In an ideal world, these words would not need to be verbalised. But in 2023’s India, we still have a long way to go. In the years that have ensued after my post-graduation, my multi-pronged career as a freelance practitioner, developer’s architect and then academician has allowed me the scope to reflect on what impact (if any) gender has had on my experiences, and how much changed in the interim.
When I was approached to write this piece on Gender Parity in Architecture, my thoughts flew back to my professional beginnings as a young architecture student enrolled at the Kamla Raheja Vidyanidhi Institute of Architecture. During those years, Zaha Hadid was probably only among a handful of women architects globally who could be looked up to as aspirational role models.
But along with her (Zaha Hadid) achievements, came her formidable reputation of being a difficult diva, which led one to question whether to succeed in a man’s world the only option was to cultivate a veneer of toughness and a ‘take no prisoners’ approach in one’s dealings. The other route seemed to tend towards developing a maternal, non-threatening persona, perhaps more palatable to most people in an Indian context.Amrita Nayak
Is what is deemed as being ‘assertive’ in a man, viewed as being ‘aggressive’ in a woman? If so many renowned Western architects have experienced gendered attitudes, do we in our relatively conservative, developing country even have a shot at parity?1 These questions surfaced despite having the good fortune of being nurtured in an educational environment where our faculty and mentors never differentiated between us on the basis of gender and were equally demanding of us in terms of the expected output.
The truth often lies in between, with answers often being layered, complex and non-binary. As a practising architect, one often finds oneself walking into a room (or a site) where you are the only female present. It can be unnerving, but I find that the best way to deal with it is to ignore it as an issue altogether.
Confidence, straightforwardness and the ability to hold your own in terms of expertise are perhaps the best antidotes to any reservations against your capabilities that any client, contractor or vendor may have.Amrita Nayak
Perhaps this is simplifying the issue and not addressing the question of dealing with prejudice, but it is the first step towards demonstrating equity in terms of what you bring to the table. Self-belief 1.0
As a young designer, it was thrilling to be handed a site that was your own baby, to be conceptualised, executed and managed independently. However, one had to deal with a boss (who was not from a design background) who would tell clients ‘meri ladki aayegi milne’ while setting up a meeting, or be reluctant to send the women team members on outstation trips. At that stage of my career, it was easy to laugh these stray incidents off and just put your head down and work your way up. Proving one’s worth was not an option, but ensuring that you were taken seriously was definitely a part of the mix.
When I joined academics in a more full-time capacity in 2017, it was definitely in large part due to the fact that I enjoyed imparting whatever knowledge I had gained through practical experience with the upcoming generation of designers. It gladdened my heart to see in Design School, the gender ratio among students was even more skewed in favour of women than it had been when I was enrolled in Architecture College, many moons ago. The faculty room was also a healthy mix, with people of different orientations and preferences also being welcomed into our fold. However, it was disconcerting to find that the scale of ambition with respect to practising after graduation had dipped among the student populace, with most females not aiming to be contributing members of the profession, despite even going on to complete their post-graduation in many cases. It is somewhat also related to a generational tendency towards setting the bar low as far as drive, ambition and self-motivation are concerned, with privilege playing its part as well, but that is a discussion best left for another day.
As a faculty member across multiple design schools, I have observed that being actually heard as a woman in academia is as difficult as in boardrooms.Amrita Nayak
Often women have to work harder to be ‘listened to’ by senior leadership, in comparison to men with similar expertise or experience. It is still believed that the man in the room must have the last word and hence is made responsible for taking decisions, which ends up relegating the women to background roles, rather than in jockeying positions. This can also be attributed to the fact that in today’s times, the leaders are individuals in their 50s or even 60s and are conditioned to expect women to take on more traditional responsibilities even in the workplace. Having said that, I am proud to have worked in organisations that have been spearheaded by women, and besides the positive optics of the situation, it is gratifying to see this representation.
The area where there is scope for improvement in the current scenario is how women can support each other, especially as more women manage to break the glass ceiling and start occupying leadership positions. Rather than viewing other women as competition, hence pandering to the stereotype that we are intrinsically jealous or insecure as a species, the need of the hour is mutual support, trust, and elevation.
The current default attitude of employers (whether men or women) still remains to view women as short-term contributors to the workplace, as it is assumed that they will not continue to work full-time after they start a family.Amrita Nayak
Firms such as Shimul Jhaveri Kadri Architects have been inspirational in this respect, in the way they have groomed fresher as well as senior architects to grow into roles that make them forces to reckon within the industry.
One does observe the situation on the ground improving and becoming fairer; but like a lot of other issues that are so dependent on larger societal factors, one wishes to see change swifter rather than so incremental. Whether it is policies such as extended maternity/ paternity leave, flexible work schedules, setting up of working POSH committees, or simply a more empathetic approach, if women are to have a long, fruitful career, organisations must support them in a sustained manner in multiple ways. This is where I would like to add that I have only focussed on the male-female contrast here, because I have not had the opportunity to interact closely with any openly non-binary member of the architecture fraternity, and hence am not in the position to comment on that aspect. I can only imagine how much more difficult it would be to feel visible, heard and respected in that case. As it becomes increasingly difficult to navigate through these additional layers of complexity, it only helps to reemphasise that in a country where even the age-old gender divide is still so strong, there is still a good fight left to fight, for every one of us.
This article is part of a series of articles published under ArchitectureLive!’s initiative- Gender Parity: Architecture Profession in Post-Binary India. The author, Amrita Nayak, is a Mumbai-based architect, academician, writer and content developer with over 15 years of experience working in various capacities across India and the UK.