“ … it was exceedingly easy to find relevant and meritorious women from across the world. One only had to look.”  Sandra Kaji-O’Grady reflects on convening Material, the 2013 National Architecture Conference.

Creative directors Sandra Kaji-O’Grady and John de Manincor.

The annual conference of the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland in May 2012 featured 21 men and not a single woman. The theme of the conference ‘Reconnecting with the Past’, did not excuse the all-male line-up. It was not intended as a witty contextualising of male hegemony in the profession as a thing of the past. Secretary and treasurer of the RIAS, Neil Baxter, responded to outrage amongst architects in the Scottish constituency by explaining that the absence of women in the line-up was, ‘not by intent or design. It is an excellent group of speakers, all of whom happen to be male.’ Baxter explained that the organisation had approached women to speak but none were available. In fact, Kathryn Findlay had been invited but couldn’t make it as she was speaking at the Australian Institute of Architects conference in Brisbane.

Amongst architects, discussions about quotas for such events, or for institute committees and participation, reveal divided views, with divisions not necessarily along gender lines. Many women architects worry about tokenism, or feel that blame somehow lies with women’s alleged aversion to self-promotion. The systematic structural blindness that leads to an all-male review goes unquestioned. Indeed, Baxter proposed that if the organisation were to invite women specifically to address questions of gender then that would be ‘discrimination’, presumably against men.

Many women architects worry about tokenism, or feel that blame somehow lies with women’s alleged aversion to self-promotion. The systematic structural blindness that leads to an all-male review goes unquestioned.

If all talented and articulate architects were men then the Scottish convention could be viewed as Baxter proposes. But as contemporary practice is much richer in its diversity of architects, the line-up can only be viewed as wilfully ignorant. To their credit, the 2013 Scottish convention included four female and six male speakers. One of those women is a poet (albeit married to an architect), yet it is a significant turn-a-round. The damage to the reputation of the Scottish profession will, however, be hard to redress – for many outside of the UK, knowledge of the RIAS and its activities is limited to the stoush that played out in the Architects Journal over its choice of convention speakers. Getting it right rarely draws attention.

The Australian record for gender equity for its annual conferences has never reached the low point of the Scottish example – in 2012 twenty-three percent of the speakers were women, and in 2011 women made up twenty-seven percent of the international speakers and twenty-one percent of the local interlocutors.

When John and I won the role of Creative Directors for the 2013 Australian Institute of Architect’s conference we had many ambitions related to the theme and format, but one of our aims was to achieve a more representative presentation of women’s contribution to the profession. Demonstrating diversity of approaches amongst women is exceedingly important and can never be achieved if one or two women are given the task of standing in for an entire gender. We were also keen that the women we invited would be clearly equal in stature to the men, and not individuals whose achievements were primarily in landscape or interior architecture, the visual arts or academia (as has been the case with previous conferences). We had further complicated the ambition by pitching for the conference with a narrow focus. We wanted to illustrate the conference theme of ‘material’ with speakers covering a variety of specific sub-themes: material life-cycles and environmental implications; emergent building materials; digital material fabrication and craft; innovations in constructing from traditional materials; the incorporation of historical material of ‘spolia’; etc. In some of these sub-fields, for example, in the research and development of new materials we knew women were abundant and struggled to choose between Ginger Krieg Dosier, Billie Faircloth and Sheila Kennedy, but in other areas we were less confident. Amongst architects utilising ‘meteorological’ and intangible materials such as gases and scents, for example, we knew only men – Philippe Rahm, Sean Lally, Tetsuyo Kondo, Jorge Otero-Pailos.

Demonstrating diversity of approaches amongst women is exceedingly important and can never be achieved if one or two women are given the task of standing in for an entire gender.

John constructed a colourful spreadsheet that allowed us to organize potential speakers according to material sub-theme, nationality and geographical reach of projects, scale of practice and, of course, gender. We assembled a huge number of potential candidates and found that it was exceedingly easy to find relevant and meritorious women from across the world. One only had to look. Indeed, without our preconceived sub-themes, we could easily have furnished the conference stage entirely with women and still had diversity of content and a very high standard of speakers. We did not have to exercise ‘positive discrimination.’

…it was exceedingly easy to find relevant and meritorious women from across the world. One only had to look.

Nevertheless, we did not achieve our target. The final speaker line-up is never the same as the initial invitations (this is forgotten by all those who ask ‘Why didn’t you invite so-and-so?’). We invited Kazuo Sejima, Jeanne Gang, Farshid Moussavi and Amanda Levete – all were excited about our theme, but none were available. Herzog and de Meuron felt they were overcommitted and wouldn’t entertain the idea of any of their five directors attending. Kengo Kuma withdrew late in the process. Up until ten days before the conference we had six female speakers and seven men, or forty-six percent. We were feeling smug. At the last minute, Lucia Cano was unable to fly and her practice and life partner Jose Selgas, represented their practice, Selgas Cano. In the end we had five women and eight men presenting, or thirty-eight percent. Statistically speaking, I was disappointed. On the upside, the most popular speakers were both women: Kathrin Aste and Virginia San Fratello, two mid-career architects, each working with male collaborators and producing architecture of great cultural intelligence, formal resolution and material interest. For all of the speakers, delivering a keynote presentation at a significant conference builds confidence and reputation. For some of our speakers it was one more stop on the circuit, for others it was a milestone in their career. Getting it right is as much for the individuals as it is for ensuring the audience are exposed to diverse role models, ideas and modes of practice.