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Gender and Architectural Practice - #Analysis04

Firstly, we must address that out of the 18 studios we interviewed this semester, not a single practice was women led. One can’t say this was an intentional decision, however it goes to show 1. The lack of visibility of women led practices in popular literature, magazines, publications and fraternity social circles. 2. Our own bias and invisibilisation by not actively ensuring their presence in the sample study.

The only women in our sample size were in partnerships with men. The vast majority of these partnerships were marriages, with only 2 practices being non-marital.

9 of 18 practices were run by couples in marriage. However women were absent in 7 of 9 interviews. Only 2 interviews were attended by both partners throughout. Amongst the 7 practices, 2 interviews saw women joining almost at the end of the interview. While in one of the interviews the woman served as the replacement when the other had to attend a site visit. One of the 18 offices was also initially run by a marital partnership but has transitioned into a non-marital one in the recent years.

Because of the absence of women in most of our conversations, there is a lack of data to analyze any gender relationships in the set of practices that we are studying. However we will still attempt to draw certain observations through implicit dialogues and silences. Please note that these may be subjective due to a lack of pointed evidence.

One of the main questions that bothered us was- if these are partnerships, why were the women absent? Of course one might argue that they were busy with practice related work, had prior commitments, and were not in the office or workspace at the time and so on. But when in a small sample size of 09 (which include women), if 7 offices failed to ensure the participation of both partners, it does seem non-coincidental. One might also ask, why was the number not less jarring? Why were more men not busy with other tasks such as design work at the office, childcare at home, and managing home duties with work from home?

Gender roles subconsciously and consciously are at work 24x7 affecting mundane decisions on a day to day basis, such as – who attends the interview? Who gives the presentation to the client? Who responds to emails regarding publications and talks? Who becomes the mouth piece of the work done by both?

The question of who designs and holds more superiority within the office was left unanswered, or rather answered indirectly by the men in attendance. Most of them said that in the initial days they truly did try to design all projects together. Some stated that differences in personalities or work methods would lead to clashes and it was best if they worked on different projects but were available to each other for discussions and advice. Some stated that it would cause confusion with clients and contractors, with everyone crediting absurd design changes to the other partner without their knowledge. This too led to the division of projects between the two.

Only 1 of the 9 firms said that even after decades they are able to work together on all projects in equal capacity. This was credited to their history of work, education and ideological growths being aligned and similar. Again we don’t know the perspective of the women in all of these scenarios and are taking the word of the man. Almost all offices joked about marriage and compromising or letting go of differences to maintain a healthy marriage “once we returned home”.

Unfortunately, a mere 2 hour interview is not enough to fully untangle the layers of gendering that happen subtly through language, demeanor and behavioral observations.

There was also a division of the kind of work each partner did, which may be related to gender if compared to the larger trend in the fraternity. The man took up the architectural projects or the creative direction, whereas the women was either in charge of executing, planning, management or the most common of them all – she had a knack for interior design. Only one of the 9 offices (also one of the two with both partners in attendance) stated that the woman took charge of all design and creative work, while the man was in charge of most practical contingencies like finance keeping and deadlines.

Since only 2 offices had the women in attendance, we were able to ask them directly about the effect of childbirth on their role at work. This question was usually posed at the end without enough time or preparation for such an intimate topic and hence did not garner vulnerable or detailed responses.

Both agreed that it did get tough to manage work and child care, especially in the first 2-3 years of giving birth. However both mentioned the work their partners had put in as well. They also mentioned how important it was to come back to work and continue practice which took them many years to balance and figure out, something they are still working on. When asked if they had any spatial changes in the office layout aiding child care activities such as – breastfeeding, daycare, rest room, play area or study area for their children and children of the staff, most said there was no explicit space made available. However the partner’s children did frequent the office regularly. There wasn’t any planned out space for the employees children but both said they would be welcome or that there would be an understanding regarding the same.

“No institutional care existed when we had a kid, I brought her to the office, the lunch room was her play room, you need support structure, in India the benefit is grandparents who can help out. First few years I didn’t go out of town, after labor I took 40 days off, he took the site work up, over time it gets easier, our daughter complains now that I'm not there anymore, its challenge for her to be without me, but he is a great partner and that he contributes a lot too.”

One of the two offices with women in attendance spoke of maternal and paternal leaves that have been carefully thought through and made official. None spoke of menstrual leaves neither were we pointedly asking about the same.

We did pose questions of gender experience and inequity to some of the men-led practices, however only one of them responded. They brought up their observations regarding women and work. They were quick to mention that there was no discrimination based on work given, neither was there any difference noticed in capabilities based on gender. They emphasized that safety was of utmost importance to their practice. However they did observe that it was easier for men in their office to work for a few years, gain all sorts of experience "casually" and jump into starting their own practice. He noticed that women took longer to think through the decision of starting a practice because many hurdles had to be crossed before doing so.

One such hurdle was figuring out their place on site and how to manage on-site work. In the studio, work and delegation is not gendered, however sites are highly masculine spaces. From the contractors, vendors, to the labor on site, there are largely men moving about. This makes the site unwelcome and unsafe for the women. For men to get work done on site, they can easily socialize, have tea or a smoke and develop camaraderie amongst all workers and contractors. This makes site manageable and the men on site comfortable taking orders from them. It gets complicated when women dictate the work, because there is a conditioned lack of respect for them. There seems to be no way at first - of socializing with everyone that would be safe in such a masculine site. Hence it takes a long time to figure out ways of commanding and managing work. He also noted that their office is popular for being a site-oriented practice with site visits almost every day. He credits this aspect to the larger number of women joining them with the intention of figuring this process out.

So far all our observations and discussions have been around binary gender roles, which is a limitation that comes with having a sample size and type of this kind. However one of the 9 offices with both partners in attendance briefly mentioned the aspect of comfort and safety for all genders. This was the same one that spoke of maternal-paternal leaves. They spoke of how important their relationship with their team was. They seemed to have enough transparency with them that team members were comfortable to open up about their gender identities and seek respite and shelter with them especially if they belonged to unwelcome families.

Overall, this is all we could gather from the few discussions over gender. The intersections of caste, class and religion also remain unspoken and unchecked this term. We hope that the next term of this studio will be able to open up these aspects in more diverse and interesting ways.

In the meanwhile, if you are interested in exploring gender in practice – head over to Gazal Nanwani’s work who has spent the semester exploring a feminist architectural practice.

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