarah Wigglesworth, and 30% just felt more realistic. It avoids the dreaded term ‘token’, as in one woman in four, and coincidentally aligns with a national campaign in the US business sector. Women have tweeted support. A few men have signed up, but not enough (clearly) because the tragic probability is that, until men face up to the inequity of their power, real change will be difficult to achieve.

However, the best response was from a big international conference to which I was invited. Again no female speakers, and so I declined, explaining why. Immediately the response came back: “We are ashamed.” They promptly addressed the issue. In their case the response indicated not intentional discrimination but an unwitting concurrence with the status quo.

To their credit, they did not come back with the standard response (which I have had from a university society and which is Neil Baxter’s implied line) – that we invite the best people for the job, and if the best people ‘happen’ to be men, so be it. What this response so manifestly disregards is the definition of ‘best’. Who sets the terms or values of the ‘best’? Answer: the prevailing consensus, or more clearly, the prevailing male consensus (hence the endless perpetuation of the status quo as the ‘best’ reinforces itself on the platforms of power). But what if ‘best’ is defined in terms of presenting other models and of promoting the suppressed voices?

After all, the blokes’ model hasn’t served us too well, as the testosterone-fuelled trading floors that pushed the world to financial collapse attest, and as architecture is increasingly marginalised in its clinging to the limits of building as commodity. So some form of alternative needs to be given the space to be aired. My 30% pledge is a tiny nudge towards this because, as Sarah Wigglesworth once said, “Architecture is too important to be left to men alone.”