Women in Architecture reunion examines gender diversity

Maya Lin ’81 ARC ’86, who designed the “Women’s Table” outside of Sterling Memorial Library, will speak at the School of Architecture’s reunion for female alumnae.
Maya Lin ’81 ARC ’86, who designed the “Women’s Table” outside of Sterling Memorial Library, will speak at the School of Architecture’s reunion for female alumnae. Photo by Allie Krause.

In front of Sterling Memorial Library, a circular granite fountain commemorates the history of women at Yale. While most students appreciate the monument for its simplistic beauty, the “Women’s Table” strikes a particularly powerful chord among female architecture students. Designed by Maya Lin ’81 ARC ’86, the structure is a reminder that a female graduate of the school has achieved renown in architecture — a field that remains largely dominated by men.

“Maya Lin has been one of my greatest role models in architecture,” Jacqueline Kow ARC ’14 said. “It has been a dream of mine to hear her speak.”

At the School of Architecture’s first “Yale Women in Architecture” symposium this weekend, Kow will have her wish fulfilled. From Friday evening to Saturday afternoon, 180 alumnae and current female students alike will gather at the school to discuss issues such as evolving design practices and the intersection of architecture and activism, School of Architecture Dean Robert A.M. Stern said. But the symposium’s larger goal is to allow graduates to share their experiences as women architects, he explained.

The event is at once a reunion and a celebration of the 30th anniversary of the Sonia Albert Schimberg Award, which is given annually to a high-achieving female architecture student. Former BlackRock executive Anne Weisberg and vertebrate zoologist Carla Studley created the distinction in honor of their mother, Sonia Schimberg ARC ’50, one of only two women studying architecture in her class.

Weisberg and Claire Weisz ARC ’89, who received the award her graduating year, decided to organize the symposium after they met at a conference where Weisberg presented a talk entitled “Architecture of a Woman’s Initiative.” Weisz said that “Yale Women in Architecture” is an opportunity to explore questions about lingering prejudices, attrition rates and obstacles facing women in the field of architecture.

“I’m excited about the potential for alumnae to come together and start a dialogue,” she said.

 

‘Old Boy’s Club’

In February 2006, the News reported that nine School of Architecture students received orders from the school to take a semester’s leave of absence following what faculty judged to be inadequate performance during portfolio reviews. Of the nine students, six were women.

For a class of 45 architecture students that included just 17 women, the results of the review were jarring, prompting an examination into gender inequality within the school. Some of the students involved in the incident linked their academic struggles to the lack of female representation within the faculty.

“As a woman in this architecture school, when everyone you’re looking to learn from doesn’t reflect who you are, that has an impact on your education,” Elizabeth Barry ARC ’07 told the News in 2006.

While the school has increased the number of female faculty members in the past six years, current students said that the gender disparity lingers. In a class of 57 students, Elisa Iturbe ARC ’14 is one of 16 women. Iturbe said that while she has not been the victim of any blatant acts of discrimination, she feels a subtle prejudice continues to exist at the school.

“There is the sense that the atmosphere is skewed towards men, simply because there’s so much more of them,” Iturbe said. “You’re not always conscious of it, but you can feel testosterone in the air.”

Henry Chan ARC ’14 said that higher-level architecture remains an “old boy’s club” in which little effort is made to avoid discriminatory remarks. He said that several times during class lectures, he has heard professors making comments that would be considered “un-PC.”

“The male professors have had only male students for so long that they are unaware of some of the marginalizing comments they make about women in architecture,” Chan said.

New Haven-based architect Lisa Gray ARC ’87, who is organizing one of the reunion’s presentations, said dialogue surrounding issues pertaining to female architects has always been missing from the school’s curriculum. But while architects are still largely silent about the issue, statistics speak volumes about the gender disparities in the field.

In 2011, the National Architectural Accrediting Board reported that 41 percent of architecture degrees were earned by women. On the other hand, data compiled in 2009 from the membership of the American Institute of Architects reveals that only 14 percent of currently licensed architects in the United States are female.

In association with his class “Issues in Contemporary Practice,” architecture professor Phillip Bernstein ’79 ARC ’83 organizes an annual “Gender Panel.” During last year’s discussion, his wife Nancy Alexander ’79 SOM ’84 gave a presentation of data on current female representation in architecture, citing statistics compiled by Kate Schwennsen of Iowa State University in 2012 showing that women comprise fewer than 5 percent of the recipients of the industry’s most prestigious prizes, such as the Firm Award and the Pritzker Prize.

“These numbers are in the main worse than comparable professions like medicine or law,” Bernstein said.

 

A Challenging Field 

Gray suggested that gender disparities in architecture may be linked to the construction side of the profession. Architects usually provide on-site supervision, and for some projects, manage the large sums of money necessary for building.

“[When] you walk onto a job site, you are literally the only woman, and you are the person who is in charge,” Gray said. “Especially as a young woman on a construction site, you really have to have good game. The only antidote is to get better and better at doing the job.”

Architecture professor Deborah Berke, who will moderate a panel on building practices, noted that the large amounts of capital involved in building construction contribute to the field’s underrepresentation of women. She explained that historically, perceptions about women’s inability to handle money has placed control over capital primarily in the hands of men.

For both men and women, architecture presents a paradox: it requires its practitioners to manage large sums of money while failing to provide architects themselves with as much financial compensation as they would receive in other demanding professions.

Stern said he thinks that the same challenges facing male architects — long hours and a demanding schedule — are magnified for women, many of whom he said continue to bear the majority of household work. This issue affects female architects to a greater degree than women in other high-stress professions due to the economic stress of a career in architecture. Since women who practice medicine and law are more likely to have the financial means to hire domestic help, they are better able to balance their careers and their family lives, he said.

Citing the significant number of female architects married to the male architects with whom they lead their firms, Altair Peterson ARC ’13 said the career’s inflexible schedules make the idea of marrying someone who “understands the commitment that design requires” appealing. Gray, who leads the firm Gray Organschi Architecture with her husband and partner Alan Organschi ARC ’88, recalled that when they met as architecture students, they were both inspired by each other’s passion for the craft.

Iturbe said that because “architecture is more than a 9 to 5 job,” it is natural for architects to seek spouses who lead the same kind of lifestyle, adding that she has questioned whether the rigorous time necessary for practicing architecture will allow her to raise a family at all.

“Women who want to be architects face the same gender challenges as those in other fields, but in my view low salaries, long hours, a lack of women mentors, uneven pay versus men and the general incompatibility of architectural project work with family life put a lot of pressure on women in our field,” Bernstein said.

 

Bridging the Gender Gap

While much remains to be done to bridge the gender gap in professional architecture, female architects said they stayed in the profession for the inherent joys of design.

“Stick with it,” Berke advised. “And maybe start your own business, because then you can control the terms.”

This weekend’s reunion fits into the University’s broader, alumnae-led effort — termed the Yale Women initiative — to bring together female graduates across schools and disciplines.

“Things like this reunion and the Yale Women chapters around the country — in New York City, Los Angeles and northern California — give female alumnae a chance to come together and discuss how they’re looked upon, how they’ve managed work-life balance,” said Mindy Marks ’00, the director for shared interest groups at the Yale Alumni Association. She added that the program has connected with “a large number of women who haven’t participated in alumni activity.”

And female architects are already seeing increased recognition compared to 30 years ago, when the Schimberg prize was established. This September, Berke was named the recipient of the first-ever Berkeley-Rupp Prize, a $100,000 award honoring her for her commitment to the advancement of women in architecture and her sustainability work. In 2010, the Pritzker Prize was jointly presented to Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizima; Sejima is only the second woman ever to receive the honor.

Weisz, one of the event’s two organizers, said the increase in female prize winners signifies a “breaking down” of past prejudices. And with the discussions Weisberg and Weisz hope to spark this weekend, the changing attitudes that encouraged such progress may grow more pervasive.

“I think it’s worth talking about how people operate in the field [and] why there aren’t more women in charge,” Gray said. “[It is] a step toward encouraging talented women to stay in the profession.”

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