As we kick off our Move the Needle initiative to improve gender equality, Tom Ravenscroft looks at how women architects have long been ignored by prize juries – but how 2018 could be the year this changes.
It's only the start of March but this year already has seen three major victories for women. Japanese architect Itsuko Hasegawa won the inaugural Royal Academy Architecture Prize; Mexican architect Frida Escobedo was named only the second woman chosen to design the Serpentine Pavilion; and Spanish architect Carme Pinós became the second woman selected to design the annual MPavilion.
Prestigious architectural awards and notable commissions have historically been granted overwhelmingly to men, with women making up a tiny percentage of honorees. It is in an unprecedented display of equality that these three prestigious institutions have chosen to recognise women architects.
In awarding Hasegawa their first-ever honour, the Royal Academy Architecture Prize jury pointedly acknowledged that the 76-year-old's contribution to architecture had been neglected, despite being "one of Japan's most important architects".
Architect Louisa Hutton, chair of the RA judges, said: "As a jury, we were unanimous in our decision, all agreeing that Hasegawa is an architect of great talent who has been under recognised. Through this prize we hope to bring her the much-needed recognition she deserves." You have to wonder whether a male architect of this stature would remain similarly under-appreciated despite a career spanning almost fifty years.
The Serpentine Pavilion is far from alone in favouring male designers
Escobedo will be the first solo woman to design the Serpentine Pavilion since Zaha Hadid's inaugural pavilion in 2000. Since then two women, Kazuyo Sejima of SANAA and Lucía Cano of SelgasCano, have co-designed the pavilion with their male partners. But this still leaves women far short of men, who have won the Serpentine commission 18 times.
The Serpentine Pavilion is far from alone in favouring male designers. The majority of the world's most lustrous architecture prizes have been awarded disproportionately to men.
The Pritzker Prize, the world's most prestigious architecture award, is a conspicuous reflection of the male dominance in architecture accolades. It seems unbelievable, but Zaha Hadid is still the only solo woman to have won the Pritzker – though Kazuyo Sejima was jointly awarded the prize when SANAA won in 2010, as did Carme Pigem when RCR Arquitectes were surprise winners last year. Since the prize was first awarded in 1979, there have been 41 male recipients and just two female laureates.
Unfortunately, industry bodies such as the Royal Institute of British Architects and the American Institute of Architects have similarly poor records when it comes to the recognition of women.
The RIBA Gold Medal, first awarded in 1848, has only gone to four women, and only once to a sole female recipient: Sheila O'Donnell, Patricia Hopkins and Ray Eames were all jointly awarded the medal with male counterparts; yet again, the late Zaha Hadid is the only solo recipient.
Of the 170 times the Gold Medal has been awarded, it has gone to men on 169 occasions. To put this in perspective, in order for medal recipients to reach gender parity, it would have to be awarded to a woman every year from now until 2186.
Only one woman has been awarded the AIA medal in her own right
The American Institute of Architect's own Gold Medal follows the same pattern. Since its inauguration in 1907, only one woman has been awarded the AIA medal in her own right, with Julia Morgan posthumously becoming the first female recipient in 2013. In 2016 Denise Scott Brown was jointly awarded the medal with partner Robert Venturi, giving her the recognition the Pritzker jury had denied her in 1991 when the award went to Venturi alone.
However, in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein abuse scandal and the #MeToo movement, it is fair to assume that this year other institutions may follow the RA, Serpentine and MPavilion in their overdue efforts to redress the years of imbalance.
In the current socio-political climate, it would not be surprising to see every one of architecture's major awards presented to women this year. We may also see other prizes and commissions awarded to women, as juries and judging panels, aware of the increased scrutiny, seek to recognise female architects.
While there will undoubtedly be cries of reverse discrimination, it is time that women in architecture received the deserved recognition they've long not been granted.
It is time that women in architecture received the deserved recognition they've long not been granted
Of course, awards based on the merit of an individual or practices' work, such as the Stirling Prize, the Beazley Design of the Year, and our own inaugural Dezeen Awards, should not all indiscriminately be given to projects designed by women. However, for those awards that are presented for recognition along with commissions that are primarily about visibility, now is the opportunity to recognise women.
Recognition at the highest level is important. Increasing the reputation and visibility of women in the profession is essential for change, and such validation will make it clear that women can have parity with men at the highest levels. However, it's not the end of the road to equality. We must also understand that real change needs to happen in the workplace.
The hope is that increased acknowledgement of women from awards and high-profile commissions can have a greater impact throughout the industry when it comes to hiring women, granting better maternity benefits and promoting women into positions of leadership.
Last year our gender survey found that women occupy just 10 per cent of the highest-ranking jobs at the world's leading architecture firms.
Visibility of women in the profession is essential for change
As leading female architects pointed out in response to the survey, companies and organisations need to discard outdated thinking that is preventing women from climbing the career ladder – and fast.
Architecture firms must be proactive in giving women opportunities at all levels. This may be through through training programmes, opportunities to lead teams, or the chance to work directly with clients.
This is already happening. In the wake of the Presidents Club scandal and allegations of sexual exploitation at the male-dominated MIPIM property fair in Cannes, I was recently told of a practice that has opted to increase the gender balance of the contingent it is sending to the south of France for this year’s fair. These small scale changes are vital, as is a lot of effort by all those in the industry.
Positive change is needed. This means organisations have to be proactive. Whether it is the Pritzker Prize or a small architecture studio, 2018 is the year to make a change.
Tom Ravenscroft is deputy editor of Dezeen.
If you want to commit to Move the Needle in your own organisation this year, or have suggestions that will help others improve gender diversity, add a comment below or email us at [email protected].
Free tickets for Dezeen and RIBA's Must do Better: Improving Gender Diversity in Architecture event, being held at RIBA in London on Tuesday 6 March, are still available.