J. Meejin Yoon
Courtesy Höweler + Yoon J. Meejin Yoon

Franny and her female classmates are lying as still as possible inside the roof gutter. Gazing up at the sky in the lead-coated trough that hangs from the eave of White Hall, the women get the all-clear that the night guards have left. They sit up and crawl back into the architecture studio, return to their tables, and continue drafting alongside their male peers.

This would be a regular occurrence for Frances Shloss, who arrived at Cornell University in 1941 to study architecture. On the heels of the Great Depression and at the brink of the United States’ entry into World War II, she and the women in her class were no strangers to hardship. At that time, Cornell was in session year-round to allow men to accelerate their degrees and quickly join the war effort. Franny, too, would finish her professional degree in three years and go off to draw battleships for the Navy.

However, contemporary rules of social propriety landed unevenly on men and women. In a scene strikingly similar to architecture school today, students often worked late into the night to complete their assignments. Despite the intensified pace of the accelerated academic schedule, Cornell’s curfew requiring first-year women to be in their dorm rooms by 9 p.m. remained in place. Consequently, the women studying architecture had less time than the men to complete the same workload.

Meeting Franny, now 96, and hearing her story led me to reflect on how each generation identifies and responds in turn to inequity. Women in Franny’s era found ways to bridge the gap between the expectations placed on architecture students and the constraints placed on them as female students. Franny, who holds nothing but good will toward her classmates and professors, felt she had been afforded every opportunity throughout her education and career. For her, hiding in the gutter was simply a necessary “workaround” to pursue an education that she and her female peers felt fortunate to pursue. They did not set out to blaze trails; they simply wanted to be architects.

Many women are still forced to find their own workarounds—their own gutters—in order to succeed.

But the curfew was, in fact, an example of institutionalized bias—and one that disadvantaged women from the starting gate. Cornell would not lift the curfew until 1969, when the women’s liberation movement in the U.S. propelled a rethinking of discrimination from a structural perspective and demanded that the increasing number of women attending university be given a fair chance at success.

Fifty years later, women now make up nearly half of architecture students. Substantial progress has been made to identify, address, and rid our institutions of discriminatory policies. And yet implicit bias, harassment, and misogyny persist in the academy and the profession. Women remain less likely to complete licensure, receive equal pay for equal work, be promoted into positions of leadership, and start their own practices.

Many women are still forced to find their own workarounds—their own gutters—in order to succeed. These workarounds may enable some to achieve fulfilling careers; however, the talents and contributions of many others continue to go unrecognized, under-recognized, or at worst, unused.

At this momentous time when women hold significant leadership positions in architecture schools across the country, we have a responsibility and an opportunity to make the academy and the profession more just and equitable.

We need to keep current and future generations of women from needing to take on both the rigorous work our field demands and the workarounds that allow them to do it. No one today should need to hide in a gutter in order to pursue, endure, and flourish in an industry that needs them more than ever.

This article appeared in the September 2019 issue of ARCHITECT under the headline "On Work and Workarounds." In that version, the surname of Frances Shloss was misspelled. We regret the error.

Editor's note: We regularly publish opinion columns that we think would be of service to our readers. The views and conclusions from these authors are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of The American Institute of Architects.

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