Our colleague Professor Juliet Davis shares her thoughts today to mark International Women’s Day and help #breakthebias #IWD #IWD2022
Professor Juliet Davis
Years ago, I was lucky to be able to go on a site visit to a well-known public building in London when it was still a construction site. The first thing I had to do at the start of the visit was pick up a hard hat and suitable footwear at the contractor’s office. One of the foremen was tasked with handing out boots of suitable size to the visitors. When he came along to me, he worried that he didn’t have boots small enough. I stood before him, the top of his head level with the bridge of my nose. “What size do you take?”, he asked, nicely enough. “Size 10, EU 45”, I said. I’m more than six feet tall; it’s not surprising.
This capacity to hold in place a stereotypic image even when confronted with evidence that clearly defies it is a kind of bias. This, of course, is just an amusing story, but it illustrates a serious and often forgotten fact – that what the eye apparently sees is not necessarily what is, and that perception of another is always developed in a social context. As John Berger argues, different ‘ways of seeing’ are possible. Social and physiological factors meld together to form durable images, preconceptions, and expectations of other people.
Seeing and visualising people and places are core activities of architects and, hence of architectural education. Designers learn early on to observe people’s interactions and uses of everyday spaces, and to situate people within the places they imagine. Do we teach them enough about who they see and how, about how preconceptions might shape their analyses? About how the frame of a picture can include and exclude? About the assumptions regarding people, roles and potentials that architectural plans and renderings can contain?
To commit to addressing bias in an architecture school is to recognise a multifaceted project, an opportunity encompassing new approaches to design history, reworkings of old pedagogical forms such as the ‘crit’ and the transformation of studio cultures leading to long working hours. But, for me, tackling seeing and perceptions is also vital if the young architects of today are not to perpetuate injustices rooted in bias, through tomorrow’s built environment, limiting the opportunities of girls and women at different stages of life and from different cultural backgrounds, to navigate public spaces comfortably and safely, and to develop and realise their potential in the work place.
As my opening story suggests, tackling issues of seeing is an urgent task across the building industry given the potential for stereotypes to affect far more than a choice of boots, casting doubt over women’s professional knowledge and competence, and shaping their capabilities for fulfilment in practice. Schools have a role to play in this too as they prepare women for careers in design practice and engage with professional bodies. As the first woman head of the Welsh School of Architecture, I am committed to all facets of the project.
Professor Juliet Davis is the Head of the Welsh School of Architecture.