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Yale School of Architecture exhibition questions gender disparity in the industry

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The student-led exhibition hopes to start a conversation about gender dynamics in the field of architecture

Kay Yang

Is the environment in architecture schools, and the field overall, inherently biased against women? That’s the question a group of students at the Yale School of Architecture (YSoA) pose in a new exhibition titled “A Seat at the Table.”

This April, shortly after the publication of the Shitty Architecture Men list and the emergence of sexual harassment allegations against architect Richard Meier, Deborah Berke, the dean at YSoA, convened a series of forums to discuss the impact of the #MeToo movement on the world of architecture.

The idea for the exhibition arose from those forums, as well as discussions among students following the talks. According to students, there was a general sense of frustration that the forums weren’t bringing about any resolutions, so they set out to create a space where students could talk about their feelings and experiences more openly.

Kay Yang

“We were getting together as a school and getting more frustrated than beforehand because it felt like nothing was actually being discussed,” said one of the members of YSoA’s Equality in Design, the student coalition that worked to create the exhibit. Students within the coalition asked to remain anonymous so as not to give one student’s voice preference over the other. “We felt that creating a physical space on campus was a very literal response to changing that, [and] hopefully a productive one.”

The exhibition features a series of posters that highlight various statistics, like the gender breakdown of an architecture school’s student body, administration, and tenured faculty; and some answers to more open-ended questions like: “Would you say ‘ego’ plays a role in architecture schools?” and “Did you feel that the discussion [about the #MeToo movement] was effective in bringing about actual changes to your school’s culture?”

Courtesy of Equality in Design

The exhibition also incorporates student-donated chairs, placed in the center of the display space. Visitors are encouraged to move them around and gather to discuss what’s on the wall. The figures and charts on display reflect responses from architecture school students across the world, with data mined from the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture.

In May, shortly after the exhibition was green lit by YSoA, the student organizers sent two surveys to 86 architecture schools in the U.S. and abroad in an effort to understand their experiences on campus and in the profession. Four months later, 779 responses had trickled in, which became the basis of the exhibit.

As the answers started coming in, it quickly became apparent to the students that the survey had flaws. The survey itself contained certain biases in the phrasing of the questions that may have skewed the answers in a particular way. Since the responses were anonymous, it was also impossible to verify the information.

But instead of shying away from some of the challenges this type of work poses, the students decided to publish the results of the survey as-is, and highlight its flaws. They decided not to draw any particular conclusions from the data, and instead hope to use the exhibit as a conversation starter.

Courtesy Equality in Design

“A large part of the exhibit was trying to get a more nuanced idea of sexism,” said one of the members of YSoA’s Equality in Design. “Not just sexual harassment, but other sorts of derailing that occurs within architecture schools.”

Equality in Design also published some answers from responders who explained themselves in greater detail. These responses act as footnotes to the exhibition boards and add more depth to the overall discussion, often highlighting nuances that can’t be captured in the statistics above.

“The matter of eye contact is something I have experienced directly,” reads one written submission by an undergraduate woman. “And although it is subtle, to me it constituted a significant gender bias that made me feel as if I weren’t being heard, despite the majority of the project being my own work as opposed to that of my partners.”

Kay Yang

Next up, the students are planning to host a series of talks within the exhibition space over the coming weeks. One of the discussions will be about masculinity, another about non-verbal gender communication, and another still is set to tackle new data that will be presented by the director of research at the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture. The students also want to digitize the exhibition to spread their findings as widely as possible, and hope to collaborate with other architecture schools in the future.

As they leave, visitors are asked to pin their comments up on a board at the end of the exhibition, further adding to the discussion.

“I think for us, talking about gender issues, particularly in terms of things that aren’t tangible, having a way to discuss those would be the largest success of the exhibit,” said one of the organizers.

A Seat at the Table will run until November 15 at the Yale Architecture Gallery, located on the 2nd floor of the YSA building at 180 York Street. The Gallery is open Mon-Fri 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.