The great debate: Is ‘female architect’ an offensive title?

(CNN)In a controversial opinion editorial published by design magazine Dezeen last month, Dorte Mandrup made a bold declaration.

“I am not a female architect. I am an architect.”
The award-winning Danish architect, and founder of the Copenhagen-based practice Dorte Mandrup Arkitekter, called for the abolishment of “worthy lists and exhibitions” that celebrate only women — as if they operate in a different sphere to men.
    The article sparked a fiery conversation on social media — on both sides of the fence — about gender, sexism and equality.
    CNN invited Mandrup to debate these issues with Angela Brady: a past president of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) and chair of Women in Architecture, who advocates for the very women-celebrating schemes that provoke Mandrup.
    Here’s how their tte–tte via Skype went.

    First question, should you be called a female architect?

    AB: When I first started out in architecture I did not want Ms. or Mrs. before my name. I just wanted A.M. Brady. When I came to London to work, I thought: “This must be the great land of equality.” But it wasn’t. It was much harder for women to get anywhere in architecture in the 80s, 90s, and the noughties.
    It’s a lot easier now, but if it hadn’t been for pressure groups saying: “Hey, let the women in,” or shouting, “This isn’t quite fair,” things would be worse than they are today.
    St
    DM: I get pretty provoked when I am referred to as a female architect. We need to start seeing women as fully part of the architecture realm. We can compete with the boys. Let’s discuss, why don’t we have more women on the jury? Why do we accept there are competitions with only men-owned companies?

    Do men and women design buildings differently?

    DM: No. All people are different but women do not make architecture differently to men. But sometimes we get the assignments that are “suited to women.” Like kindergartens and schools. My first jobs all had to do with children. It was just: “You’re the woman that’s good with children, right?” Like all women are.
    AB: While women and men might not design buildings differently, they may approach design in a different way. Women have got a great ability to listen — not all men have that. A lot of our female clients — and there are more than ever before, because woman are increasingly in powerful positions — come to us because they want to engage female architects. We’re more empathetic.
    DM: I don’t fully agree. Some people are empathetic and others aren’t, I don’t think it relates to sex. Women are forced to be more empathetic — if you’re not an empathetic woman, you’re not a nice woman, right?
    Think you can tell the difference between male and female architecture? Take our quiz!

    Women are studying architecture — why aren’t they getting jobs?

    AB: We have about 58 RIBA-accredited schools of architecture, and it’s about a 50-50 (gender split) among the students. When I studied, it was 10% women and they tried to root us out as quickly as possible. There’s no doubt the more women you have in college the more will qualify and eventually get jobs.

    DM: In Demark, we have just over 50% of women in architecture school. What I regret is what happens when they get into offices. A lot of female architects are married to male architects.
    Some husbands are less talented, but after 10 years the women see their husbands getting better jobs and they start to back off. They make the choice to be responsible for the kids — which is great for the kids but not for careers.
    AB: That’s true, a lot of women are married to architects — it’s a long course at university. I’m married to an architect, and my husband and I do 50% of the child raising each, and also we had a nanny. We’ve absolutely shared that side of our family life.

    Are diversity initiatives addressing gender issues?

    AB: When I chaired Women in Architecture (2000-2005), I said we can’t moan about the lot of the female architect, we’ve got to be proactive and shout about how good we are. Back then, women accounted for 10% of architects in practice, and black and minority were 6%. So we called our exhibition “DiverseCity” — it was about the diversity of people. It started as a modest display of 50 panels in the RIBA.
    Then I got a call from the US: “Will you bring it over here?” Then China. It became a global snowball. It traveled for six years. Whenever I say “great women” or “great black or ethnic minorities” I’m giving special emphasis because they’ve had to work harder to get there. We need exhibitions like this, because it’s still not a level playing field.
    DM: Being named on Dezeen’s list of “Inspirational female architects and designers” was very flattering. But we’re at a great point now where we need to push women (into the mainstream).
    There’s a new understanding. When Alejandro Aravena’s opening panel, “Meetings on Architecture: Infrastructure,” at the 2016 Venice Architecture Bienale included only men, there was a real, negative reaction. We should insist in being in the main exhibition. Being on the panel.
    AB: What I liked about that, Dorte, was that the objections on Twitter were largely from men. And the Venice Architecture Bienale next year, of course, is going to be curated by Yvonne (Farrell) and Shelley (McNamara) of Grafton Architects Dublin: two female Irish architects.
    You won’t see an all-male — or all-female — panel on their watch!

    Why is the pay gap widening between men and women in architecture?

    AB: Pay disparity is against EU law. I keep saying to women: “Ask for more money.” The boys will. The girls must have more confidence.
    DM: There’s a lot of things we need to discuss about how men and women are behaving. If you are a woman and you push your career you are really a pushy, nasty woman. We all want to be liked. If you want to be liked as a woman you behave the way you are supposed to.

    Can we afford to cut schemes celebrating women?

    AB: No. When people are drawing up architectural speaker lists, they often just use other people’s lists. Lists of men. And there is a hidden layer of people they do not see. If we have a list of women speakers, they can then refer to it. In two to three years’ time, it’ll have infiltrated the system and they’ll know how to create panels with gender equality.
    DM: I was talking to a woman the other day who was the champion of Denmark’s women’s chess league. Women’s chess? Why divide women? Architecture is not a physical sport.

    Finally, how can we get more women into architecture?

    AB: At our firm, we adopt a school, go in as a role model and say: “I’m an architect.” We explain: “I try to make the best places and spaces for people to enjoy life in.” I’ve gone into schools for 15 years twice a year. “Are all architects women?” one of the pupils asked me. My mantra is: “Women and men together make the best architecture.”
    Architecture is a career for life, and a fantastic career for women. One of our senior architects has taken a full year off twice when she’s had babies. She’s welcomed back. We value all our staff.
    DM: Our office is 50% women. We don’t have policies to keep women working, but when they get pregnant there is a conversation. “Remember to get the father to take all the leave he can.” Tell the really good female architects to exhibit. Tell them, there is no being a male or female architect.
    You can become famous not as a woman architect, but as an architect.
    Additional reporting by CNN’s Zoha Qamar.

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