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#MeToo hit architecture. Now what?

During the annual AIA convention, the Architecture Lobby debated how to better protect workers from harassment and discrimination—and how to fight back

The Architecture Lobby’s Think-In explored ways to improve the “soft infrastructure” of architecture, including better labor practices and achieving gender equity.
Michael Schissel

It’s been a rocky year for architects. Multiple women accused Richard Meier—one of its most recognized stars—of sexual harassment. The Shitty Architecture Men list revealed accusations of harassment, anecdotes about discrimination, and malaise and anger from the industry’s workers and students. Despite persistent calls to improve racial diversity and achieve gender equity, not much has changed; most architects are white men.

At the AIA Conference on Architecture—the profession’s annual convention held this year in New York from June 22 to 23—both the establishment and progressive professional groups called for radical change. But is it enough to make a difference?

At the keynote address, AIA President Carl Elefante challenged architects to “evolve how we work together” and to make sure everyone “is protected from abuse, treated fairly, paid equitably, and afforded equal opportunity.” Earlier that day, the advocacy group Voices of Plurality held a flash mob at the convention demanding equitable practice and inclusion.

On June 23, the Architecture Lobby—a nonprofit group advocating fair labor practices for all architecture workers—took a more action-oriented approach. It hosted a day-long “Think-In” that included a panel on #MeToo in which practicing architects, an historian, and a labor organizer spoke to an audience of fellow architects, academics, students, and designers about how to advance the conversation.

Think systematically

“We need to take stock of where we are and think systematically about how we move forward,” began moderator Elaina Berkowitz, a recent Yale School of Architecture graduate.

Berkowitz and co-moderator A.L. Hugh set the discussion’s tone with calls to action and urgent questions about how architects can prevent sexual harassment and misconduct as well as reshaping the industry to think about diversity beyond male-female binary.

“We need to improve laws and policies to better protect those who report abuse and to make abusers accountable,” Berkowitz continued. “We have to educate our culture at large to upend [the] negative backlash accusers experience. What can architects do to respond to or prevent abusive behavior? How can we organize labor to create a fair and equitable workplace?”

Join larger coalitions already advancing #MeToo

Andrea Merrett, an architectural historian, took a longer view of #MeToo and thought about it beyond the scope of architecture: She doesn’t believe the discrimination and harassment problems in the industry can be solved without broad-sweeping cultural change.

“Until women, other marginalized members of society, femininity, and qualities associated with femininity are given equal value to men, masculinity, and qualities associated with the masculine, our systems will continue to create possibilities for exploitation,” Merrett said. “This is not a problem we can solve internally.”

With Sarah Rafson and Lori Brown, Merrett co-curated the Architecxx exhibition “Now What?!”, which appeared at Pratt University and explored the connections between architects and designers and the LGBTQ, civil rights, and women’s movements of the past 50 years. Her area of expertise is feminism in the field of architecture in the 1970s and ’80s.

“The big lesson from [researching that era] is the change that happened then was in parallel with the larger women’s movement,” Merrett said. “Women in architecture really capitalized on that moment to make progress in the profession. We’re in another [similar] moment. We’re not going to fix this all on this run, but while we have the momentum, now is the time to do as much as we can. There will be backlash. It’s certainly better than it was in 1971, so it’s keeping the historical perspective and putting as much energy to create change when the energy is there.”

Merrett suggested that architecture groups working closely with organizations that provide funds and legal support for women filing lawsuits against people who have harassed them, like the Time’s Up legal defense fund.

Focus on agency—not just seats at the table

Equal representation is meaningless if the views of women aren’t considered or taken seriously, says Dale Cohen, a New York-based designer with over 25 years of experience.

“Part of the problem isn’t more women at the table; women have no agency when they’re at the table,” she chimed in from the audience. “That is a deep discrimination that’s not done just at board rooms or even in architecture. It’s at the core, ground level of day-to-day combat. I haven’t seen a great deal of progress. We kept thinking that when we get invited to the table we were making progress. But the agency was always shoved to the side.”

Recognize all forms of sexual harassment

While incidents like groping and sexually suggestive conversations are easily identified as harassment, there are also more inconspicuous incidents that are more difficult to fight—incidents that reflect discrimination based on gender.

“There are many shades of harassment from unsubtle attacks to really, really subtle,” said Julia Murphy, an associate director at SOM and head of the firm’s Women’s Initiative. “‘We had this discussion, I just forgot to bring you in.’ Or, ‘We just had a quick crit.’ Or, ‘Oh, I just left you off this email.’ ‘I didn’t call you.’ Though assault is beyond the pale and really recognizable, it’s these gray areas that are interesting and the areas we need to work on.”

The cumulative effect of these incidents can be just as career-damaging as a physical incident, argued Priyanka Shah, an architectural designer.

“Toxicity, dismissiveness, and exclusion over time: Could it possibly be as anguishing and emotionally debilitating as a shorter sexual harassment episode?” she said. “If my chances in life are diminished because of how I am emotionally or otherwise debilitated, then what [provokes the debilitation] starts to become less important. Discrimination and harassment converge in that way for me.”

Find the right tools

Beyond legal action, tools to fight sexual harassment are scarce. So when the Shitty Architecture Men list began to circulate accusations, it garnered a lot of attention, but also backlash.

“It’s a very important list, but it is good intentions’ wrong tool,” said panelist Caroline James, one of the women behind a petition to give Denise Scott Brown a Pritzker Prize. “We have to find the right tool.”

The list received criticism for false or uncorroborated accusations and for becoming a target for internet trolls. James weighed the qualitative data, meaning the actual stories, over the list’s accusatory nature.

“With these stories, I think the gist of the list is true,” James said. “We’ve seen it all...[but] I also know two people who are falsely accused on the list.”

She suggested a platform where individuals could anonymously post their harassment stories—but without naming a perpetrator. Some audience members pushed back on this, arguing that the ability to name names is important, especially for incidents that aren’t overt harassment or assault.

Katherine Darnstadt, founder of the social impact firm Latent Design, also advocated for more and better tools to help targets of discrimination and harassment.

“What [the list] did well was it spurred conversation,” Darnstadt said. “It spurred this discussion [about harassment] but it made no space for all the rest of the shitty behavior. We couldn‘t talk about racial discrimination on that list.”

Unionize or adopt union-like organization

The Shitty Architecture Men list illustrated how widespread sexual harassment is and also showed targets of harassment that they aren’t alone. There’s strength in numbers. Similarly, panelist Ella Mahony, a labor organizer and assistant editor at Jacobin Magazine, suggested unionizing—formally or informally—as a tool to prevent retaliation against accusers.

“Accusers should never accuse alone,” she said. “One person in a workplace is extremely replaceable. It doesn’t affect the workings of the business at all if you get rid of one person. When you have strength is when other people in the workplace are with them.”

Correction: An earlier version incorrectly stated the advocacy group that staged a flash mob. It’s Voices of Plurality, not Voices of Women.