Compromise and collaboration, those so-called feminine qualities, aren’t the only way to run projects. Consultants of both sexes must also fight for what they believe is right
Sexual equality is worth pursuing in construction – but not if it means that men and women have to adopt mannerisms caricatured as the female virtues of non-adversarial team working.
The idea that collaboration and compromise are feminine virtues while conflict and competition are masculine vices corrodes the creative process. Regardless of sex, robust individuals must challenge the irrationalities of colleagues, other specialists and clients. And the favour should be reciprocated.
In architectural offices, as much as in project meetings, views can differ and people can be wrong. And as contractual innovation diffuses responsibilities, the “lead designer” becomes harder to identify. This means that a critical stance is often all that stops others from participating in decisions beyond their expertise. That is not machismo. It is how the industry avoids mistakes, delay and waste – and pushes consultants to achieve more.
Although construction is undoubtedly dominated by men, the idea that it is too masculine has taken hold. Training is routinely about the empathy required for teamwork, and professional educators insist that co-operative learning can nurture diversity. Feminists such as Sir Michael Latham and
Sir John Egan have argued for a decade that the awkward squad intent on developing their specialism must be replaced by interdisciplinary team players.
Project managers can tell clients that an architect is insensitive because they insist on a well-written specification. Daft design ideas run for weeks because junior and senior staff have acquired the habit of not questioning a team-based decision. That retreat into silence is not what Latham and Egan wanted, but submission to the team encourages a compliant attitude that transforms the creative process into group therapy.
How many women work as architects or employers is irrelevant if we lose the ability to stand up to each other, whether as client, consultant or contractor, or simply as men or women.
A critical stance is not machismo. It is how the industry avoids mistakes and pushes consultants to achieve more
Teachers, too, should stand up to students, but the transmission of expertise through didactic methods is invariably rejected as intimidatingly masculine. Architectural education is obsessed with developing team spirit. The Latham/Egan-inspired quango Accelerating Change in Built Environment Education looks for “less emphasis on discipline-led silos and a more flexible approach to interdisciplinary learning and multidisciplinary teamwork”. This is a disservice to all students. The last thing young women need is to become the Jackie of all trades and the mistress of none. Jack might not be best pleased either.
For John Hobson at ACBEE, construction courses “should respond to employer needs and ensure that universities deliver what is relevant to the sector, rather than simply heeding students’ wishes”.
ACBEE need not worry about rebellious students. Archaos, the national body for architecture students, backs the non-adversarial reforms posed by Professor Jeremy Till at Sheffield School of Architecture. In Educating for 2030 – A Manifesto for Change, Till says “education can no longer be founded on permanent values or fixed knowledge”.
It seems a new value is being established, where students are only taught how to be a team player in a process where production is not a priority. Anyone wanting to achieve something at meetings will be judged overly macho, whatever their sex. Confrontations are out and architects are to be Latham and Egan-compliant.
The aspiration for women to succeed in the construction industry has collapsed to the point where men and women are expected to go along with those who find it convenient to stifle criticism. Teamwork denies the conflict-driven dynamic of architectural creativity. Women in trades and professions are being asked to remain subservient to the feminised team, when they might instead thrive in a workplace hierarchy that had high regard for expertise, talent and self-confidence.
Ian Abley is a practising architect and runs the pro-development website www.audacity.org (see weblink below)