Parkin Blog

Women in Architecture

Lynne Wilson Orr, Principal, Parkin Architects Limited

As a graduate student in architecture, I was told by one professor that women were not physically strong enough or intelligent enough to be architects. A different professor tried to give me a ‘C’ on a group project and the rest of the group, all guys, an ‘A’. And since I had done most of the work, I wasn’t too happy and told him that. In high dungeon, I stalked off, yet again to the office of the Dean of Architecture to voice my complaints. But on my way to his office, I overheard him tell a group of visitors that he deliberately kept the number of female students to less than 3% of the student population to ensure that women were not a distraction in the studios and classrooms. I quickly realized that I wasn’t going to get anywhere with him and retreated to the studio to fume. And my fellow group members came looking for me because they had just had their marks lowered to a ‘B’ as the professor refused to give a female student an ‘A’ so he gave all of them a ‘B’.  That was architecture training in Canada in the late 1970s.

My first job in an architecture firm wasn’t much better. A contractor phoned one day and asked to speak to someone who had prepared the drawings and specifications for a particular project. I told him that I had, and that I would be happy to answer his questions. He told me, “No”, as he wanted to speak to a ‘real’ architect, not a girl. I hope his ears rang for hours after I slammed the phone down. I was told by several major practices in Toronto that they didn’t hire women architects for contract administration positions as the work was too dangerous. I was called ‘dear’ by countless clients and contractors and quickly developed a very thick skin when it came to inappropriate jokes and comments made in my presence.

Has the profession changed for women? Damn right, it has. These days 60% of architecture students are female and they are not being told that they don’t belong in architecture. The schools of architecture have changed, construction companies have changed and so have clients. The intern architects in our office have identical opportunities with no restrictions because of gender, age or ethnic origin. In the past as a recent graduate, I might have been asked to serve coffee to the clients or answer the phone but not now. And female students and graduates know they will get support from upper management if anyone treats them as less.