On March 26, the AIANY WIA Committee was honored to host Dr. Harriet Harriss as our featured Women’s History Month Leadership Breakfast speaker. Dr. Harris is an architect, writer, historian, and the Dean of the Pratt School of Architecture in Brooklyn, New York. Her scholarship principally concerns pioneering pedagogies in architectural education and confronts themes such as feminism, equity, decolonization, diversity, inclusion, civic engagement, the climate crisis, and queer ecologies.

Her presentation ‘Mistresses of the Architectural Academy’ addressed the lesser-known prejudices within architectural education and reclaimed the term ‘Mistress’ as a powerful title for women leaders, with valuable tactics to combat gender inequality. She presented data and historical examples, demonstrating how the traditional models of pedagogy are symptomatic of systemic and self-perpetuating bias, which take root at a young age and propagate through education into practice. We learned how conscious and unconscious suppression of women, illuminated by lower remuneration, fewer opportunities for growth, the tendency towards “cancel culture”, the (secret) competition, and lack of support, has resulted in women continuing to be poorly represented in leadership roles.

She provided strategies to combat gender inequity including allyship and intersectional diversity; inclusionary design; referencing women in writing, history, and theory; designing inclusive business models; ensuring gender-balanced panels and juries; and creating leadership and entrepreneurship programs for women.

The talk concluded with an address by Catherine Chattergoon, the inaugural Student Advisor to the Dean at Pratt, who exemplified her statement “It takes being uncomfortable to find comfort”. We are impressed by her role in advising and supporting students.

We are grateful that our speakers also took the time to share their answers to questions, some of which were addressed during the event, for the benefit of those that could not attend. Their responses are recorded below:

In addition to gender, what are the speaker’s thoughts on certain ethnicities, that are not part of historically underrepresented groups, “colonizing” institutional leadership positions, perhaps based on a perception of cultural cache?

Catherine: The canonized narratives in architecture are characterized by histories of exclusion, and this has played a significant role in shaping the hierarchy in our field and our institutions. Our understanding of success and leadership has been made in the image of the colonizer, but we can move towards decolonization through anti-racist rhetoric and contemporary forms of abolition. We need to bring culturally diverse ways of learning and understanding into institutions to begin decolonizing leadership positions; power should be used to protect the most vulnerable and open new doors.

One challenge in professional practice is that I think sometimes there is so much focus on pushing women in leadership that companies think getting them a title is enough and women are being pushed out of the design track into project management or technical positions. I’m really interested in how this ties into what you are saying. What are some ways to push female design leadership when there are so few models?

Catherine: The ideas we have towards leadership need to be pushed and challenged, and since there are so few examples for female design leadership, we can begin to create and define our own. The changes in professional practice are more often reactive instead of proactive, and this is why we continue to see the glass cliff phenomenon for women in leadership roles. Leadership is about empowering others and working together to do the impossible. This can start from the top-down with women being supported in leadership design roles where they are in a position to effectively change power structures, but it can also simultaneously occur from the bottom-up where a deeper process of enabling can be used to optimize decision-making domains and allow women to express their design ideas. We need to lend women in architecture the agency to be in a position of influence, and working with others to think about different models of leadership can be the foreground for a new type of distributed power.

Personally I think the reason why women are under represented in architecture compared to medicine and law is the low pay. You cannot pay for nanny and all with your pay at your late 20s or early 30s. I was lucky to be able to start my family late in my 40s and was able to keep both family and career but it’s not easy at all and still struggling.  

Harriet: I agree with this statement.

Catherine: I completely agree. It is difficult to balance a career in architecture and a family, and the wage gap makes it nearly impossible to pay for childcare. In many instances, we are asking women to make a choice: children or career, and there is a stigma towards motherhood that equates it to sacrifice for working women. In addition to addressing the underpaid roles of women in architecture, we need to reform patriarchal concepts and biased ideas of care that prohibit women from building a family and a career simultaneously. In terms of diversity, equity, and inclusion, we need to change the culture and support workers by making family a priority. It is important to consider that we have different lived experiences, and the field of architecture should be accommodating towards our professional career and personal relationships.

In my firm, we’ve talked recently about “scarcity mindset” and the limitations on being able to envision a different vision of success that goes beyond being treated the same as the dominant population (white men) when you’ve started from a place of disadvantage, for structural reasons. How do you think people can think more expansively about achieving a different sense of power?

Harriet: It comes down to the narrow ways in which leadership has been defined by white, ‘western’ men serving an imperial, colonial, and hierarchical system that, in order to advantage them, needs to substantially disadvantage others. The ‘qualities’ of leadership under this paradigm discriminate against anyone who exists outside of it, but especially those who try to. In my view, the principal responsibility of leaders is to make more leaders and to give everyone a chance to lead. This is certainly the philosophy in the school that we are working towards.

Catherine: There are real fears that are embodied by marginalized people from everyday experiences of oppression permeating your consciousness, but we can begin to move past this by creating a space for collective dreaming where people can come together to rethink and redefine leadership and success. Most of the growth in this area will come from unlearning and understanding the world in which we operate. I know it is hard to imagine new possibilities when traditional measures of success are unobtainable because of structural disadvantages, but I hope we can all have the audacity to live life in the way we choose. The dominant narrative has been rooted in colonized, racialized, and gendered ideals, but we can begin to counter this by centering multiple narratives in conversation. The collective act of coming together can help us overcome social polarization and unite us in building an equitable future.

How is Pratt addressing other academic issues such as student debt, high tuition fees, gentrification…?

Harriet: Humbly, the answer is not enough, but the items listed are not a Pratt problem they are a policy problem. Student debt is wrong on a social but also economic basis. We should be investing in our future equitably, and to do this requires an end to student debt.

Catherine: We can always do more, and I am proud to be part of an institution that is committed to change and conversation. While Pratt cannot solely resolve these issues, we are in a position to confront injustice as designers and culture producers. This starts with unlearning through dialogue and supporting students in understanding these issues and their position within them. Architectural education should emphasize a more inclusive approach to design as an alternative to gentrification. We can begin to work towards this by centering voices that have been excluded in our field and establishing authentic relationships with the surrounding community. The issue of affordable education and expensive tuition has made higher education inaccessible to many people, but it is my belief that education should be a right and not a privilege. In most cases, our money is not being used to help the public good, and I hope we can redistribute money and resources to education, housing, healthcare, and climate justice to build a better future. This will probably be something that we spend the rest of our lives advocating for, but the ways in which we show up now will shape our future.

We would like to thank Harriet for choosing to challenge the status quo by taking strong actions to address inequity within academia, as well as all those who attended and participated in the Q&A. Some resources Harriet recommended as well as some of her books are below: