We all want to be valued for the quality of the work we do, not framed by the fact of our gender. But despite our best efforts we are not always in control of how others see us. Karen Burns reflects on the complex interactions between culture and individual agency.

Photo Nick Bassett.

In January 2012 the British magazine The Architects’ Journal published the “shocking” results of a survey of 700-odd women working in architecture and construction. The findings reported widespread experience of sexual discrimination, sexual harassment and the gendered nature of architectural salaries as well as other data, drawing a dismal picture of women’s professional experiences. As part of pledge to make a difference to women’s participation and quality of work culture, AJ founded the Women in Architecture awards. Judged for the first time this April, categories include the revived Jane Drew Prize and two new awards – Woman Architect of the Year and Emerging Woman Architect of the Year. Both the awards program and the term ‘woman architect’ have prompted this opinion piece. Is the term woman architect pejorative or useful? What tensions are embedded in this phrase? And are single-sex prizes ‘sexist’?

I think my objections to the term woman architect are shaped by my interest in language and identity. I never use the term, opting instead for the unwieldy phrase ‘women in architecture’. I don’t want the ‘woman architect’ phrase used because it implicitly genders the architect as male. At the same time, the architect’s masculine sex disappears or is disguised behind the word ‘architect’ and it is the ‘woman’ part of the phrase that becomes identified with a gender. We reinforce the visible and invisible patterns of gender production by using these descriptions.

However I also know that some women in architecture refuse the phrase for different reasons. In 2006 the journal Architecture Australia commissioned responses to Paula Whitman’s Going Places, a report on women’s career progression in the architecture profession. Rachel Neeson, a director of Sydney-based practice Neeson Murcutt described the intersection of gender and architecture in these terms:

I don’t identify myself particularly with my gender – I don’t think of myself specifically as a ‘woman’ architect – and I’m not exceptional in this respect…. Like the majority of the profession, what is important to me is the quality of the work, as benchmarked against the work of peers and as measured by them – both informally with colleagues and friends, and formally via awards, publications and prizes.

I find myself nodding in agreement. Almost every day I would prefer to be described as an architectural theorist and historian and not as a woman architectural theorist and historian. Like Neeson I also value the measurement of my work by formal and informal means. However, I also undertake feminist research and work on architecture and culture, and this research pulls me in another direction, away from agreement with my everyday self and Rachel Neeson.

In my own work experience, I have sometimes, not always, been pigeon holed and judged differently as a woman (but not at my current workplace). I have experienced different treatment to male colleagues in terms of retention, promotion, earnings, access to seniority, leadership opportunities or belief that my contribution has been taken seriously. The AJ 2012 survey confirmed that nearly 50% of the women surveyed had experienced these forms of gendered patterns of behaviour. What I know now is that, despite my best efforts to be described in gender neutral terms, I am not always in control of how others see me. My identity is culturally formed in conscious and unconscious ways. There is a gap between these two points of views, between belief in individual agency – our capacity to act in the world and control our destiny – and belief in the actions of culture in producing and supporting non-merit based patterns in workplace treatment. I believe that our life experiences happen in the interactions between individual agency and culture.

My sense of the magnetic power of culture might not be mirrored in the general value systems of our profession. The belief in individuality and individual merit is hard wired into architecture. Our education systems centre on studio training; the teaching and learning of design skills and the development of individual design capacities. Generally student work is evaluated and judged on an individual basis. This should be a merit-based judgment. The value of individuality and meritocracy are learnt early on.

But is a merit-based culture of design evaluation (and by implication the designer) so easily managed and won? One of the most peculiar things about architectural practice is the range of non-merit based factors that may determine the successful practice start up and expansion: access to the dominant socio-economic patronage group, access to capital, access to social networks, access to alternative income streams while the practice is being established, the social advantage of the old school tie or family connections, and even more personal factors – like physical attractiveness, charisma and romantic partners. I have seen radically talented architects fail in practice due to psychopathic personality traits even while their design practice and design innovation were brilliant. (You know who they are.)

The importance of merit-based rewards is built into the architectural prize system. And yet, when I study local systems of design prize choice and juries I find that a small group of people serve on juries, year in and year out, and that jurors are often former recipients of prizes. I am not arguing that the system is corrupt – merely pointing out that it is a taste system maintained by people within the group and by new members admitted to its fraternity. Are prizes distributed purely on the basis of design merit (however determined) or do other factors come into play: prior reputation, connections, familiarity to the group and conformity to the prevailing taste culture? Prizes are a powerful part of architecture’s reward system and confer advantages on recipients: distinction in a competitive market, public legitimation and publicity, for example.

A prize specifically for  a ‘women architect’ raises questions about the desirability of the term itself, and the desirability of prizes based on the star system. We need more architectural prizes for pro bono work, for being an employer of choice, for producing research innovations in service delivery or for client negotiation, for example.

But the argument for the AJ prize is that a prize for women architects focuses our attention on the prize and its context: how reward systems work and who is rewarded. Women-only literary prizes like the Orange Prize have been established against the backdrop of prize shortlists dominated by men or years in which women writers are entirely absent from shortlists. The AJ prize should also force us to gaze at the prize and the background problem. But the relationship between the problem and the solution is messy.

Women-only prizes can be trapped by a circular logic. Women-only prizes draw attention to non-meritocratic preferences such as gender that may influence short-list selection. By building in gender as a gate-keeping device, single sex prizes can be accused of the very thing they contest: non-meritocratic selection criteria. It is very easy for critics to claim that the new single sex prize is sexist.

But perhaps we’re using the wrong criteria to think about women-only prizes. I think that single sex awards are acts of political activism. They force attention on the mechanisms of selection, judgement criteria and proportional gender representation in book publishing or building. Establishing a women-only prize is a provocative political act. It is not the same as writing anti-discrimination legislation or building consensus around policy formation. It does not seek to be ‘fair’ but dramatises inequity, albeit in the most paradoxical way. It seeks to generate discussion and produce publicity. It may also be a useful reward for the prize-winner.

For me terms like ‘woman architect’ and women-only prizes offer opportunities to discuss these tensions, complexities and contradictions around questions of gender identity. I don’t have any straightforward answers. The farcical experience of lacking control over one’s image but being in a culture which fetishises an individual’s capacity to shape her actions, identity and experience merit-based assessment was dramatised by US Congresswoman Patricia Schroeder. The Huffington Post reported that when Schroeder was running as a candidate in a senate race she was asked whether she was running as a woman. She responded, “Do I have a choice?”

Sometimes we do and sometimes we don’t.