Canadian Journal of Sociology Online January - February 2001

Annmarie Adams and Peta Tancred.
‘Designing Women’. Gender and the Architectural Profession.

Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2000, 190pp.
$Cdn. 19.95 paper (0-8020-8219-X), $Cdn. 50.00 cloth (0-8020-4417-4)

How many of Canada’s architects are women? The challenges of seemingly straightforward questions like this, not to mention the looks of scorn in face of any hesitation in delivering an answer, are familiar to feminist social scientists. But here is a book that demonstrates the value of uncovering the complexity of such a question. It comes to grips not just with data collection but data creation and it produces a lively argument about how many women architects there have been over time, and what differences they have made.

Registration with a provincial association gives a Canadian architect the legal right to ‘sign off’ drawings. Working alone in private practice, this official recognition is essential, but working in a partnership, working on largescale public sector projects, teaching, and doing certain kinds of planning and urban design work are some of the ways to do architecture that do not require registration status. Hence the mismatch that occurs between the much higher census figures for architects and the much lower registered architect figures from the associations. Painstaking work was needed for this project, a joint effort between a sociologist and an architectural historian. Census material from 1921-1991 was compared. Directories and archives were combed to produce names of architects and listings of their work. The provincial associations were asked to nominate persons who could work with their records, including extracting names of women who had ever registered — a wise move indeed as anyone who has attempted to compile databases from organisational records will know. A complex set of interviews ensued, covering women who had registered prior to 1970, women who had de-registered at any point in Ontario and Quebec and a small number of interviews matching men architects in Quebec with their women counterparts. Those who had trained but never registered were not captured in this net. The authors make a point of reminding their readers of this, though they do tend to lose sight of it as they move to concluding generalisations.

What them emerges from this unique data set? The initial statistical picture powerfully makes the point that registration statistics render many women invisible and sharply skew understanding of their contribution. The invisibility of women’s contribution is underlined by an analysis of images of women in the major professional magazine over a fifty year period to 1973. This is not just a matter of women appearing as decoration in advertisements but of the featuring of women's architectural work in the safe areas of specialisation that provide no challenge to the manly image of architecture overall. The authors are able to show that women by no means confined their work to domestic architecture and interiors. In Quebec they are associated with high profile megastructures – Place Bonaventure being the most obvious case in point. In Ontario careers in public service, historic preservation and housing project design constituted perhaps more traditional womens’ areas, where hours and security fitted their domestic commitments, yet there is little to suggest that women occupied a marginal position in the profession. Those who de-registered were largely propelled into it by feeling devalued in male-dominated settings, by finding a work/family balance impossible to achieve or by an economy in recession. But here, the authors argue, the women are innovators and pioneers too – they find new channels for expressing their love of architecture, and using their skills. Women architects are not, they insist, on the mommy track; they are on a fusion track which expands the architectural domain.

The final chapter on women architects in Quebec is on a different plane. Womens Studies at its best, not only adds to an area of scholarship but mediates it for a newcomer. The upheaval thesis — hypothesising that women come to the fore in period of concentrated economic, political, and religious change, that they become risk-takers at the frontiers of a transformatory project — made rivetting reading for someone unfamiliar with Canada. Comparisons with Northern Ireland came at once to mind. There is another pattern of employment there where the women in an oppressed group tend to ‘leapfrog’ others, and perhaps — something not countenanced here — are helped by a more articulate and confident understanding of oppression (Heaton et al., 1997). Yet, with so cogent an argument about the specificity of women in Quebec , do those earlier conclusions about women as innovators really stand up? The all too brief material on Continental and Anglo-American models of professions, and the hurried concluding remarks leave me with a real question mark about whether we can generalise about women in the way the main parts of the book do.

Overall, then, this is a book that should start a conversation rather than conclude it. Sociologists are likely to feel that at times it moves too quickly over well-trodden terrains of women and work and underplays institutionalised power and constraint. Students of women’s studies will applaud the insistence on re-framing questions and the space given to women’s agency. Can we give agency too much space? I do not doubt that women sometimes make history, but like men — in that well-worn phrase — they do not do so in circumstances of their own choosing.

Heaton, N., G. Robinson, C. Davies, M. McWilliams. 1997. “‘The Differences between Women are more Marginal…’ Catholic and Protestant Women in the Northern Ireland Labour Market.” Work, Employment and Society, 11: 237–261.

Celia Davies
The Open University
January 2001
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