Where are the Women Architects? An interview with Despina Stratigakos

StratigakosWomen have been entering universities excited to major in architecture. But studies have shown that although women currently make up 40% of all architecture majors at colleges across the United States, only 17% of architectural professionals are female.  Despina Stratigakos takes a close look at this disparity in her new book Where are the Women Architects?. Recently Stratigakos answered some questions on her book, and what she calls the disturbingly high dropout rates for women in the profession.

Why do we need to talk about women in architecture? Can’t we just focus on the work of architects, regardless of their gender?

DS: It’s easy to say that gender issues are a thing of the past, but a young woman entering architecture today still confronts an unequal playing field. She can expect to make less than her male peers at every stage of her career, to see fewer career-building opportunities come her way, and to struggle to make it to the top ranks of the profession, which remain overwhelmingly male. Discrimination lies behind these hurdles and is the reason we continue to see such disturbingly high dropout rates for women. So, yes, we do have to talk about women in architecture. And hopefully do more than just talk.

But aren’t more women than ever studying architecture? Won’t that influx resolve these issues as more women integrate into the profession?

DS: Numbers alone aren’t a fix. For the last fifteen years, women have been a strong presence in architecture schools, making up nearly half of the student body. But far too many of them eventually leave architecture. As a result, the number of women in practice has flatlined, with women today representing less than one in five licensed practitioners. Beyond the human tragedy of so many women abandoning their dreams, this loss of talent and energy undermines the health of the profession.

Why do so many women leave architecture?

DS: This phenomenon has been so little studied, that’s it hard to give conclusive answers, but new research suggests that women leave for complex and varied reasons, including salary gaps, fewer opportunities for career advancement, a lack of mentoring and role models, and routine sexism in the workplace. The simplistic explanation, trotted out for decades, that women leave practice to have babies doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. It’s true that architecture’s deadline-driven culture makes it difficult to balance raising a family with the expected long work hours. But not all mothers choose to leave architecture, and women without children are also struggling in the profession, so the issue can’t be reduced to biology.

In your book, you point out that journalists and other observers have been asking about architecture’s missing women for over a century. If this phenomenon isn’t new, why write the book now?

DS: Something new is afoot in architecture. While there have been questions and protests about the lack of women in architecture for a long time, gender equity issues today are attracting attention across a broader span of the profession and are also garnering public support. A new generation of advocates are speaking out about issues of diversity in architecture and organizing at a grassroots’ level to make their voices heard. I identify this as architecture’s third wave of feminism, and hope the book helps to define a movement that may, at last, bring about deep change.

Architect Barbie’s inclusion in this book may come as a surprise to some readers. You write candidly about your reasons for partnering with Mattel to create the doll and the responses, some of them critical, she received when launched in 2011. Why did you decide to include her story in this book?

DS: I am very interested in how popular culture shapes professional images and the role gender plays in such ideals. For an earlier generation, Howard Roark, the protagonist of Ayn Rand’s hugely influential novel, The Fountainhead, embodied the ideal image of the architect—especially as portrayed by Gary Cooper in the 1949 film version. Barbie is a cultural icon who is both loved and hated, and casting her in the role of an architect galvanized people into talking about professional stereotypes, such as whether architects can wear pink. Her story is relevant to the challenges that women architects face in the real world, especially because she lets us look at gender issues from unexpected angles.

The ideal image of the architect also comes up in your chapter on architecture prizes as a boys’ club. You write about how Zaha Hadid, after becoming the first woman to win the prestigious Pritzker Architecture Prize in 2004, endured humiliating press stories that focused on her appearance rather than on her achievements. Some of these accounts are quite shocking to read today. What do you want readers to take away from this account?

DS: This rather shameful moment in architectural journalism speaks to the discrimination that even the most successful women architects face. Denise Scott Brown’s exclusion from the 1991 Pritzker Architecture Prize awarded to her partner Robert Venturi, which I also discuss, is another instance of how even prominent female practitioners can be dismissed. But 2004 is not that long ago, and the sexist reaction to Hadid’s win reminds us that attitudes about women being lesser architects and unworthy of the highest laurels are not part of a long-dead past.

But has that changed now? This year, the AIA Gold Medal is being awarded jointly to Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi, and Zaha Hadid has won the Royal Institute of British Architects’ Royal Gold Medal, the first woman to be offered the honor in her own right. Are women architects finally getting their due?

DS: These awards are highly deserved and long overdue, but have come about only after sustained pressure on professional organizations to better align their rewards systems with today’s architectural realities. Scott Brown is the first living woman to win the AIA Gold Medal ever; Hadid is the first sole female practitioner to win the RIBA Gold Medal ever. These are important milestones, but we don’t yet know whether they are part of a larger pattern. In the book, I discuss how the paucity of female laureates has led to the recent and rapid proliferation of new prizes solely for women architects. Time will tell whether such women-only honors continue to multiply or whether they will come to seem anachronistic.

In the book, you also express concern about a more mundane vehicle for recognition: inclusion in Wikipedia. You write about the invisibility of women architects on this hugely popular and influential website, and the bias of male editors against entries on women’s history. Why is it important to close that visibility gap?

DS: In the last twenty years, histories of women in architecture have flourished and have come to challenge our understanding of the people and forces that have shaped our built environment. But for these discoveries to reach a broad audience and to become widely known, they need to appear in the places where people look today for information on the past, and that is increasingly to free online resources such as Wikipedia. Content on Wikipedia is controlled by its editors, who are overwhelmingly male and resistant to the inclusion of women’s histories. This absence threatens to perpetuate the belief among a younger generation that women architects have made no meaningful contributions to the profession. I explore the campaigns launched by tech-savvy activists to write women architects into Wikipedia.

Despina Stratigakos is associate professor and interim chair of architecture at the University at Buffalo, State University of New York. She is the author of Hitler at Home and A Woman’s Berlin: Building the Modern City. Her most recent book is Where are the Women Architects?

How Texas law will shape the women’s vote

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The Explosive Potential of the Whole
Woman’s Health Case

by Nancy Woloch

On March 2 the Supreme Court will hear arguments about a 2013 Texas law that affects access to abortion. The law at issue in Whole Woman’s Health v. Cole requires doctors who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital (no more than thirty miles from the clinic). It also requires abortion clinics to have facilities equivalent to those at an outpatient surgical center, that is, more equipment than Texas law demands in doctors’ offices where more hazardous procedures such as colonoscopies or liposuctions are performed. The rise of the Whole Woman case just as an election looms may provoke voters in ways unsought by sponsors of the Texas law.

Several Texas clinics challenged the law, but a federal appeals court, the Fifth Circuit, upheld the new requirements. The Supreme Court now faces several questions: Does the law protect women’s health, as Texas claims? Does the law impose an “undue burden” on women who seek abortions? The “undue burden” consideration arose in Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992), which confirms the right to abortion set forth in Roe v. Wade (1973). A law can be an undue burden, states the Casey decision, if it has “the purpose or effect of placing a substantial obstacle in the path of a woman seeking an abortion.” It is likely that the Supreme Court, when it reviews the Texas case, will further explicate “undue burden,” “substantial obstacle,” and, especially, “purpose or effect.”

Texas claims that it has “wide discretion” to pass medical regulations, that it enacted the 2013 law to protect the health of those who seek abortions, that the law ensures qualified doctors, and that it cuts delay if a patient needs a hospital. The clinics contend that the state requirements were not designed to promote women’s health, that the law is a tactic to close clinics, and that it imperils women’s health by “reducing access to safe and legal abortion.” Since 2013, critics of the law charge, the 42 clinics that once provided access to abortion in Texas now number nineteen and would dwindle to ten if the law survives review. Amicus briefs that support the clinics have started to accumulate, including a brief by historians who work with legal issues. Laws that claim to protect women’s health can restrict women’s choice, the historians state, and thus “warrant careful scrutiny by this Court.” The Court will consider whether the Fifth Circuit decision reflects precedents in abortion law, as supporters of the Texas law claim, or whether the Fifth Circuit acted in error when it enabled Texas to enforce the new law, as its detractors argue.

The Whole Woman’s Health case, to be decided in June 2016, has explosive potential. The Supreme Court has not issued a major decision on abortion since Gonzales v. Carhart (2007), which upheld a federal law barring what is called “partial birth” abortion. The Whole Woman’s Health decision will affect the options of women in Texas, especially in rural Texas, who may find the right to an abortion out of reach. The decision will also affect women in Mississippi, where a kindred case, one that involves hospital admission requirements for doctors, has arisen and where only a single clinic that provides abortion remains. The Supreme Court has not yet decided whether to consider the Mississippi case, Currier v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. The decision in Whole Woman’s Health, finally, will reach women in other states that have enacted abortion regulations similar to those in Texas, such as Wisconsin, Louisiana, and Alabama, and in states that intend to do so.

The Whole Woman’s Health decision will have further ramifications in an election year. Whichever way the Court may go—and there has no been signal as to what might happen—the conflict over the Texas law is likely to sway the women’s vote. The reappearance of a major abortion case will remind undecided women voters that state legislators, who are likely to be men (in Texas the lawmakers of 2013 were 80 percent male), can voice opinions that have an impact on women’s health – or even act to impede women’s rights under the pretext of protecting women’s health. Similarly, the Texas case will remind women voters of what a yet more conservative Supreme Court, with new members chosen by a future president, might decide. Overall, the case will prompt women voters to think about the fragility of women’s rights. Whatever happens in the Supreme Court, the timing of the Whole Woman’s Health decision may well advantage Democrats.

Woloch jacketNancy Woloch teaches history at Barnard College, Columbia University. Her books include A Class by Herself, Women and the American Experience and Muller v. Oregon: A Brief History with Documents.

Quick Questions for Adrienne Mayor, author of The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women Across the Ancient World

Adrienne Mayor is a research scholar in classics and the history of science at Stanford University. Her work searches for precursors to modern science in mythologies and folk traditions of peoples around the world. Mayor’s previous books include The First Fossil Hunters: Paleontology in Greek and Roman Times (2000) and Fossil Legends of the First Americans (2007), which examine pre-Darwinian cultural awareness of prehistoric life in antiquity and Native America, linking legends of monsters to the discovery of fossils. Her biography The Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithradates, Rome’s Deadliest Enemy was a finalist for 2009 National Book Award in Nonfiction and won the 2010 Gold Medal in Biography at the Independent Publisher Book Awards.amayor

Mayor’s upcoming book, The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women across the Ancient World, explores the familiar Greek myth of warrior women from a global perspective. Citing stories from China, India, Egypt, Persia, and Central Asia, as well as new archaeological discoveries, Mayor unearths the roots of Amazon legends and reveals some surprising insights on gender in the ancient world.

Now, on to the questions!

What would you have been if not an historian?

If I had not become so obsessed with uncovering germs of historical and scientific realities in ancient mythology and legends, I would still be a full-time freelance copyeditor for about a dozen trade publishers and university presses (including Princeton University Press). That was my career until I published my first book (The First Fossil Hunters for PUP, 2000). Before I began concentrating on writing, in my free time I was an artist, making and selling etchings illustrating stories based on my readings in classical literature.


“I find writing a book a slow, intricate process, a kind of obstacle course punctuated with great rewards.”


What was the most influential book you’ve read?

Two influential books: The Histories of Herodotus, the world’s first “anthropologist,” an insatiably curious Greek historian who reported on barbarian cultures based on his research, travels, and interviews in the fifth century BC. I was also influenced by Mott T. Greene’s Natural Knowledge in Preclassical Antiquity (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992).

Describe your writing process. How long did it take you to finish your book? Where do you write? 

I had been gathering material about ancient women warriors for decades. But I began the serious research for The Amazons in 2009 and started the actual writing in 2012. I find writing a book a slow, intricate process, a kind of obstacle course punctuated with great rewards. But research is always thrilling and I tend to incorporate newfound material up to the very last minute. I write in two very different places: my desk in Palo Alto, California is piled high with myriad jumbled books and papers whose stratigraphy is a challenge. Summers in Bozeman, Montana, I write in a spare space, surrounded by interesting rocks and fossils instead of books, on an old oak table with nothing but my laptop.

What was the most interesting thing you learned from writing this book? 

Thanks to modern DNA testing, we now know that a significant number of battle-scarred skeletons buried with weapons in ancient steppe nomad graves belonged to women, the real-life models for Greek myths about Amazons. So Amazons were not just a figment of the Greek imagination, brought to life in exciting myths only to be killed off by Greek heroes. But even more surprising, it turns out that the Greeks were not the only people of antiquity to spin tales about heroic warrior women. And the non-Greek stories of warlike women differ radically from the dark mythic script demanding death for all Amazons. Instead, legendary heroes of Persia, Egypt, and Asia were so impressed with the valor of their female foes that they desired the women as companions in love and war. We are used to thinking of Amazon myths in terms of violence against uppity women, but the ancient evidence also reveals a vision of gender equality.

How did you come up with the title and jacket?

7-18 AmazonsMy working title was “Amazons in Love and War” because there are as many romances as battle stories about warrior women. The final title embraces both mythology and history and conveys the geographic scope of the book far beyond the ancient Mediterranean world. I wanted to find a unique picture for the cover, something arresting and unexpected, a departure from the standard classical Greek vase or Roman statue. I was struck by the strong image and narrative quality of a postage stamp issued by the Kyrgyz Republic. It shows the horsewoman-archer Saikal, heroine of the most famous Central Asian epic poem Manas. The black and white illustration is by Teodor Gercen, a German artist who worked in Kyrgyzstan.

What are you reading right now?

I am enjoying a well-researched adventure novel translated from Danish, The Lost Sisterhood (Random House, 2014) by Anne Fortier (Ph.D. Aarhus University, History of Ideas). The story follows an Oxford professor on a quest in North Africa and Troy to discover a legendary “Amazon treasure,” following clues left by her eccentric grandmother who claimed an Amazon queen as her ancestor.


Adrienne Mayor is the author of:

7-18 Amazons The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women across the Ancient World by Adrienne Mayor
Hardcover | September 2014 | $29.95 / £19.95 | ISBN: 9780691147208
536 pp. | 6 x 9 | 10 maps | Reviews