From the subtle to the outright abusive, sexual power games are rife in architecture, and they push women out. Gill Matthewson argues that it’s time to find out what the world would look like if success was not predicated on diminishing others.

The hashtag MeToo has overwhelmed social and other media in the last few weeks in reaction to the Harvey Weinstein ‘revelations’. Some are simply adding more and more stories to the catalogue of Weinstein offences (and a growing number of other Hollywood entities). But others are insisting the issue is far wider than Hollywood, because most women know that sexual harassment and assault are a ‘fact of life’ in many of the worlds they walk in – including architecture. In her excellent article, Anna Winston asks “Does architecture have a Harvey Weinstein hiding within its ranks?” (As Charity Edwards pithily responded on Twitter: “What do you mean ‘a’, and what do you mean ‘hiding’?”)

As part of my PhD research, I interviewed seventy women and men who had worked in different architectural work environments all over the world. And, because the research was about women in architecture, I had informal conversations with very many more. I became a safe depository for the experiences that women were explicitly silent about in ‘normal circumstances’. Experiences that demonstrate, in no uncertain terms, how sexual harassment and abuse of power ripples through the profession.

What else do you call serious sexual assault being laughed off by directors as a ‘you should be so lucky that a man is interested in you now you are over forty’.

Or when outright harassment is framed as a ‘little affair’ gone sour (after all, it takes two to tango).

What about when you find out that a young woman was not made redundant (when far more competent people were) because she provides masturbation fodder for one of the directors – something she is unlikely to be aware of, although she may be wondering why some people are giving her funny looks.

What about when you leave a firm and are explicitly told, ‘if you were a man, it would have been different – you would have been a director by now’. (And this was not last century, but within the last ten years).

What about the men who think that working on a project away from home means an automatic and open invitation to sex, because of the ‘what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas’ code of ethics. The pressure to succumb to this archetypal porn fantasy is not subtle (and may even be tempting).

Such behaviour is unacceptable, unethical and, very often, unlawful. And it does not happen in a vacuum. These are not isolated incidents, but part of a larger endemic culture that manifests in ways that range from serious harassment to the multiplying indignities of ‘everyday sexism’. The avalanche of #Metoo has enormous power as a collective voice saying ‘enough’. But I don’t expect the same avalanche to occur in architecture. Research by the Australian Human Rights Commission makes it abundantly clear that the cost of calling out such actions is too often borne by the complainant rather than the perpetrator – and architecture is too small for public denouncements to carry the same impact as Hollywood ones.

But these sexual power games, ranging from nudges to outright shoves, assuredly push women out of architecture. And they have a direct effect on what happens to women in their thirties. We know that this is an age when many leave the profession – and, no, it’s not just about having children. Competition hits particularly strongly at this stage of a career, and power games based on gender can find a fertile playground in the internal competition that permeates many offices. There are only so many good roles on good projects and no holds are barred in the competition to secure one of these. Every skerrick of competitive advantage can and does get played. And being female can be weaponised against you, as can being from any kind of minority group (be that for the practice or for the profession as a whole).

Perhaps you have a male colleague who is really helpful until you are given some level of responsibility over him. Suddenly he becomes very difficult to work with, making belittling comments questioning your ability, aptitude and commitment. One woman had brought an important project into the office and, because of her relationship with the client, assumed she would take the lead role. Not so. She was sidelined because a male ‘colleague’ undermined her to the directors/principals (very uncollegially). He didn’t have to work that hard. He merely pointed out the little instances where she conformed to clichéd female stereotypes, and the whole cultural and historical weight of those tropes did the rest. From haywire hormones to the tick-tock of biological clocks, women are ‘surely unreliable and flaky’. Women are, of course, ‘naturally’ less capable of interacting with the strongly male-dominated groups of building contractors, clients and consultants (it’s a tough project, it needs someone tough – aka male. The clichéd stereotype works to male advantage). And she’s not even that good, didn’t she sleep her way into her position? There was that time in Vegas (it turns out that the ‘code of ethics’ is not so ethical for women).

Too often the practices that hold large sway over our built environment rely on a competitive culture to ‘up the ante’ and ‘get the best’ out of their staff. It has some merit, but if the leadership does not keep an eye on the mechanisms of that competition they may well cultivate a toxic culture that, in the end, is also actually detrimental to projects. If staff are having to work with an eye to the main chance or to protect themselves from attack all the time, the practice is not getting their best work.

The issue is not that women are uncompetitive (see the fabulous Cordelia Fine’s award-winning book, Testosterone Rex for the unequivocal debunking of such nonsense), it is that the field is so stacked against them. And so nasty and grubby that any fun is taken out of the game. It gets tiring and tedious if you can only win by being ‘completely amazing’, or ‘in a class of her own’, or an ‘uber-person’, or even ‘an alien’ (all phrases used in my interviews to describe those few women who were in very senior positions). The wonder is that any women stay. Some stick it out, especially for the sake of the project, but far too many leave. Indeed, we urge women to get out of abusive scenarios, and the profession as a whole provides too few alternative options.

No, not every practice is quite this extreme, but there’s more than enough to poison the profession for too many women. Some abuses of power may be easier to see – such as when powerful men prey on much younger and junior women. Others are much more subtle. My brother once told me that an incident that had happened to me was not ‘a bit weird’ (my words) but ‘sleazy’ (far more accurate, but I really was reluctant to see it as such for confused and complicated reasons). I know too of women who have been able to manipulate infatuated older men to get precisely what they wanted in terms of jobs and opportunities. But they are far fewer than the men who misinterpret admiration for their architectural skills and experience as sexual interest.

In architecture, as elsewhere, even the obvious incidents often go unacknowledged, or are too quickly dismissed or excused with a ‘that’s just the way it/he is’ shrug. None should be accepted. And we all have a part to play to ensure that architecture is not framed by destructive stereotypes, lazy assumptions, and bitchy back-biting. What does the world look like if we do not bolster our own status by diminishing another’s? Time to find out.

We ask everyone to be on guard for the small and large occasions where comments and actions are used to diminish or belittle someone. Even in jest. Actually, especially in jest – much gets covered over by an appeal to ‘it was just a joke’. Jokes mark an ‘in’ group and an ‘out’ group (see the wonderful Jason P. Steed’s ‘PhD in a series of tweets’ on the social function of humour). Do not support the abuse of others, either tacitly or explicitly, as a means to further your own career.

If you are in a position of power, please investigate rumours and accusations. Yes, there may be an occasional vexatious situation, but begin by believing the person with the least power.

Understand your own role in the power structure. If you are a man, you are unlikely to be the one who can judge whether someone is a ‘sleaze’ or not. (Just as if you are white, you are not the one to judge whether an incident/comment is racist). Again, listen first to those on the receiving end.

From ‘little jokes’ to physical assault, all stem from the same source. It is well past time for this source to be exposed for the destructive force that it is. Destructive not just for individuals but for the quality of the architecture we produce.