"The hardest thing to explain is the glaringly evident which everybody has decided not to see,” wrote Ayn Rand in her novel, The Fountainhead.
This quote hits me hard whenever I think of the very first reaction people give when talking about gender discrimination in the design industry. “How can anyone complain that women are stopped from being designers? Designing is a woman’s job! Look around you, all designers are women — art, crafts, colours, interiors, aren’t these feminine pursuits?”. Sexist as it may sound, the conundrum in the statement is the hypocrisy that goes hand in hand, making the entire thing a man-made paradox and the so-called ‘female-dominated design industry’, very much a man’s world.
So where are things going wrong when females, who make almost 55% of students in design schools, hardly make it to the top 10% of professional designers?
The design and construction industry doesn’t have any problem in attracting women but rather in preserving, fostering, and encouraging female designers. Take for instance: There are fee-waivers in universities and female quota in jobs but still women find it impossible due to the threatening environment. And when rebelled, it gets ostracised with remarks like “Women always criticize, we have already done so much, what else do they want!”.
When I started university, it never even occurred to me that gender disparity would be an issue but boy, was I about to be surprised. My department had 200 students, out of which, 115 were girls, but that didn’t ease things. We had a hostel curfew which didn’t allow girls to participate in any extra-curricular design activity on the campus after 7 pm. Even with higher authorities’ permission, the male students could work till 3 am while we were driven inside our rooms by 9 pm. Post work, boys could move outside the campus, chill around and dine in the dhabas nearby if they wished to, but we girls had to return to the hostel mess and would often end up without food.
In the department, the daily dose of remarks for the female students ranged from how “Being pretty and make-up won’t get you clients” to “You aren’t attractive enough to qualify as an architect”. There was a perception that, compared to the boys, the girls lacked in efficient software skills, thus making them poor designers. It was believed that boys being gamers had better command over their W-A-S-D keys, and this notion somehow made the girls feel incompetent. It was as absurd as mastering a typewriter makes someone a genius author! Women are creating history in the field of technology, yet the idea that women have inadequate technical skills is very much prevalent even today resulting in a biased ecosystem.
“I wish you had put equal effort into your designs as much you did for dressing up”.
In workplaces, the prejudice is harsher, as we witness how this industry makes females feel invisible, insecure, and ridiculed. Offices and studios promote mansplaining culture by assuming that women lack functional and practical thought-process and can only design ‘pretty’ stuff. Their stances and decisions are unnoticed by men and women alike, followed by unequal pay, no recognition of women’s work, zero maternity support, etc. Moreover, poor security and health facilities for women don’t encourage them to work as late and long hours as their male peers and what is regarded as ‘passion for work’ for men becomes a woman’s ‘lack of ambition’. Even in freelancing, women designers are significantly neglected, solely based on their gender, even by their family, just because they cannot trust a female to construct a house.
For site supervisions, men are considered to handle site visits ‘better’ than women as it can be an ‘exhausting task’. At times, when the woman is given a chance, her opinions are repeatedly ignored by the male contractors, workers, and even the labourers working on-site, maybe because these men hail from backgrounds that condition them to not take orders or advice from women. In worse-case scenarios, women have faced name-calling and unsavoury commentary from the labourers and karigars with fragile egos, unable to accept women in authority positions. I have personally seen labourers smirking and discussing my body parts in front of me, assuming I don’t understand the language.
Such events compel women to either change their field, resign, struggle or sacrifice everything in order to prosper. It's high time we bring about a change, by creating opportunities for impartial progression and shattering the glass ceiling. Gradually, more women are establishing themselves through their own design ventures or by moving to the top. As a result, the world has no choice but to recognize their work and the phenomenal vision they put in their design. In this struggle for change, the aim is to have women design leaders become the norm, not the exception and have a much inclusive atmosphere where woman’s opinion is respected in the boardroom and on the field.
Zaha Hadid was the first woman to win the Pritzker Prize and is known for her exceptional building designs which have challenged geometry, engineering, and mathematics. Read about her here.
(This blogpost was written by a Guest Author, Nandini Biswas, an architect by profession, working as a visual communication designer and content creator. She identifies herself as a 'maximalist' and an old school, devoted to heritage, culture, handwritten letters, and everything vintage. Currently, she is rediscovering her lost love for reading, writing, and home-cooked food. You can find her musings on MEDIUM and her creative handle on Instagram)