by Emily Grandstaff-Rice AIA
To make effective change in the architecture profession, you must use your own voice.
I knew this in my heart, but sometimes I need to convince my head a bit more. Last October I was asked to give the opening remarks at The Missing 32% Project Equity by Design Symposium. I was so honored and humbled to be considered; of course, I said yes immediately. I had been following The Missing 32% on Twitter and Facebook. I participated in their survey of over 2,289 respondents on identifying gender-specific impacts on careers in architecture. I was in! But then I realized I had never spoken so publicly about my experience as a woman and an architect and I was terrified.
Below are excerpts from my speech from October 18, 2014
Celebrating women in architecture
Celebrating women in architecture seems like an easy issue, right? Especially in this crowd today… that’s what we do. I was fortunate enough to attend last year’s AIA Women’s Leadership Summit and was impressed by the depth and the breadth of the work featured, but I heard the same reoccurring question: are we as women significant because of the work that we do or is our significance in that we work in the architectural profession despite being a woman? And those are the two central questions around recognizing women.
Since we are here today to talk about equity—what I believe is a positive, aspirational state of affairs as opposed to inequity—I will start with an acknowledgement that architecture culture is flawed. And this is no shocker, we know it’s flawed. And it’s flawed because it’s a practice powered by people… and people are flawed, but luckily people have the power to change. It’s not a machine; we’re pretty easy to rewire—you just have to change minds.
I didn’t become an architect to be placed on a gender pedestal. I struggle with the term ‘woman architect’. When people say ‘woman architect’ around me, it makes me cringe especially when I expect to be acknowledged for my work and then someone puts on the subtitle, ‘and also you’re a woman…”
When we speak about celebrating women in architecture, it’s more than just our culture, we also need to address it from a public standpoint. I’ll give you a little story… A couple years ago, I went to a high-profile gala for the grand opening of a project I was working on and I had a nine-month-old at the time. I was not going to bring my kid to a fancy event and my husband offered to stay home. At the gala, I happened to be standing next to a well known reporter in Boston who was there with her husband. I introduced myself and mentioned I was an architect who worked on the project and she said, “oh, that’s great. I was just talking to the client and he was telling me this story about how one of the other architects just had a newborn baby and wasn’t quite sure if he could come to the gala, but his wife was so generous and told him ‘honey you go, enjoy yourself. Isn’t that a great story?’
Of course, the reporter assumed that the architect in the story was male. I was mortified, but I realized then I had a choice. I could easily let her continue with her assumption, or I had the power to change her perception.
At first I’m shocked—and then I collected myself and said, no I’m the architect you are referring to.
There’s a public image of women in architecture that we have to address. For example, if you are the general public—which you’re not—but if you were… this is my question to you: Who do you think the general public thinks is the image of an architect?
At this point, the audience mentioned three names: Frank Lloyd Wright, Frank Gehry, and Howard Roark. My experiment was working.
And then look at this room.
The room was filled with architects--both men and women.
There’s obviously a disconnect between the public perception of an architect and those of us who are here today. So within architecture culture when we see a woman succeed, it’s fulfilling; it’s a celebration and a reminder to us of our special status. But we must be careful that we don’t hold women to too high of a gender pedestal so that they come to represent all of the women. In other words, we put undue pressure on them.
Be real. Be resilient. And be the innovation that you want to see.
Equity is for everyone: A much needed conversation
Equity is for everyone and let me flip the tables for a moment and focus not on the 32% but the 18% of which are represented here today. We are the survivors. We’re the ones who despite all the research and data that you will hear today still practice architecture and no one needs to convince us why architecture matters. We get it, right? Because we are the survivors we are also uniquely positioned to the be group to work for solutions to this problem and we can’t do it alone.
Then I mention the whale metaphor that Rosa Sheng often uses to describe the task of Equity by Design. A must-read is her post How to Eat a Whale and Other 2014 Resolutions.
Rosa’s whale metaphor is both humorous and true. Changing architecture culture will take time and effort. When I look at the whale it feels like it’s almost too much to take on, but as we know—one bite at a time. The concept that there is one perfect pathway to practicing architecture (i.e. the traditional firm setting—all that fun stuff) denies the experience of those of us who have charted our own path for the flexibility, significance, and team comradery that frankly keep us in architecture.
So this is our whale and here’s your guide to eating it:
If you see inequity, name it.
If you observe privilege, talk about it.
As Roxane Gay eloquently states, “we need to get to a place where we can discuss [gender and racial diversity] by way of observation and acknowledgement, rather than accusation.”
This is why I view the Equity by Design survey results and today’s symposium as a huge step forward in the equity conversation.
We also need to acknowledge the generational rift even amongst women. Saying that inequity isn’t as big of a problem today as it was 20 years ago may be true. We know that the numbers are changing, but then again it’s still a struggle. I’m reminded in my daughter’s preschool, they have a saying, “Don’t hurt others’ hard work.” Dismissing the concerns of emerging professionals on the inequity issue because the numbers are trending positive creates undue resentment, in other words everyone has hard work and we need to remind ourselves of that. We should acknowledge the hard work of all, but also recognize that hard work will always be a relative term. Hopefully it gets a little easier.
Our greatest power is our voice: Architecture as storytelling
So our greatest power is our voice.
Each one of us has our own agency and our own voice. While there are many mediums—Twitter, writing, speaking, design, collaboration—our voice is a way of communicating experience. When my four-year-old daughter has for example something to say, I know it. She’s found her voice. I laughed when #banbossy was launched and because I get to mentally reframe her tantrums as future executive presence. …and I don’t feel so bad as a parent.
Using our collective individual stories like The Missing 32% Inspire% series describes a new practice where differences in working are celebrated, where recognition is not tied to the number of hours worked, where flexibility is seen as an asset, where teamwork and collaboration is the norm, and where we change people’s lives, because we do.
These are the stories I want to hear…
Be bold and be explicit. Why does architecture matter?
We need to say this in our voice—our own voice over and over again to change the public perception of what an architect is. But more importantly, the diversity of architects out there, so more names come to mind than Frank Gehry, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Howard Roark. So here are some prompts on why architecture does matter…
Why is what you are working on changing people’s lives?
We change people’s lives and I struggled with that when I was an undergraduate. I have come to terms with the fact that my work has significance beyond the day-to-day.
And why does equity in architecture matter?
So, use your voice. This is how we’re going to eat the whale. One bite at a time.
Until our profession reflects the society we serve, we will not have completely fulfilled our potential. Our work is not done, but then again when is architecture ever done? That is its beauty.
Our engagement is a key value proposition, so we—men and women—need to engage the profession and the public about the value of good design, but also diversity and equity in architecture.
Since last October I have realized that I needed to listen to what I was saying over and over again. I have been more empowered to identify inequity when I see it. There is so much work to be done and the next step is the WE310 Workshop on Wednesday May 13 1-5pm Equity by Design Hackathon at the 2015 AIA Convention. I am so excited by the future of architecture, but most importantly I am also excited to use my voice to be part of the conversation.
Scholarships for students, emerging professionals and new architects are available to attend WE310 EQxD Hackathon and Happy Hour! Applications are open through Monday April 27th and Winners will be announced the following week, May 4th. Apply today!