Telling the (full) story

Prof. Despina Stratigakos bridges the gaps on mothers in architecture

by Laura Minca, 23rd June 2021

Despina Stratigakos at launch of Architect Barbie 2011.jpg
About Prof. Despina Stratigakos

Professor Despina Stratigakos is an architectural historian, writer, professor and Vice Provost for Inclusive Excellence at the University at Buffalo, State University of New York.  Her work and research are focused on issues of women and diversity in architecture, as well as the political power of domestic spaces and images. Despina was co-creator of Architect Barbie, released by Mattel in 2011 to inspire young girls to make their mark on a profession in which women remain vastly underrepresented. Read her article, ‘What I Learned from Architect Barbie’, here.

Her most recent book is Hitler's Northern Utopia: Building the New Order in Occupied Norway (Princeton University Press, 2020).

Despina Stratigakos in the Mattel booth at the launch of Architect Barbie at the AIA convention in New Orleans, May 2011.

Are mothers fit for the job? (Why) is there a resistance towards the feminine and the maternal in the field of architecture, and where does it stem from? How has this bias evolved through time, and, most importantly, how can we challenge these exclusions to re-shape the historical future of women in the field?

Today, I am honoured to share my conversation with Professor Despina Stratigakos as we discuss the image of the architect-mother and its historical evolution, the importance of building a supportive, inter-generational professional community and actively involving men in the conversation.

More than a year ago, as I was scouting the internet, searching for everything and anything I could find on the topic of architecture and motherhood, I came across Despina’s 2008 article 'The good architect and the bad parent: on the formation and disruption of a canonical image'. This represented a turning point in how I had perceived and understood the issues of gender imbalance and implicit bias that came along with trying to make a mark as an active professional in the field. After reading her book, Where Are the Women Architects? (2016), it all clicked into place. At the time, her commentary helped me understand the roots of many of the ideological fences women working in the field come across today and framed the issue in a completely new light. Despina’s research is just as relevant today as when it was published.

Perhaps the biggest takeaway from our talk was the importance of going all the way back to 'moment zero' when trying to shed light on the invisible. Identifying the historical interruptions and taking the time to gradually bridge each gap will create awareness around the subject and hopefully put things in perspective even for those currently sitting on the sidelines. Sometimes, we simply have to look back, study the birth of an idea, thought or behaviour to move forward.

A hundred years ago, these biases were simply stated; they were laid out in the open. Going back to 'ground zero', historically speaking, gives us a chance to track down how these behaviours have gradually gone underground and push the conversation forward.[…] There is still so much to tell.

Where Are the Women Architects? (2016)

Where Are the Women Architects? (2016)

What does your current role as University at Buffalo's Vice Provost for Inclusive Excellence entail?  How has being in this role helped you in your advocacy for equal opportunities, social justice and cultural diversity?    

The Office of Inclusive Excellence is a division of the Provost's Office. We collaborate, plan and coordinate with partners across the university—students, faculty, and staff—to build a culture of diversity, social justice, and inclusion that makes all of us stronger. 

Since assuming this role three years ago, I have focused on building the infrastructure needed for deep and lasting institutional change. The University at Buffalo is a large, public institution, with about 30,000 students and 10,000 faculty and staff. It is essentially a small city, and we think a lot about what needs to be in place to create a truly diverse and welcoming environment, both on a daily basis and over the long term.

It is crucial to formalize and institutionalize the work around diversity, equity and inclusion and not to expect it to just happen. We have to be intentional and proactive when it comes to shaping cultural change.

What fascinates you about the idea of power, its balance or imbalance, and why was the field of architecture fertile enough to support so many facets of your research?     

I am interested in who feels empowered in spaces, whether they are physical or imaginary, and how that empowerment shapes our sense of self. Architecture molds not only our physical environments but also who we are within them.

As a profession, it has developed in a way that has hobbled its ability to play an even greater role in the world because of assumptions still held deeply about the role of architects. A younger generation of architects is challenging those norms and as they do so, they extend architecture's reach, particularly to encompass communities that have not been well served in the past.

Why did you begin researching the differences in the career paths of men and women? 

And why was it essential for you to go back in time to 'moment zero' to study this dynamic?

I first became interested in the careers of women in architecture and design because of a comment that caught my attention. In 1990, I listened to a radio interview with a former Bauhaus student who talked about his experience at the famous school in Dessau. One of the things he talked about was how much fun their parties were and all the women students that he danced with.

 

My master's degree was in design history, and I was shocked because I had never heard about these women students at the Bauhaus. I remember thinking, "Who are these women? What were THEIR experiences like? What are THEIR stories?"

 

Off I went to the library, searched the shelves, and was frustrated that I could not begin to answer these questions. In 1990, very little had been written about women in the Bauhaus. But the shelves were not entirely empty. There were books that had been written in the 1970s and 1980s on women in architecture in other countries or eras, and although they did not answer my questions about Weimar Germany and the Bauhaus, they helped me to see that there were stories to be told. There was a history there; it was not an absence.

So my interest in women's architecture careers started with their stories. And the more I investigated those stories, the more I realized there were very significant differences from how we tell the stories of male architects. And to understand how these narrative (and career) paths had diverged, I had to go back to the earliest accounts of women studying and practicing architecture, to catch the moment of divergence, to see the split happen.

It is crucial to formalize and institutionalize the work around diversity, equity and inclusion and not to expect it to just happen. We have to be intentional and proactive when it comes to shaping cultural change.

Women in Architecture: Body & Mind 

Let's talk about a fundamental theme in your research, that of the gendered canonical 

image of the architect and its resistance to the feminine and the maternal ever since the early 20th century, when women first began joining the profession. Why is the architect's body so strongly connected to the concept of masculinity, and how has this evolved through time? 

Around 1900, when women began to enter architecture in a more visible way, the discourse around the architect took a very interesting turn. In the professional literature and the press more broadly, we see a discussion emerge around the ‘proper’ body of the architect, meaning what kind of body was considered to be essential to the architect's work. This is interesting because in the same period the architecture profession is also defining itself more and more as an intellectual, office or studio-based pursuit. And yet the discourse around the architect's body focuses on physical characteristics of brute strength, agility, boldness, hardness that is directly contrasted to the soft, maternal and yet also unathletic and weak bodies of women, as they were understood at the time. Critics of women in architecture claimed they were unable to climb scaffolding, that their clothes were too restrictive, that they would faint at great heights and injure themselves, and also that their bodies posed a moral danger, in that workmen could look up their skirts as they climbed, and somehow this would endanger the morality of the construction site.

Those discussions continue to this day, although usually not in print. When my friend and collaborator Kelly Hayes McAlonie and I created Architect Barbie with Mattel, in 2011, the clothes we gave the doll (she wears a dress and chunky-heeled boots) were in part meant to push back on those continuing gendered stereotypes about women's bodies. To our surpirse, in the debates that emerged on social media after she was launched, the divide in this regard (about Architect Barbie's appearance) was less between men and women and more between women of different generations, who defined the empowerment of clothing and the female body in very different ways.

The female body is the definition of physical endurance, so why does 'female strength' sit in such antithesis with 'male strength'?   

These gendered stereotypes about weakness and strength are deeply embedded in Western culture. In architecture, defining the female body as weak was a blatant professional ploy to keep women out. And it was not just architecture that adopted that stance. The medical profession also pushed back when women wanted to practice by saying they didn't have the endurance or strength necessary to perform surgery. And this creation of a boundary around architecture, using bodies to define insiders and outsiders, goes beyond gender. It is still challenging for people with disabilities to study and practice architecture because conventional ideals of an architect's body persist.

Architect Barbie wears her femininity on her face and represents a landmark moment in toy history ‐ where are we today? 

Although the debates about Architect Barbie have largely receded, that does not mean the issues she raised have been resolved. For example, there has been little discussion about generational differences among women architects in terms of how they understand empowerment, the body, and femininity. Architect Barbie, despite being a toy, brought important matters to the fore, such as problematic assumptions about what constitutes appropriate attire for women on the construction site (a topic, I should point out, first broached 120 years ago). The doll was a flashpoint of debate, but ten years later, the issues she made visible remain contentious.

Architect Barbie on display.jpg

Architect Barbie on display at the AIA convention in New Orleans, May 2011. Courtesy of Mattel, Inc.

History has rendered Abstraction (intellectual prowess) and Emotion (intellectual weakness) as two gender‐specific, fundamentally different dimensions, elevating the male spirit and burying female potential. So why does architecture need to re‐write the definitions of both these concepts to become truly successful for its users?

Problematic assumptions are still buried deep within architectural values, not only regarding intellectual versus emotional approaches to design, but also around ideas of primitivism versus sophistication, decoration versus structure, formal perfection versus lived messiness, and so forth. These values can be profoundly gendered, colonialist and racist.

 

Excavating the values of architectural excellence, as these have been defined in the past, opens up new ways of thinking about practice and relationships with clients. And this ties to the work we are doing in my office as well, examining why academics look for certain things on CVs, for example, as the definition of excellence, or the kinds of creative work we define as excellent when a professor goes up for tenure. Often our ideals of excellence are actually about maintaining the status quo, even if that protects mediocrity, and not about upholding some eternal lofty standards. Unexamined, these old definitions might well diminish excellence, and that is not good for anybody.

Gender equity is everyone's issue.

Your latest article critiques bro culture and how detrimental this is for the implementation of more equitable practice models. How can women make themselves heard and visible without having to adopt a masculine persona or feel pressured to become 'one of the boys'?

Changing professional images and practices is absolutely possible, but it is important to recognize that broad cultural and structural transformation of the profession cannot be laid on the shoulders of one individual. Finding allies, within and beyond your own workplaces, is critically important to realizing deep and lasting change. There are many active organizations pushing for gender equity in architecture, such as Equity by Design in San Francisco. Equity by Design has been undertaking very important research analyzing the problems based on national data, which also makes clear that such issues go beyond any one firm and require a collective approach to solutions. Women alone cannot be the drivers of that change; men have to step up and support gender equity, too, in all its forms. Gender equity is everyone's issue.

 

Just as combating racism or fighting bias against people with disabilities is everybody's business. I hope that during this past year, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and the international and widespread activism it spurred, people who previously may not have seen social justice as something that concerned them personally are beginning to realize that such issues affect everyone. And addressing them must be a collective effort.

Fia Wille - with son2.jpg

Fia Wille holding her son, 1913. Published in Agnes Harder, “Unsere Kunstgewerblerinnen,” Die Deutsche Frau 3, no. 20 (1913): 6.

Motherhood in Architecture: Production vs. Reproduction

What triggered the idea that you have to choose between being a successful architect and a good parent? And why is popular culture so fascinated with the persona of the burned‐out architect who cannot seem to juggle both profession and career? 

When women attempted to enter the profession around the turn of the twentieth century, they were told that motherhood and architectural practice were incompatible. The qualities that made you a good mother also made you a bad architect—you were either reproductive or productive in your nature, but you could not be both. And women were seen as essentially reproductive and men as productive. Somehow, fathers were left off the hook.

 

However, in more recent times, we see fathers who are architects also depicted in popular culture in similar ways—as having to choose between being a bad father or a good architect. This is why these kinds of stereotypes and biases have to be confronted for the sake of everyone: they never damage just one set of people.

 

At the same time, this is not just about a damaging image. Architecture also has to ask itself why it is perceived as a family-unfriendly profession and what it can do to change that. The lack of flexibility in work-life balance is deeply unattractive to a younger generation, both men and women. And if you want to attract the best, you need to realize that your firm's culture may be pushing out those who do not see architectural practice and parenthood as an either/or condition.

If you want to attract the best, you need to realize that your firm's culture may be pushing out those who do not see architectural practice and parenthood as an either/or condition.

The first women architects hid their anatomy on the construction site, and women today are still hiding their pregnancies or role as mothers. Why is this recurrent theme of 'hiding' running through women's history when trying to make their mark in this profession?  

A hundred years ago, architecture authorities (in schools, offices, and the media) blatantly stated their biases against women and mothers, although they would have not seen these as biases but rather as eternal truths. Today, because of legal protections, few employers will make explicit those biases, although they still exist—they have just gone underground for the most part. A mother seeking to advance her career in an architecture firm that devalues her parental role may seek to conceal what she knows will hurt her professionally. Just because those biases are unstated or implicit, does not mean they are not real.

There is a general opinion that having a child can cause irreversible damage to a woman's architectural career. In your view, is it fair to put such a heavy emphasis on parenthood as the main reason women are being pushed to the fringes of the profession? 

If maternity were the only hurdle to professional success, we would expect female practitioners who are not parents to have career trajectories similar to those of their male peers, which they do not. But we also need to dig deeper into workplace cultures. For example, Equity by Design's last survey, from 2018, which had over 14,000 respondents, found that some work environments are more restrictive than others. Women who were sole proprietors were more likely to be parents than women who worked for firms. So again, this tells us that not all architectural offices are the same. It is important to understand what kind of firms or professional situations allow women to thrive and where, by contrast, they seem to encounter professional hurdles. Such research is extremely valuable and ultimately helps us to better define and address inequities.

How can mothers in architecture escape the domestication of their image?

Over 100 years ago, when women were just entering the field, they were proactive about shaping their public images. They had to be, given that there was such resistance to the idea that they could be architects. They were very savvy about their audiences, presenting themselves in various ways depending on their audiences. In some cases, though, it also meant embracing stereotypes, thinking these would lead to niche positions in the field. For example, some women embraced the idea that they were domestic experts, defining their practice in that way, while others refused to design houses altogether.

Generally speaking, male architects have been more driven in crafting their public images, which is one of the reasons they dominate Wikipedia—even mediocre male practitioners will try to get themselves a page. By contrast, women often believe that their work will speak for itself.

At the same time, I also understand that it is exhausting to continually try to correct assumptions about who you are and what you can do. That is one reason companies are investing in micro-aggression and anti-bias training, because they are realizing that it is not fair to ask those who are faced with bias to try to correct it, day in and day out.

Gender Imbalance & Mentorship: Power vs. Empower  

How important is mentorship at university and in practice, and should we look to men or women for mentors? Why can it be a challenge for men to mentor women? 

Mentorship is hugely important and it does not have to be between people of the same gender. The greatest professional mentor I ever had is a man. He saw leadership abilities in me that I did not realize I had and encouraged me to pursue horizons I had not imagined. Without him, it is no exaggeration to say I would not be where I am today.

Because mentorship can have such a positive effect, firms should create institutional structures that pair up mentors and mentees rather than leave it to happen by chance.

Can males also become involved in the movement towards gender equity? Do you think it's possible for them to identify themselves with what has been and are considered 'women's issues’? How do you think men can benefit from this process?

Just as we cannot expect to achieve racial justice solely on the basis of the leadership and activism of people of color, we also cannot expect to attain gender equity through women's efforts alone. Not only do senior male partners have to be at the table for such conversations, but they also have to see themselves as advocates rather than as adversaries. Increasingly, a younger generation of men realize that gender equity issues, such as work-life balance, impact them directly as well. It is important to understand that confronting bias builds a better, healthier profession for all—everyone benefits.

Increasingly, a younger generation of men realize that gender equity issues, such as work-life balance, impact them directly as well. It is important to understand that confronting bias builds a better, healthier profession for all—everyone benefits.

Why do you think other professions have been more successful at retaining and integrating women?

There are multiple reasons for it. The public has played a role in pushing for greater diversity in fields such as medicine. Some professional organizations have pursued gender equity in a more intentional way, by investing in pipeline and retention programs. In some disciplines, such as engineering, women have created powerful women's associations, which lobby for reform and have created their own advancement programs. Overall, I would argue that institutionalization and intentionality are at the heart of successful strategies adopted by other fields. The advancement we see in other fields has been realized through the development of an infrastructure for change.

Can you share with me what current projects/ research you are involved in?

I am exploring the afterlives of ghost towns around the world, looking at why they attract us and the many ways in which they have become vessels for people's dreams. I started this research in 2017, but it seems especially timely now, when we are starting to reinhabit the cities that the coronavirus made us abandon.

Do you think you will ever re-visit the topic of women in architecture?

I have never really left it. Exploring the history of women in architecture completely changed my perspective on our relationship to the past. It was a paradigm shift that informs how I understand power, visibility, and storytelling. So even when I am not specifically writing about women in architecture, the lessons they taught me are always there. I hope others will have that experience, too, through exploring the stories of women in architecture that remain to be told.