An Indian woman architect on the gender stereotypes she faces

In this profession, nothing speaks as loudly as the work you do. The more you do it the less people doubt you.

 |  4-minute read |   04-10-2017
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This is my fourth year of architectural and interior design practice. Well, tenth, if I count the years I worked in other architects' offices. Every year I feel a little wiser, a little older and, a little less discriminated. It's weird that in 2017 the field is still full of men, weirder still because my batch in architecture school had more women than men. While I strongly believe that architecture offices aim wholeheartedly to be gender-neutral, architecture sites are a whole different story.

I grew up in a household where the idea of gender inequality was so alien that I didn't even know what people were writing about in the papers most of the time. I think I was fortunate in so many ways. But it was this ignorance that led to my stark disbelief at how little I was trusted at a building site.

I know a lot of you will think, here comes another rant about the big bad world of men. But wait, don't judge yet. I love being the woman in this man's world. It is awesome to see how the site engineers first doubt everything you say and then learn slowly that on their site, despite what they'd like to believe, you, in fact, are the boss. A lot of male colleagues don't agree with me. I don't blame them. They have never spent four hours at a site surrounded by only women staring at them, and sometimes their crotch, in amazement.

Today, fortunately, through some amount of grit and a fair amount of hardwork, my site teams take me seriously. But for many years I was just that enthusiastic girl who said random things for their amusement. One specific incident comes to mind. At a villa site in Gurgaon, I had spent a couple of hours instructing changes to a site engineer. A few hours later, the client called me and amusingly told me that he got confirmation calls from the site every time I visited to make sure that the changes I had advised were to be followed. That same site engineer would often call up my male colleagues and say "madam just told us to shift this wall, should we?"

zaha-hadid_100417031129.jpgLegendary architect Zaha Hadid (centre) tosses sand at a ground-breaking ceremony for a residential tower she designed in Miami, United States. PC: Reuters/2015

Then there are the condescending clients who think calling you their daughter makes you feel warm and fuzzy inside. Who tell the whole world how they haven't hired an architect but are giving a daughter-like figure the opportunity of a lifetime. Excuse me, I have a dad who's way more awesome than you and, honestly, I'd much rather just be the architect, thank you very much. Please don't expect me to come to your son's jenyou ceremony!

And what to make of the awesome Indian practice, admittedly not specific to my profession, of writing emails to women but addressing them as "sir"? Believe me, folks, it's a real thing. Vendors and consultants call me and talk about their products all the time. Many even come and meet me in person. But ask them to send me something via email and sure enough it will start with "Dear sir".

The most fun I've had working so far has been with women clients. I'm not sure if it's just a coincidence or the fact that we respect each other as professionals and not women out on hobby runs. Speaking of hobbies, women architects and interior designers will very often be mistaken for decorators who pick out upholstery material and suggest cushion colours.

For this I must thank all the Bollywood star wives who think being a designer is just that. Forget the seven-odd years we spent not sleeping and labouring over drawings and drafting boards. Forget all the classes we took on structural engineering and building mechanics. The tech stuff was obviously too much for us to handle so we decided to do our specialisation in all the shades of blue and lavender. So please, address the tech questions about air-conditioning and fire-fighting to our male colleagues, while we'll go shopping for tiles with you.

Don't get me wrong. I love my job. I love all of it because in this profession nothing speaks as loudly as the work you do. And the more you do it the less people doubt you. Only, wouldn't it be awesome if I could also enter the field like a young male architect and not have to prove my technical abilities.

Also read - In her own words: Zaha Hadid

Writer

Suparna Ghosh Suparna Ghosh

The author is a partner at Forum Architecture (www.forumarch.com) and visiting faculty at the School of Planning and Architecture, New Delhi.

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