Women in the architecture workplace is, oddly, a subject that does not receive a lot of press. Perhaps it is because from the time of school onward, women in the field are indoctrinated into being either as “hard,” “iron-like” or on a practical level, unbathed and unhygienic, as their male counterparts in order to be accepted. Indeed, at one school in Los Angeles, the women actively cultivate a hardened exterior that rivals any of their male classmates. Those who do not relinquish obvious signifiers of womanhood are dismissed as either attempting to “sleep their way to success” or as “lightweights.”
Before you go running for cover from what you think is another diatribe against men, read a little farther. There is an interesting article in the Economist regarding high-level women corporate leaders. Basically, there are four findings which are based on business school studies, including one from Harvard for some legitimacy.
First, there is a dearth of women in corporate leadership. Second, women who head corporations tend to be more talented than their male colleagues because they had to be in order to overcome the exaggerated privileging accorded to men. That includes not simply sexism, but also other things such as mentoring which can be precarious for women not wanting to appear to curry favor or risking seeming impropriety. Third, corporations headed by women tended to have greater profitability, though a caution here: causation was not clear, merely correlation.
Of course, there are always exceptions to every rule. One firm here in L.A., as I’ve referred to in a related article, is headed by a woman who unfortunately seems intent on running it into the ground. However, there are other extremely successful architecture firms in L.A. whose C.O.O.’s and Managing Principals are women that provide their firms with vision, innovation, and smart business plans.
Now we get to the fourth observation, which proposes a major reason for the dearth of women in corporate leadership. This will no doubt surprise many, and completely undermine all those years many women architects have cultivated that hard, non-sexed persona. Simply put, fewer women pursue high-level career opportunities because of motherhood. This is further supported by a recent study from The World Bank, which finds that women’s time is, indeed, more limited than men’s. Why? Childcare and housework.
Let’s add a few more studies. Another found that women tend to be discriminated against by their bosses because their supervisors attribute a “bifurcation of loyalty” to women who are mothers. In other words, women are seen as not as “focused” as their male counterparts because they are supposedly split by the competing realities of motherhood and work. Polls showed that men who left work because of a child-related emergency were not viewed negatively; women were. Couple this with another study that showed that men constantly judged women as having “less vision” than their male counterparts. Significantly, women judges did not skew their conclusions based on the gender of their subjects. And finally, like it or not, women are still the primary caretakers, though men obviously do much more than they used to.
So, for those who are qualified and want it, what is the best approach towards change? Policy. Obviously it isn’t going to change overnight. But addressing the major factor of motherhood, one thing, as suggested in the Economist article is to extend both maternity and paternity leave. Another is to provide better childcare once women return to work. Childcare that is more flexible like in Western Europe so that the hours match the working hours of parents. Additionally it would be helpful to institute flexible working hours for parents.
And we don’t have to wait for government policies to change, which can be glacial. Firms can augment those government benefits already in place. For example, here in the States, firms can extend the paltry paternity leave sponsored by the state (a measly six weeks) at least another 2-4 weeks. Another is to institute flex-time for employees who are parents, regardless of their gender. Onsite childcare might be another good opportunity that would honestly save firms a lot of money whose employees are always leaving early to retrieve their children from off-site facilities with fixed hours.
Again, the benefits are enormous. Happy employees are productive ones. And in this economy, where firms do tend to want more for less, a little investment in the future of their employees will reap constant rewards for years to come.
Sherin Wing is an independent scholar. She received her Ph.D. in the Humanities from UCLA. She has published articles on issues and subjects ranging from the economy and architecture to social and cultural history. She is also a frequent contributor to Metropolis, Architect Magazine and other publications. Follow Sherin on Twitter at @xiaying.
Sherin Wing, Ph.D., is a social historian who writes on architecture, urbanism, racism, the economy, and epistemology (how we know what we know by researching and examining the agendas inherent in our sources of information) to name a few issues and topics. She is dedicated to exploring issues in ...