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WOMEN IN ARCHITECTURE

Blog | Date: August 14, 2020

Dear Members of the PIA,

August is Women’s Month.

And while we remember those who have marched before us sixty years ago, let’s remember the women of today – the women who invent, manage and lead; the extraordinary entrepreneurs, visionary professionals and influential activists. Let’s remember the ground shakers, decision makers and risk takers.

Let’s commemorate the women who exude confidence and dare to be different, the women who are independent, intelligent and speak their minds. Let’s acknowledge the women who are not slaves to society, the women who are not defined by others, not afraid to exist alone and those who know their worth.

Let’s recognise the daughters, the sisters, the wives and the mothers; let’s acknowledge their strength, their greatness and energy.

Let’s commemorate the heroes from our time – the heroes from South Africa, the heroes from our own industry – the women who stand up for their rights, those who say no unapologetically, those who say yes wholeheartedly to being a powerful force, because they can.

“She stood in the storm and when the wind did not blow her way, she adjusted her sails.”
– Elizabeth Edwards

We have included some amazing contributions from a few of the remarkable women in architecture in this newsletter and we would like to thank them for sharing a little piece of their hearts.

 

ISIA ORTNER

PIA President & Architect

I clearly recall the first women’s day held in South Africa. It was 1995, the year after the first democratic elections. Nelson Mandela was president, and I had been working about 2 months in my very first post as a qualified architect. The news that there was going to be a “Women’s day”, and that it would be significant enough to afford the status of a public holiday, was met with mixed reactions. My fellow staff members, most of whom were either studying or freshly minted like myself, were overjoyed to hear of an unexpected day off, without caring for the reason behind it. Our employer, on the other hand, was horrified to learn he would be losing a day of productivity. He took to ambushing us and asking, “will you be a WOMAN and take a day off?”, with a totally unconscious implication that being a woman is somehow not a good thing. I had absolutely no problem with being a woman, and seemingly neither did anyone else since no one showed up and the office had to close for the day.

As an architect and a mother to a 17-year old girl, I am aware how much things have improved for women over the past couple of decades, since I myself was a girl. At the same time, I am also aware that there is still a long way to go. Patriarchal patterns are often deeply ingrained and change slowly. It is easier to change policies than to change attitudes; but to change attitudes we, women, need to start by changing our own. We need to become the protagonists of our own story, and to do so we need to define ourselves, rather than letting what others say define us. We need to stop conforming and stop apologising. We cannot let labels and stereotypes impact on how we act or how we see ourselves.

My wish for my fellow women architects, especially the young women who need to work twice as hard to earn respect and recognition of often, much older and predominantly male, professional teams, is that they are resilient. That, in the face of criticism, they recognise what is constructive and what is undermining, and to never let the latter undercut their belief in themselves, or to define who they are. We are after all professionals in our own right.

GILLIAN HOLL

Architect

Women’s month is a celebration of the resilience us women have shown over the years. Never  in my lifetime have women had to be more resilient then this present moment, as mothers, single females and wives. This resilience is tested even further in our aspirational pursuits in the Architectural profession.

 

The time calls for innovation and success which is built on a collaborative effort. That means that if there cannot be mutual respect between parties, never has there been a time more appropriate for a shift.  To up root  the old and ring in the new.

It is through our differences that we are able to create a diverse Architectural language in our context that is both relevant as well as innovative. This can only happen when we ourselves start to believe in who we were meant to be.

ANNEKE SCHRIEK

PIA Committee Member & Architect

I wish every girl has an incubation like I had. Unfortunately most don’t.

We were empowered and encouraged to be better.  I grew up in a world of strong women.  We never spent our time trying to prove our strength, but we facilitated each other’s growth.  I have heard of oppression and shame, but I must say, society has come a long way – I myself have very rarely experienced it.

It would happen from time to time that you see on a consultant’s face that he did not think that YOU, the young woman in the room, would chair the meeting – but I kind of enjoy it.

I think a big secret is that the men in my family were never intimidated by strong women.  All men would free themselves if this became their conviction.

We all find ourselves in a ‘man’s world’ – It doesn’t bother me at all.  I even use it sometimes; I like it if someone holds the door for me, allows me to walk first and holds my note book when I climb on a scaffold ladder 😉

The subject of GBV, cannot be overlooked.  If you know of an abused woman – you have to do something about it. YOU HAVE TO!! That is how we can all create small incubators for women.  Wherever you are in your life, try to create incubators that grow women who can contribute greatly to society.

 

DONETTE WERKMAN

Architect

My father raised me as he would have raised a boy – not in a masculine way that is, but more so in a gender equal manner.  I clearly remember a conversation from my primary

school years where he declared that I must earn a degree worthy to establish financial independence.   I went on to study architecture and as a result confess to more financial-institution-dependent-financial independence. Nonetheless, I am a proud business owner, rocking my own outfit and hopefully making the folks more proud than worried after all these years!

My first years as architect was marked by my oblivion to lack of knowledge, because who at 24 years of age doesn’t know everything and isn’t also, as a girl, totally oblivious of gender when it comes to building sites?!
In hindsight the oblivion of youth was my saving grace – and yes, unfortunately, just maybe, the fact that I am taller than most – even most men…

What I cherish from these early years was that I was able learn from every single person, male or female, that crossed my career path.

I became a mom in the late 2000’s, nearly did not manage to keep my business afloat due to the high demands of being a mom and wife and being a full-time architect with an own practice.
But within each season, grace awaits, and one only emerges stronger.

The subtle gender discrimination within the building industry only became more apparent to me years later. To date, I have never experienced discrimination based on my capabilities as designer or architect but rather on my physical traits as a woman on building sites.

Somehow, I was made to feel inferior for not being as physically strong or understanding of the dynamics of a building site.  Comments like “you certainly can’t climb that ladder to the roof” fueled a bit of feminine rebellion in me and red lipstick and high heels became as essential as a hard hat when conducting site meetings and climbing ladders.

Where did this realization lead me? Feeling inferior as a designer? Never! Thinking about physical strength and having admiration for workers hauling 50kg cement bags all day long: Yes!
The truth is, few men can manage that physical capability and yet in Africa, this is the norm!

This leads me to a deeper understanding not only of our industry but to a deeper understanding of the human race itself – power and discrimination has been the building blocks of many cities throughout history, the Maximus Thraxes of the world or the more physically inferior Napoleons but not excluding the Athena’s, the Goddesses of war!

And now, where does it leave me as a woman in the South-African construction industry?  I take pride in the fact that I can wear a dress or pants, with or without lipstick– something most men in our industry would still be seriously ridiculed for!

 

CLAIRE McCUSKER

PIA Committee Member & Architect

I can’t remember exactly when I decided to make Architecture my career. I remember the pressure I felt when I needed to make the choice of what to study after school in grade 11. My father is a electronic engineer and my mom an artist. Architecture seemed to be a blend of their passions making it feel somehow familiar. Although it was a rather unstudied choice, it continues to resonated with me. As long as I can remember I have been fascinated by the intricate detail of the world around me. A quiet fascination with what makes something beautiful. Architecture requires deep observation and a compulsion to make even the most simple of designs beautiful. It was a natural choice. 

 

I grew up in home full of men, my mom and I where out numbered by my three brothers and father. I was treasured like a young lady but intellectually challenged as an equal to my brothers. I never felt that I was somehow less than. Within my own family I was outspoken and sure of myself however out in the real world I was a self conscious introvert. 

 

The world of Architecture is not kind to someone who is not assertive. It seemed that somehow the men around me could through sheer determination believe they were good at what they did. As if they were born to be Architects. In contrast it took me a long time to slowly grow my knowledge and to allow myself to internalize that I could be good in this career. That being assertive was not a prerequisite to being a great designer. That I can contribute to this profession by being myself. I think many woman have similar struggles. It’s an industry that favors the bold and self assured above competency.

 

However the older I get the more I realize how important it is to be introspective. The role of an Architect is complex and requires life long study. The more you learn the more you reveal what you don’t know. Good design comes through asking the right questions before formulating a solution. We need a diversity of voices and temperament to fully unpack the problem. A woman’s voice can sometimes be softer than the men around her. However along with the bold statements we also need the empathic whispers that keeps our profession relevant. 

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