Women in Architecture: From equal opportunities and professional integrity into a sea of chauvinism

Architects Dated:  Aug. 14, 2015
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Women in Architecture

I was recently invited to speak at a forum initiated by Google called ‘Women TechMakers’ and while I enjoyed sharing my experience as an entrepreneur and how architectural practice is intrinsically married to technology, I also shared my grouse on this compartmentalization where professionals are being bracketed under pure professionals as one group and the more recent and familiar ‘women’ professionals as another! And I wanted to shout out loud in protest that “I am an Architect, not a woman architect”. Do we need a forum like this when women across the board are showing their mettle as great professionals without a gender bias? Can you decipher a Zaha Hadid building, a Harper Lee book or a Meera Nair film, as one made by a woman?  Do we need to know if there is a woman behind the product or creation, so long as the work is professionally competitive and on par with global best standards?

Women across the globe are raised to be very conscious of their feminity and gender and how fragile they are or should be in a very male dominated world. While the environment in which one is raised or nurtured may be liberal and with no gender bias, one still finds certain limitations trickling in from outside the immediate inner circle of neutrality. The so called social burdens seem to slip in unbeknownst into the shrouds of liberalism and modern feminism. Equality and equal opportunity seem like an illusion, a mirage in a desert that no longer exists!

Having being raised with the sky as the limit and experiencing an architectural education that had no discrimination towards woman professionals, and further to that, beginning my own design and build practice, that seemed to be turning out like a cake walk, it came as a real surprise to me when my mentor and Architect from Ahmedabad, Gujrat in India asked me to share my feedback on the challenges of being a woman in the architectural field. She was a feminist (and I had no idea then that these were subjects she was passionate about) and had begun working on a publication called ‘Women in Architecture’. I was at a loss of words and could not really understand why in this day and age such a subject was being glorified! Let me elaborate.

I had completed my education and training in 1996, with an architectural firm in Ahmedabad where my mentors besides being partners were also a husband and wife team. My training period was anything but ordinary with my mentors constantly coaxing me to travel and experience architecture around the state over weekends, exploring as much as I could with never a limitation of being a woman exploring on her own. On those many travels with my colleague and fellow female classmate, in and around Gujarat, right from Lothal, Modhera, Pathan to Mt Abu and Jaisalmer, we explored with abandon, soaking in the sights and the magic of architecture-of step wells, temples, forts and residential settlements, all thanks to my mentors. They also sparked a hope in me to try and pursue further education outside India. I also had the opportunity to meet my friends mentors who were akin to mine but had separate individual practices. This was insightful as I understood that sometimes partners who are also spouses do need professional freedom and can work better with their own individual teams and diverse areas of interest. Unable to pursue that fleeting desire to pursue my masters, I plunged into working with a low key architect (mentored by Lauri Baker, who I really admired and had hoped for an opportunity to work with some day) back in Goa and was thrilled to find myself engaged in an architectural practice quite unconventional in many ways, handling most of the site development and construction of projects, working with labour and sub contractors, most of who were men. This new way of taking on projects was called design and build and one passionately promoted by Lauri Baker. Here too, there was never a moment where I felt any limitation to conduct myself as an architect, least of all was I made to feel conscious of being a woman or with any limitations. In a couple of years I began my own practice rather informally with a focus on design and build and I found myself working with lay clients who were not too bothered about design but were keen to spend less and save money on their dream home. And during this period I found myself strengthening my foundations as I experimented with contemporary design, using local materials, traditional and alternative building techniques, the works! Most of the workers were farmers from the neighbouring states, with little or no knowledge of construction. Some were local and skilled masons from nearby. But nonetheless, I would often use my experience, logic and basic knowledge to explain how local stone needed to be dressed or worked with and they would simply follow instructions without hesitation. One of my high moments was when this skilled mason called Suresh, who had worked on my earlier projects, came to visit a new site and looked at all the random rubble masonry done with the local laterite stone and asserted that this was extremely strong and a sound way of building! Like an inspector certifying the work!

There were those unwanted and uncomfortable incidents where young workers, mostly men, would often gamble or indulge in some kind of prohibited activity on site and I would then have to address the issue with a subtle confrontation but there was never a situation where they disagreed or snapped or displayed any violence in defense. Nor did any of my clients use their liberty to step in but graciously let me take stock and handle every issue using my judgment and discretion.

I recall how all my client’s would allow complete freedom in the project but often chip in during construction, not because of any limitation as a women but because all these clients were simple lay folk who practiced working like a team, back home with their spouses and extended family. So on rare occasions while I carted helpers, masons and cement bags on my scooterette, they would often check on me to see if they too could do some bit as part of the team.

Yes there were rare occasions when one of my local Gujju proprietor’s elderly father would consolingly ask me why I was doing such an unsavory job and pitying me for the fact that I was unmarried and therefore without a man to help me out. There was another, where my client’s wife disgustedly reprimanded me for not wearing any jewellery, knowing well that I had then just married.  But there were also those high moments when my client’s would assert with pride that they would love their daughters to take up the same profession as mine!

In all this time there was not a moment where I felt disadvantaged or discriminated or treated with disrespect and least of all any prejudice. And the reason was simple. So long as the work was good and the consultancy competent, no one really bothered if the professional was a man or woman! As an architect my journey has been anything but extraordinary. Exciting and full of restless passion!  But aren’t all creative pursuits coloured with the same streaks of unbounded enthusiasm, hope, some failures and small successes?

This was way back in 1998. And that is the reason why the topic ‘Women in Architecture’ took me by surprise. I had no experience of the kind to share and literally laughed my head off that such a topic needed dialogue and deliberation! As I plunged into a design and build practice, I again reflected on the subject, finding and believing it had no relevance to women architects in Goa and feeling rather proud at having discovered this fact. After a few years of experimenting with my ideas, I fell in love with my best friend who was an architect too and forged a professional partnership and began an innings into an amazing world of professional freedom, equal opportunity and conduct. Again due to the fact that there was no gender bias, we seemed to have struck the perfect deal where the fundamental principle was design integrity and true to an equal partnership, equal monetary benefits! The pact was simple- who ever gets a project, while the freedom to design with integrity was an individual choice, the fees would be shared equally by both! Many of our friends later patted our backs complimenting that this was an amazing business model to adopt! We didn’t know this then but it was a great foundation to build our partnership and I realized more than a decade later how this in a way held sacred, financial freedom and professional integrity, the two tenets that define individuality without a gender bias.

Our practice grew as more interesting projects came our way. We seemed to be working magic as a team. Clients seemed to be too happy to have two architects instead of one! We were unaware of our strengths as a team, until one day, one of our clients’ publicly blurted out how we often engaged in compatible discussions at meetings, on key issues both during the design processes as well as during construction on site and resolved them in the most positive and logical way!  I recall how oblivious we were to all else but the task at hand and completely enjoyed what we were doing.  This team spirit was exhilarating and perhaps reflected in our work together for close to a decade. As earlier, I felt no limitation or prejudice either from my partner or clients at any point of my partnership with my best friend and soon to be husband!

The challenges were different when we later married and our children were born and we had to juggle home and work, but at the core seems to be this fierce drive of wanting professional freedom and equal opportunity. There have been so many moments where the people and world around me seems to have been very considerate and concerned to allow me the freedom to work as a competent professional especially when the children came along understanding how priorities change but aware that women can multitask brilliantly. I did it all, working at night when the children slept soundly, working from home, working to set up the office next door, working flexi hours, working on unconventional projects, working as a local consultant to urban planning projects for the city, anything that came my way. It was as if I was trying hard to keep afloat, afraid to drown into a sea of chauvinism, trying to remind me that women that bear babies can’t work!  And while the kids were top priority, I kept professionally busy in what I thought were small ways in comparison to all the outdoor work I used to handle earlier often making excuses that I was barely working until a very senior male friend and prominent citizen congratulated my involvement in the landmark city development and later took me aside and literally reprimanded me for downplaying my involvement and contribution to the city’s new urban renewal mission. This led me to understand that many a times women downplay their role as they continue to multitask efficiently and this humble perception gives their partners, friends or colleagues the false notion that they aren’t contributing in a major way and therefore perhaps the relegation to a nondescript existence by the mighty ‘boss’!

Further to this if clients and others too begin to perceive that the woman partner is no longer a part of the main team, there is little she can do to restore their faith and confidence. The magic needs to be apparent within the team and about the team!

The public participation processes during my stint with the city’s urban renewal projects inspired me to take on social architecture and citizen initiatives.  This social or public interface led me to meet many women and their supportive men, some a great inspiration as successful professionals and ‘mom-prenuers’ and some that seemed lost and were in dire need of regaining their entrepreneurial soul!  Some seemed to have got stuck into a staid role of playing wife at home and assistant at the office, not quite understanding how she got there or who assigned her that role. While all were multitasking, some seem to have lost their professional prowess into the dreaded sea of chauvinism!

It is only recently that I have begun to realize that while I find myself among the lucky few, the case is not so with a majority of women in the field, despite the successes. In a very skewed hierarchy dominated by men and their unfortunate biases to their other-wise equal partners, there seems to be a lacunae where women have led or are given the opportunity to lead! Now when I look back, I realize that what I took for granted is an issue that needs deliberation and constructive dialogue for the simple fact that only a few of us are lucky but the majority of women, in not only the field of architecture but other professions too are being pushed into the shadows, into a sea of chauvinism. Why are women getting stuck with childcare and forced to give up their professions when they can easily do both with the right support and encouragement?  Why do women get relegated the role of mere secretaries when they have the potential as equal partners? Why are students and fresh graduates disappearing into the confines and isolation of architectural offices, with mere assistance-ship roles? Why are young professionals disappearing into the hollows of marital dogma and their architectural forte dying an early death? Who decides this?

To inspire and be inspired remains my central motto now, as I embark into the wonderful world of mentoring young minds and professionals and coaxing them into a hands-on rigmarole of designing and building at the grassroots with no hint of a gender bias!

I have a dream! I hope to initiate a forum where women and men can share their stories, real stories as they have narrated to me, to inspire and be inspired, where women as professionals have space, their individual space in the waters of equal opportunity, where the sea of chauvinism is nothing but a myth.

This paper is part of the WIA publication brought out at the Women in Architecture Conference organized jointly by the IIA Northern Chapter, SPA and SPA Alumni on June 06, 2015.

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