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Stop asking where all the female architects are; we’re right here

East Letter to the Editor Professional Practice
Instead of asking where are all the female architects, start writing about their stories, says Madame Architect. Pictured here left to right: Nicole Dosso, Danei Cesario, and Alda Ly (Courtesy Madame Architect)
Instead of asking where are all the female architects, start writing about their stories, says Madame Architect. Pictured here left to right: Nicole Dosso, Danei Cesario, and Alda Ly (Courtesy Madame Architect)

In 2014, a year after I graduated from architecture school, I read Karrie Jacobs’s Fast Company piece on Nicole Dosso, “The Tallest Tower in the U.S. is Being Built by a Woman.” A perfect title, a perfect piece. In it, Jacobs wasn’t describing Dosso as a “female architect” or as a “woman in architecture.” She simply stated that the tallest tower is being built by a woman, period. As a 23-year-old female starting out in her career, I was energized and in awe of Dosso, and my peers who weren’t in architecture were too. It was a breath of fresh air, a moment of strength.

Another example is a recent New York Times article titled, “Architecture is No Longer Just a Gentlemen’s Profession.” Precisely. These are the types of headlines and stories we need.

Last Saturday’s New York Times op-ed, “Where Are All the Female Architects?” was not titled to advance our cause. The piece did talk about redefining success since there’s often a limited view of what being an architect means. But its headline, along with a slew of others lately asking where are the female architects, adds to the misleading narrative that there are none out there. It’s a negative story to suggest because there are truly so many.

It’s time to change this narrative. I no longer want to hear people asking, “Where are all the women architects?” or saying, “I can’t name five female architects.” I’ve published interviews with 50 women on my platform Madame Architect who build, design, or otherwise advance the practice of architecture, and I’ve spoken to even more. We need to listen to them, write about them, amplify them, and support them in combating the issues our industry faces in order to change this situation.

Instead of asking “Where are these women?” start writing about them and telling their unique stories.

Yes, we need to call out the systemic issues in the industry that are perpetuated time and time again and prevent many women from rising through the ranks. They need to be discussed and approached thoughtfully. But why not show what the redefinition of success looks like by writing about the myriad women who are doing exceptional, sensitive, and important work while simultaneously running businesses, acting as caregivers, and making time to mentor?

To me, that is the beginning of change. Instead of asking “Where are these women?” start writing about them and telling their unique stories. Show their successes, their reinventions of practices, and how they forged their own paths.

Take Andrea Simitch, who leads the nation’s top-ranked undergraduate architecture program, or Nina Freedman, the former “secret wing” to Shigeru Ban and founder of Dreamland Creative Projects. There is also Sylvia Smith, senior partner at FXCollaborative, who started and oversees the firm’s award-winning cultural and educational practice, as well as Sandra McKee, who spearheaded Rafael Viñoly’s Tokyo International Forum but now owns her own international studio and hosts ArchiteXX’s mentorship sessions.

Younger women are also emerging as leaders in the field. Elyse Marks, a restoration architect, rope-access technician, and marathoner, defies gender norms every day while hanging hundreds of feet in the air, while Alda Ly, one of the co-founders of MASS Design Group, runs her own practice working with entrepreneurs and startups like The Wing. Danei Cesario is raising two girls while traveling to speak on industry equity and diversity, while Isabel Oyuela-Bonzani introduces architecture to high school students.

There are clearly many women who are architects, but the yardstick for evaluating good architecture and success is shortsighted.

There are also countless women I’ve met who may not build, but advance the practice and advocate for the value of architecture and architects, like critic Alexandra Lange, public relations expert Tami Hausman, strategist Ashley Bryan, and activist Jessica Myers.

These women show there are different types of success at all levels that deserve to be celebrated and talked about. There are clearly many women who are architects, but the yardstick for evaluating good architecture and success is shortsighted. Good architecture now has a broader definition, and we can be more inclusive in showcasing the architecture that addresses the issues facing society today.

I should also note that the women I’ve called out in this article are all based in New York. Since I live and work full-time here, these are the architects with whom I can have meaningful, intimate, face-to-face conversations. Of course, I am trying to profile more women located elsewhere in the country and around the world. But just imagine: If there are so many unique stories held within a singular city, there must be countless architects out there doing fascinating work that we need to acknowledge.

In last week’s New York Times op-ed, writer Allison Arieff quoted Caroline James, a graduate of Harvard’s architecture program and founder of the advocacy group Design for Equality. James told Arieff that it’s “time to ID the problem and what we need to do moving forward” by giving women the tools they can use to succeed, such as mentorship and access to information. This is exactly my goal for Madame Architect, and the same spirit drives other organizations like ArchiteXX, Rebel Architette, Equity by Design, and Girl Uninterrupted. We should also start early by speaking and listening to students, asking them what questions they have, what resources they’ll need, and what kinds of mentors they want.

When I was studying at Cornell, I read Toshiko Mori’s newly-released monograph and remember focusing on the following words which have since fueled my attitude toward my career: “Architects cannot be defeated by disappointments. The profession requires mental strength, good health, and especially a strong stomach. An unlimited amount of optimism, a healthy dose of idealism, and high energy and high spirits help us to persevere through difficult circumstances.”

This industry is tough and we need to infuse it with this kind of motivation. We need a strong start in 2019 where we can mobilize, spread knowledge, build community, and support men and women alike within architecture. I don’t believe this is the only solution, but this moment is a new beginning.

So let’s write about these women—these architects—in the way that Karrie wrote about Nicole. We are not missing and we will no longer be hidden.

Julia Gamolina is the founder and editor of Madame Architect. She also currently handles business development at FXCollaborative.

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