Newsletter | Sep/Oct 2019

The Personal in the Profession needs more work!

by Wendy S. Bertrand
The term work/life balance is often used to remind long-hours workers that there is more to life than work. Probably taken from the work hard/play hard phrase used by those who separate the personal from the professional and in those work cultures who enjoy it when employees work beyond the hours they are paid for and consider it devotion. Many architectural offices are known for this kind of culture and the situation has been brought forward often in describing the profession by both men and women.

But that was not the thinking in the early 1970s when the Organization of Women Architects formed in the San Fransico Bay Area during a wave of feminism. It became clear to many of us then that although we were professionally educated, skilled, and capable, being a female seemed to negatively impact our ambitions for working in the field of architecture and other design fields. It was the gender of our person that was being discriminated against not our professionalism. We realized that were are one person, female and worker, as an architect the whole person counted, meaning our values, ideas, needs, concerns, and social context may have been hidden influences on our person, that may or may not be gender-linked but were being felt as systemically frustrating.

How this played out in the early years of OWA is summarized in OWA architect Jean Nilsson’s 40th Anniversary History pamphlet of 2013. “From its inception, OWA has supported the whole person, not only her career in architecture….monthly meetings discussed flexible work schedules, job-sharing, hiring, and childcare.” Also, topics such as money management, health issues, affirmative action laws, and public speaking were in the mix. We shared our experiences, our salaries and our knowledge of history, like what earlier women architects had designed by organizing tours, and paid attention to what was going on in other male-dominated professions like law, medicine, and accounting.

Because of the difficulty getting a job in architecture and thriving in the profession, some called OWA a support group while others were trying to be change agents for more equity and awareness of what understanding the whole person was about in feminist terms.
There seems to be an enduring questioning of what part of a female practicing architecture is definable, however, there is no question that women in architecture earn less and have many hurdles to jump because of their gender. Men can’t decide if we design differently or not but that should not matter. We bring to the table what we bring and half the population is female. This is a big topic that is continually ignored or deflected by many. Women architects and design professionals in an organization like OWA+DP, independent of the AIA, could be talking about not only our working lives, but what we can do to improve the built world by including social issues such as feminism into design discussions, decisions, and actions. Social issues of equity and gendered reality are two of the personal elements of architecture that have been overshadowed in both architectural education and practice for too long.

About the author: Wendy Bertrand served on the first OWA steering committee in 1973 and has served additional times over the decades. She credits her experience with OWA+DP for her decision to write and publish, Enamored with Place: As Woman + As Architect (Eyeonplace Press, 2012) that was available, at no cost, during the entire SF exhibit. She wants the public to know more about the everyday architect and to encourage women to write their concerns and their experiences, so we and architects, in general, are more visible, understood and valued.

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