It is time to start talking about everyday sexism in architecture – the elephant in the Parlour. Karen Burns leads the way.

Cover and inside cover, Transition magazine Winter 1988. Design and art work by Dean Cass. Editors: Karen Burns and Harriet Edquist. Barbara Kruger billboard from a George Paton Gallery project, June 1988 showing six Kruger billboards in Melbourne locations.

Cover and inside cover, Transition magazine Winter 1988.

Reflecting on the success of the “Parlour” project, and thinking about future directions, I have become increasingly aware of an elephant in our Parlour: everyday architectural sexism. Our gender equity project has garnered enormous goodwill and professional and institutional support. We have practised a successful politics of inclusion, translating “women’s” issues of fair work practice into “universal” issues of concern for both sexes and for employers and employees. We have brought people along. We have moved women’s practice from the margin into the mainstream, placing these demands within the dialogue about the future of the profession.

But the public debate now seems stuck on an ideological divide about whether architectural practice is commensurate – or incommensurate – with flexible and/or part-time work. With a fragmented evidence base this argument can dissolve into loud ideological shouting. Uncertainty about how to instigate workplace change in a low fee environment makes reform uneven. All of these issues are important but they also sidestep a long-standing element in women’s unequal participation in the profession: everyday sexism.

A long history of gender inequity underpins women’s historically minor participation in the profession. The complex conditions of this minority status are obscured if we dwell exclusively on current economic and office scheduling issues.

Imagine a campaign with the following slogans:

  • Low fees do not explain the gender gap in salaries.
  • Low fees do not explain the gender discrimination some women report experiencing at registration exams.
  • Low fees do not explain the objectification of women’s appearance in the culture of architecture, whether in magazines, university design reviews or everyday remarks.
  • Low fees do not explain the sexual harassment of women staff, academics and students.

The profession’s acceptance of unsustainable fees may be one contributing factor to the long hours culture (a work practice that many women find impossible to reconcile with other commitments), but there is much more going on. We can do something about this without becoming mired in complex economic and practice disputes. We can do something about everyday sexism in architecture.

Laura Bates’ website and book Everyday Sexism has brought renewed attention to everyday forms of discrimination. The book has a strong focus on sexual assault, harassment and physical violence but it also includes chapters on workplace, media and women in politics.

The everyday sexism experienced by women in architecture seep through the written responses to the Parlour survey. Some of these remarks are quoted in the two Parlour Reports on “Issues of Registration” (2012) and “Pregnancy, Discrimination and Returning to Work” (2013).

“Everyday sexism” is a description and an idea. Everyday implies repetition and suggests a larger, more systemic pattern. If we’re tempted to think of sexist events as unusual, rogue occurrences, the quotidian part of “everyday sexism” reminds us that these transactions can be pervasive but not attain high visibility. Being quotidian the examples can seem small-scale when we mention them in isolation, and it’s easy to feel that too much is being made of a small transaction, which is why the idea of repetition is crucial.

For example, about two years ago a woman architectural academic reported, quite neutrally, to me a comment a male colleague had made to her about a much-respected and high profile woman in architecture: “She’s really let herself go.” I was dismayed. The woman being described was well-respected, well-liked and admired for her contributions to the profession. Now I reflect on the judgment and blaming implied in this line, one that merely reflects larger cultural stereotypes: “SHE’S really let herself go”.

I pointed out to my friend that I’d never heard this remark made about the many middle-aged men visible in our profession and that it was sexist (I am not encouraging people to focus on appearance over contribution, whoever we’re discussing.) I sure she thought my reaction was over blown but the remark was one more piece of an accumulating pile of remarks I’d noticed over the years – about women who didn’t smile, about women being witches, wearing lipstick or not wearing lipstick et cetera. Emphasising the repetitive and daily nature of gratuitous remarks about women’s appearance in architecture points to the systemic and persistently gendered nature of throwaway comments. Sexual discrimination can be pervasive and repetitive. The 2014 AJ survey reported that two-thirds of women in architecture experienced sexual discrimination, with a third experiencing it on a monthly or quarterly basis. I’m not suggesting we send in the thought police to monitor your phone and email traffic – the federal government will be doing that soon enough – but let’s have a think about what kind of architectural culture we’re creating.

By this point in the writing I’m wondering if I will have any readers left. Will some think that I’ve blown Parlour’s cool, composed demeanour? Should I have silenced myself or confined this conversation to private discussions with other women.

The last time I wrote about gender discrimination in architecture in a “Women and Architecture” piece I discretely drew on the work of Virginia Valian to emphasise the often-unconscious nature of gender bias. I used her essays to explore the idea of the gender schema, the working template all men and women use to make quick assumptions about the women and men they encounter, a template used to hypothesise an individual’s behaviour or attitudes, seeing these as the result of gender. After the essay was published several women remarked in person to me that I had been very careful and gentle. I hadn’t discussed particular instances of architectural sexism or dwelt on egregious examples, instead generalizing architectural culture within a broader social framework of gender conditioning.

And, as I contemplated writing this “Elephant in the Parlour” piece, I wondered how I could express the disbelief, rage, despair, embarrassment, betrayal and helplessness that recipients of discrimination feel, while also being constructive and not alienating a large proportion of the readership. (Well those who made it past the title …) I wondered how many stories I needed to “tell” to lay out the case? If I piled on more and more examples would it be more persuasive? Or would people just start picking over the selected scenes and debating whether they constitute a sexist transaction? I predict this will happen anyway with my anecdote above. I kept worrying that I should have included the terrible story from one respondent to our Parlour survey who reported that sexual harassment she’d experienced in an architectural practice and how this didn’t stop even after she’d left the workplace. But this dreadful – and I hope unusual event – wouldn’t support the point I was trying to make about seemingly throwaway, trivial comments. (If you’d like more samples see the 2003 RIBA report Why Women Leave Architecture, Paula Whitman’s Going Places and the two Parlour reports cited earlier).

Everyday architectural sexism can sometimes be accidental. Sometimes it is it is un-malicious and other times deliberate. Sometimes it is done to wield power and consolidate gender hierarchy. Sometimes it is done by men, and sometimes by women.

When I use the phrase “architectural sexism” I immediately worry about the stereotypes of angry, man-hating feminists. I conjure up these straw women in my own mind and practise a form of self-silencing before feeling brave enough to write these lines. Our culture can produce strong stereotypes and reactions to stigmatize women who publicly address sexism (Laura Bates reported death threats), so let me state this very clearly.

Drawing attention to everyday architectural sexism does not mean we are pointing the finger at all men, or that we assume all men are sexist. It does not mean that every sexist remark is a misogynist utterance. It does not mean that a discussion of sexism is a battleground between two bitterly divided camps called “men” and “women”.

The way forward is together. The way forward is probably through an empathetic identification with others. The current Australian campaign  “Everyday Racism” is a possible model. This mobile app game challenges you to live for seven days in the shoes of another and to experience everyday racism in the form of jokes, advertisements, gazing. It demonstrates the effects of niggling everyday racism, an experience that has been linked to depression and low self-esteem. When we discuss sexism or racism we often focus on the “extraordinary” event. This campaign reveals the steady accumulation of daily instances and the slow grinding away of self-confidence.

The challenge for us – in architecture – is to walk in each others’ shoes. Sometime we can assume that people make unconscious and un-self reflective remarks that are not always malicious. Can we say, “Hey do you realise when you say that it seems to imply that…” This might be a less confrontational approach. (At other times discrimination breaches organisational and legal codes and this is not the place to offer advice about how to proceed in these instances.)  The “Everyday Racism” campaign asks you to imagine how it FEELS rather than offering a forensic analysis of what constitutes a racist exchange. In architecture we could also personalise the experience. What if you imagine someone saying that about your daughter, sister, mother, partner or wife? Now imagine them saying that again and again. Let’s emphasise tolerance of difference, empathy and repair work, and imagine the feelings of others.

The “critical mass moment” – when sufficient numbers of women enter a profession or organisation and affect its culture of gender bias – is often described as thirty percent. We haven’t been able to achieve this in architecture and until we do we need to work on every front, on all factors that are impeding women’s entry into, retention, and upward progress within the profession.

So, can we talk about architectural sexism? But how we talk about it and what we do next, is as important as acknowledging its existence. Let’s stand together and talk about what kind of public culture we want in architecture.



Transition magazine Winter 1988, cover and inside cover. Design and art work by Dean Cass. Editors: Karen Burns and Harriet Edquist. The Barbara Kruger billboard is from a George Paton Gallery project, June 1988, which showed six Kruger billboards in Melbourne locations.

Karen thanks Justine Clark for discussing the issues with her,  encouraging her to write the piece and editing it.