How can we tackle the sexual harassment in our architecture schools? Cathy Smith reflects on power, silence and change in the architectural academy.


In late 2015, I wrote a piece for Parlour detailing the challenges of working within the architectural academy due to the hierarchical structures of the university sector and the power differentials it produces. One ongoing and troubling challenge confronting Australian universities relates to the sexual harassment of students, which was the subject of a 2016 Australian Human Rights survey and the resulting report Change the Course: National Report on Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment at Australian Universities (2017).

The Australian Human Rights Commission defines sexual harassment as: ‘unwanted or unwelcome sexual behaviour, which makes a person feel offended, humiliated or intimidated’. It affects all genders, involves the denial of basic human rights and, in Australia, is unlawful in workplaces and education. In this essay, I would like to engage with this troubling and often-secretive phenomenon, its relation to architectural education and potential approaches to understand and minimise it.

Trouble in the studio

Sometimes metaphoric and sometimes physical, the ‘design studio’ denotes a pedagogical mode and a physical space at the core of architectural education. Due to its mythic status, it is sometimes easy to forget that the design studio is still a classroom. With this in mind, the Change the Course report is deeply critical of the tertiary education sector’s responses to sexual harassment and assault occurring not only on campus, but in classrooms themselves. Similarly, the report identifies an alarming rate of student-perpetuated harassment and staff-perpetuated harassment, the latter being a phenomenon also reported in the British academies.[1. David Batty, Sally Weale and Caroline Bannock, ‘Sexual harassment ‘at epidemic levels’ in UK universities’, The Guardian, Higher Education (6 March 2017); Sally Weale and David Batty, ‘Sexual harassment of students by university staff hidden by non-disclosure agreements’, The Guardian, World (26 August 2016).] While Change the Course is not discipline-specific, universities are the effective birthplace of our architectural profession. Its findings should therefore be of concern to academics, architects and the disciplinary bodies with a responsibility to ensure that the environments in which our future architects first receive their training are inclusive and relevant.

Most readers will be very familiar with the now-viral #metoo social media campaign rekindled by a female actor in response to the media reporting of decades of abuse and harassment in the film industry.[2. First initiated over a decade ago as a movement against the sexual assault by North American activist and youth worker Tarana Burke, the #metoo hasthtag was recently used by actor Alyssa Milano in a Twitter post supporting victims of harassment. See Cassandra Santiago and Doug Criss, ‘An activist, a little girl and the heartbreaking origin of “Me too”’, CNN online, International edition (20 October 2017).] To many, the campaign is unsurprising – sexism can be the operational workplace reality of many women, and some men, in paid employment.[3. Australian Human Rights Commission, ‘Sexual Harassment’.] An incessant stream of similar accounts of harassment (and the bullying and complacency that often accompany it) are now being sensationally reported in other professional fields including medicine, arts and the media, fashion, IT, politics, science, law and accounting.[ref]Quentin McDermott and Karen Michelmore, ‘At Their Mercy: The bullying and bastardisation of young doctors in our hospitals, Four Corners (2015); AMSA, ‘Bullying and Harassment in Medicine – AMSA’s Response to the Senate Inquiry’ (7 November 2016). Richard Watts, ‘Confronting the ugly face of sexual harassment’, artshub (23 October 2017); Tom Embury-Dennis, ‘Terry Richardson: Fashion photographer accused of sexual assault barred from working with Vogue’, The Independent, News:World:Americas (24 October 2017); Julie Bort, ‘Sexual harassment scandals have been rocking the tech industry – but we’ve seen this all before’, Business Insider (2 August 2017); Rainbow Murray, ‘This is not just about sex, it’s about power’, The Conversation UK (3 November 2017); Meredith Wadman, ‘House science committee investigating sexual harassment allegations against Boston University geologist‘, Science, online journal, American Association for the Advancement of Science (26 October 2017). Cases of workplace harassment and assault in accounting and the law were discussed by panel and audience during an SBS Insight television programme. SBS, ‘Insight Season 2017 Episode 29 — Sexual Harassment’, SBS On Demand, News and Current Affairs, presenter Jenny Brockie (2015).[/ref] In our own discipline, there seems to be improved awareness of the gender equality generally, but comparatively minimal discussion about the specific issue of sexual harassment. That said, our discipline has already experienced its own ‘Weinstein’ moments, particularly in academia.[5. Hollywood media mogul Harvey Weinstein is now facing numerous and highly publicised allegations of sexual harassment and abuse. For an oversight of this recent history, refer to the interview with one investigative journalist who co-authored the news item leading to his public demise: Isaac Chotiner with Jodi Kantor, ‘The Weinstein Break’, (11 October 2017). Ashley Wong, ‘Investigation finds campus professor violated sex misconduct policies’, The Daily Californian, campus section (14 November 2016).] The international and voluntary ‘Women in Architecture’ surveys by The Architects’ Journal (AJ) have consistently reported incidents of sexism in practice, and in their 2017 student survey, nearly half of the female student respondents indicated experiences of sexism while studying architecture.[ref]Two-third of the female annual survey respondents reported experiences of sexual discrimination in 2014–2016 and in 2017, over half of the female respondents (and a quarter of men) reported discrimination in the last year: see Laura Mark, ‘Architecture Survey Reveals Rise in Discrimination’, The Architects’ Journal, ‘Women in Architecture’ section, online edition (10 January 2014); Bruce Tether, ‘Results of the 2016 Women in Architecture Survey revealed’, The Architectural Review, online edition; Bruce Tether, ‘How architecture cheats women: results of the 2017 Women in Architecture survey revealed’, The Architectural Review, online edition (27 February 2017); Ella Braidwood, ‘AJ student survey: nearly half of female students experience sexism’, The Architects’ Journal, ‘News section, online edition (18 July 2017).[/ref] Architecture is not immune to sexual harassment: what currently differentiates it from the aforementioned disciplines is its relative silence.

Narratives of harm

To move forward, we need data specific to the operational cultures of our Australian architecture schools and collective agreement on how to engage with the phenomenon of sexual discrimination and its sinister offpring, sexual harassment. To this end, I have spent the last year lobbying our peak disciplinary bodies for non-partisan support for an anonymous student survey on gender equity and harassment in Australian architecture schools. During this process, some current academic staff and architecture students of all genders have confidentially shared heinous stories of harassment and assault that have occurred in the last few years inside architecture school settings. I like to think these are isolated incidents but collectively (and irrespective of quantum), they suggest that the problem is both entrenched in certain organisational settings and causing substantial damage to our architectural communities.[7. According to psychologist and academic Afroditi Pina, ‘In fact, research shows the climate of an organisation and tolerance are the strongest predictor of sexual harassment. How permissive the organisational climate is determines how risky a complaint appears to the victim, how likely the harasser is to be punished, and how seriously one’s complaints will be received by the organisation and their colleagues.’ Afroditi Pina, ‘How to recognise and start tackling sexual harassment in the workplace’, The Conversation (25 October 2017).] Students and staff talked of situations in which they feel undue pressure to consent to intimate or flirtatious relationships; rejected offers and oppositional stances produced equally unjust, potentially career-derailing retaliations, shaming and ‘troublemaker’ labels.[ref]This is because: “the most commonly recognised form of sexual harassment is a quid-pro-quo one … where a person with more institutional (or perceived) power makes demands of a persona with relatively less power, in exchange for career-related advancements or with the threat of retaliations (as see in the Weinstein allegations)”. Pina, ‘How to recognise and start tackling sexual harassment in the workplace’. Retaliatory malfeasance is a known strategy used by predatory harassers because if an individual victim makes a formal complaint, their more powerful predator has already ensured that their victim’s professional and personal credibility is already undermined.[/ref] Speaking to individuals concerned about their behaviour (if safe to do so) communicates it is problematic but the powerful stance of those involved, combined with a lack of hard evidence to support a successful complaint, creates an invisible shroud of silence and shame haunting victims and the profession alike.[ref]George B. Cunningham, ‘Why bystanders rarely speak up when they witness sexual harassment’, The Conversation  (25 October 2017).[/ref]

To become an individual agent of change in a troubled setting, one must be mentally and professionally agile with a resilient sense of self. This is because victims and bystanders who speak up and say ‘no’ typically pay a high personal, financial and professional price.[11. Bianca Fileborn, ‘What the Harvey Weinstein case tells us about sexual assault disclosure’, The Conversation (13 October 2017).] So why do they (and I) do it? One reason is that the Australian Human Rights Commission explicitly recognises that ignoring discrimination and harassment in university settings equates to its condonation.[12. Australian Human Rights Commission, Change the Course, 8.] Another reason is that research shows that non-victims and bystanders also suffer from harassment and general ‘workplace incivility’ that fosters it.[13. Psychologist and academic George B. Cunningham reinforces that: ‘simply observing uncivil behavior can negatively impact some people’ (Cunningham, Miner & Benavides-Espinoza, 2012; Hitlan, Schneider & Walsh, 2006; Miner-Rubino & Cortina, 2007), and mistreatment of women in the workplace has a collective negative impact on everyone’s work experiences (Glomb, Richman, Hulin & Drasgow, 1997 ). This research demonstrates that incivility impacts not just the perpetrator or the victim, but also other employees. George B. Cunningham, ‘Interdependence, Mutuality, and Collective Action in Sport’, Journal of Sport Management, 2014, 28, 1–7, Sandy Lim and Lilia M. Cortina, ‘Interpersonal Mistreatment in the Workplace: The Interface and Impact of General Incivility and Sexual Harassment’, Journal of Applied Psychology, vol. 90, no. 3 (2005), 483.] The latter further reinforces the need for sector-led approaches, to curtail a problem as mobile as the contemporary students and staff in which it inheres. Finally, standing against discrimination and harassment reveals our individual professional ethics: quite honestly, how could any architect or academic ignore the denial of the most fundamental of human rights in our architecture schools?[14. By advocating for change both privately and publicly, I can model the conduct I wish for my own children, extended family, friends: in the end, a life lived well is invaluable to those who really matter. Many feel compelled to tolerate harassment to enable career advancement and in 2015 senior surgeon Gabrielle McMullin controversially suggested that to guarantee career opportunities, female medical interns may realistically need to grant sexual favours when requested; in effect, this suggests that career advancement is interdependent with quite different work — flirtation and prostitution. Steve Lillebuen, ‘Senior female surgeon urges trainees to stay silent on sex abuse in hospitals’, The Age (7 March 2015).]

A call to action in the architectural academy

Beyond individual activism (with its attendant challenges), there are many ways that our academies and those with power, resources and tenure can thwart gender-based harassment and the discrimination it reflects. The first crucial step is to understand the causes, along with the barriers that prevent disclosure. To this end, a carefully designed anonymous survey administered by a third-party expert specific to architectural pedagogy could provide a safe space in which students and staff may share their insights and experiences.[15. With general support from the Australian Institute of Architects NSW Chapter Education Committee, I pitched the initiative and attendant equity survey to the Association of Architecture Schools of Australasia (AASA) at their annual meeting at the University of Sydney, 28 September 2017.]

Second, universities can introduce pedagogical and staffing strategies that may help minimise the likelihood of sexism. The nuanced nature of studio-based architectural education has many known advantages, but it can also produce circumstances in which harassment can, and does, occur. Architectural educator and sociologist Carla Corroto’s book chapter ‘The Architecture of Sexual Harassment’ highlights the different ways unconscious bias and discrimination can happen during studio assessment.[18. Carla Corroto, ‘The Architecture of Sexual Harassment’, in In the Company of Men: Male Dominance and Sexual Harassment, eds. James. E. Gruber and Phoebe Morgan (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2005).] Care regarding the physical setup of studio settings, along with the verbal language deployed by staff during design tutorials and project reviews, can help focus attention on the project work at hand rather than the subjects who produced it. In a similar vein, multiple forms of assessment, including folio-based reviews (rather than verbal presentations alone) keep attention on the architectural content. Schools of architecture can provide guidelines for activities linked to educational processes that are difficult to control or supervise including (but not limited to) after-hours fieldwork, student exhibitions and the emergent space of social media, a recognised site of sexual harassment.[19. Verbal assessment is a crucial component of education and practice; however, the standard architectural critique process often fails to differentiate this component from the project work itself being reviewed (providing a final overall grade for both). Similarly, it is also important to differentiate between formative progress feedback and final project feedback, again to protect against the unconscious bias that can often factor into the final grading of work in parallel with a verbal presentation. Finally, the moderation of the work itself may also minimise the influence of unconscious bias, and therefore unconscious sexism (and indeed other forms of bias such as racism).]

Third, schools can introduce school-specific strategies related to equity quota for staffing and coursework content to ensure that students encounter outstanding professional role models of all genders and ethnicities.[21. Historically, women have been poorly represented in staffing and coursework content. See Despina Stratigakos, Where are the Women Architects? (Princeton and London: Princeton University Press, 2016).] That said, gender equity quota cannot alone eradicate sexual harassment if implicit prejudice is present, or if those staff employed lack the capacity to prevent it. Some staff and students may be aware of anecdotal instances of harassment that are secretive and difficult to evidence, becoming frustrated or unwitting bystanders. The Human Rights Commission recognises the latter, highlighting ‘the need for universities to provide appropriate bystander education’.[33. Australian Human Rights Commission, Change the Course, 8.] This leads to my fourth point.

While we need to engage with ethical, moral and ideological debates surrounding sexism in education (and the related, though complex nuanced notion of consent), we must remember that under the Australian Sex Discrimination Act (1984) and its 2008 Amendment, sexual harassment and discrimination are illegal in Australian workplaces and educational settings.[33. SBS, ‘Insight Season 2009 — Sexual Consent: Is it as simple as yes or no?’, SBS On demand, News and Current Affairs, presenter Jenny Brockie (2009).] All Australian universities have additional enforceable codes of conduct governing the behaviour of students and staff and their various interrelationships.[34. Most policies raise concerns about relationships when they involve perceived conflicts of interest that may affect assessment process and access to education. Consensual romantic relationships between staff and students require reporting for this reason.] Schools of architecture can help their communities be cognisant of these policies and the support structures if any concerns or complexities should arise. There are proven localised workplace strategies that schools of architecture can adopt to thwart sexism.[ref]According to Cunningham, localised workplace strategies include ‘establishing direct and anonymous lines for reporting sexist incidents’, but with a caveat that these strategies will be ineffectual unless ‘leaders must assert and demonstrate their commitment to harassment-free workplaces, enforce appropriate policies and train new employees accordingly’. Cunningham, ‘Why bystanders rarely speak up when they witness sexual harassment’.[/ref] As highlighted by the Change the Course report, harassment does happen irrespective of the law, generic university policies and procedures already in place, so all schools need clearly articulated strategies for preventing harassment and other forms of discrimination specific to the nuances of architectural pedagogy.

Our disciplinary culture begins in architecture schools. The phenomena of sexual harassment and discrimination are practical barriers to both architectural education and the professional practice that follows. Neither ancillary concerns nor specialist research topics, both are core institutional and operational challenges conquered through proactive and practical intervention by school and disciplinary entities. If organisational cultures are prime determinants in fostering or preventing harassment, then our representative institutions need to establish the frameworks in which we engage this issue.[36. Pina, ‘How to recognise and start tackling sexual harassment in the workplace’. See also C. L. Hulin, L. F. Fitzgerald & F. Drasgow, ‘Organizational influences on sexual harassment’ in ed. M. S. Stockdale, Women and Work: A Research and Policy Series, Vol. 5. Sexual harassment in the workplace: Perspectives, frontiers, and response strategies (1996), 127–150.] For those in universities focused on economic baselines in an increasingly competitive sector, sexism is bad for business and branding, because it curtails productivity and wellbeing.[ref]Australian Human Rights Commission, ‘Sexual Harassment’, which cross-references Sandra Fredman, Women and the Law (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987); and Deidre McCann, Sexual Harassment at Work: national and international responses, Conditions of Work and Employment Series No. 2 (Geneva, Switzerland: International Labour Office, 2005).[/ref] As such, those schools of architecture that are proactive in policies promoting equality and, equally, preventing sexism in all its guises, will attract outstanding students and staff. On the one hand, it is unfair to rely upon individuals and victims of harassment who lack power and tenure to lobby for change and policy positions. On the other hand, those in power struggle to act when the architectural community does not signal there is a problem. Accordingly, the issue of gender equity, harassment and discrimination is now tabled with several institutional bodies.[ref]This year, I tabled the issue of ‘Gender Equity (equality) in Australian Architecture Schools’ as one of concern with the Australian Institute of Architects (AIA), the Association of Architecture Schools of Australasia (AASA) and the Architects Accreditation Council of Australia (AACA).[/ref] The present essay is another call to action: our opportunity to improve the calibre of our profession to match the ethical and legal standards that the broader community expects of it. History will judge our subsequent individual and collective responses or lack thereof accordingly.

Dr Cathy Smith is an architect, interior designer and academic. She has taught at several Australian universities including the University of Newcastle (current), the University of Queensland and the Queensland University of Technology. Her scholarly research is published in a number of international journals including Architectural Histories, Interstices, Architectural Theory Review and IDEA. In 2018, she will also take up a position as the inaugural Turnbull Foundation Women in the Built Environment scholar at the University of New South Wales.


Solutions for Sexual Misconduct in Higher Education provides research-based recommendations for “anyone involved in a sexual misconduct case, for those working in higher education who want guidance for implementing processes in their own institutions, and for those who want to help boost the momentum for higher education sector reform going forward.”

The Australian Human Rights Commission has detailed guidelines and  advice about sexual harassment, along with wider information about complaints and resources and programs about sex discrimination.