The FuturArc Interviews
July 7, 2021
|Yasmeen Lari||Kotchakorn Voraakhom|
|Serina Hijjas||Ganga Rathnayake|
|Sonali Rastogi||Ching-Hwa Chang|
|Maria Warner Wong|
Assoc Prof Dr Zalina Shari
I was among a few female Malaysian architecture students when my architectural journey began at the University of Humberside and Lincolnshire in the UK. But it took me until my practical training years to realise that I had entered into a male-dominated industry. I was paid vastly less than most of my male counterparts with the same degrees, and during the 1998 economic crisis in Malaysia, I was the first on the retrenchment list despite being pregnant. Nevertheless, I believe this dark chapter of my life was a blessing in disguise as it opened my desire to teach or be part of academia.
I have been an academic at the Department of Architecture, Faculty of Design and Architecture, Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM), for almost 20 years. The department has always had slightly more female than male academics or a nearly balanced ratio. However, the gender barometer of other departments (Landscape Architecture and Industrial Design) in the faculty leans in favour of the men. Hence, few women have held the highest administrative positions in the faculty, such as dean, deputy deans, or heads. However, I believe gender equality is not an issue at the university level.
A female professor previously held the university’s top administrative position of Vice-Chancellor. In academia, how soon one climbs up the ladder depends on one’s levels of discipline and motivation to excel. However, after committing two days of architectural studio teaching, many academics, particularly in public research universities, are left with half a week to fulfil other obligations such as postgraduate supervision, research, publication, administration, professional services, and industry and community relations.
Meeting all these requirements every year can be daunting for women architecture academics, who prefer to be more family-focused and less career-focused. Unsurprisingly, there are only six architecture professors in five public research universities in Malaysia, and only one is female.
Dr Ann Deslandes
An overpass collapsed in the southeast of Mexico City last month (May 2021), killing at least 25 people as the bridge gave way under the weight of two rail cars, landing on the people and cars below. In 2012, the opening of the metro line—Line 12 or the Golden Line—was a triumph for the city government then, headed by now Foreign Affairs minister Marcelo Ebrard.
Workers from peripheral neighbourhoods had their commute times reduced by a line that cut across the city from the southeast to the southwest, a drastic change for denizens who had some of the longest commutes in the world1. For the past eight years the line has been used2 by about 220,000 passengers per day. “They were just working people who wanted to get home”3, reads one of the artworks created to commemorate the tragedy.
The Olivos metro station, where the train had been headed, is heaped with flowers, graffiti, and posters. As soon as the news hit, people started to say it: this happened because of corruption—it has been variously alleged that corners were cut and poor materials were used to construct the so-called Golden Line; that the soil type in the area was known to not be able to support the construction; that essential maintenance had not been done and public safety had been sacrificed to inertia and impunity. As an independent investigation is being carried out, the current mayor of Mexico City, Claudia Sheinbaum, said the tragedy was the result of a ‘structural failure’4.
In my article for this issue of FuturArc, I spoke with theorists and practitioners Lilian Chee, Justine Clark and Naomi Stead about gender equity in the profession of architecture.
I graduated from architecture school in 2014 with a cohort boasting more than 50 per cent female students—a turning point in the history of architecture education in India. Since then, more and more female students have joined architecture schools in their pursuit of becoming architects—a field which has so far been completely dominated by men and continues to be. However, the rate at which female students are partaking in architectural education has nowhere been able to make a dent in the number of female-led practices in India currently.
I used to think that women aren’t pushing themselves hard enough and are settling for less; after all, weren’t we all told that we can do everything that a man can do? After I started working—and I have been very fortunate to work in varied socio-economic contexts—I have begun to realise that there are multiple systemic and societal hurdles that exist for women in a country like India, unlike men who have access to multiple support mechanisms required to set up a practice.
For example, women in India still do not have access to inheritance and parental property even though they are legally entitled to them. Even today, families are more comfortable spending thousands of dollars on the wedding of their daughters than support her in establishing a practice or business. One can only imagine the compounded challenges for women coming from not-so-privileged socio-economic backgrounds.
As a woman working in architecture, I have never felt out of place. Of course, I have been fortunate to work in Singapore, where women outnumber men in the overall workforce (just over 61 per cent in 2019). In the office, most of my peers are women, and on the construction site, contractors will respect anyone who understands the job.
Yet, when I look for female role models, women leading the architecture profession who I can emulate, aspire to be, and write about, the ranks are slim. Like many conventionally ‘male’ professions, architecture in Asia appears to suffer from a slow disappearance of women. This doesn’t tally with the ambitions of my peers, but anecdotally, I have seen many women leave companies at a higher rate than men. Some start their own practice, where they will have more autonomy and control; some switch to more lucrative or flexible professions; some opt out of working altogether. Others stay, while scaling down their ambitions to make room for family.
Clichéd though it is, the studio culture that still reigns in our profession is not designed for flexibility, rewarding instead total immersion in work. We still collectively buy into the narrative that architecture is a calling, not a profession, and that personal sacrifice is therefore noble, rather than unhealthy. While this impacts everyone in the profession, the pressures it puts on women are disproportionately higher. Nor is studio culture designed for introspection.