Spark’s Senior Women: On a path less trodden

A period of necessary introspection befell the architecture profession in March 2013. During a speech at the Architects’ Journal ’s ‘Women in Architecture’ luncheon in London, icon of postmodern architecture and theory Denise Scott Brown requested retrospective acknowledgement for her role in the Pritzker Architecture Prize won in 1991 by her husband and professional partner Robert Venturi. The pair, celebrated for their influential built work and writings, had co-directed their firm Venturi Scott Brown and Associates for 22 years at the time of the prize. Yet, as described by ArchDaily, Scott Brown’s “role as ‘wife’ seemed to have trumped her role as an equal partner when the Pritzker jury chose to only honor her husband, Venturi.” [1]

A petition demanding the Prtizker’s acknowledgement of her as a joint winner was promptly organised by the Women in Design group at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design. It has gathered over 19,500 signatures to date. [2] In June 2013, however, the 2013 Pritzker jury announced the impossibility of retroactive recognition due to the nature of its jury processes. Just a year earlier, the Pritzker’s awarding of Chinese architect Wang Shu disregarded the role of his design partner and wife Lu Wenyu. When questioned about whether history was repeating itself, and if Lu should be sharing the Pritzker with him, Wang said yes, indicating her crucial role in the design process at their co-founded firm Amateur Architecture Studio. [3] Indeed, Scott Brown’s demand highlighted not a simple reminder of past transgressions, but rather an ongoing tendency in the architectural profession and community.

The issue of recognition and opportunity for women in the architectural profession is one that remains the subject of intense discussion and research, and which can – and must – be viewed through many lenses. The historical root causes of women’s under-representation in the upper echelons of what is historically a male-dominated industry are easy to pinpoint. The reasons for the continued disparity deserve scrutiny by the profession in the interests of developing equitable modes of practice.

At SPARK, six women and ten men hold positions of Director, Associate Director, and Associate. The ratio of women to men is considered unusually high according to commentary heard by Director Stephen Pimbley. “A lot of people mention that it is rare for an architecture practice to have so many senior women,” he says. “SPARK promotes those who are best equipped to do the job regardless of which toilet door they enter. We promote women on merit, just as we do men.” The fact that SPARK’s ratio of senior women is a source of surprise highlights the lingering gender disparity within the profession.

In 2012, the Architects’ Journal undertook a survey titled ‘Women in Architecture’, which yielded some unsettling results about practice in the UK. Nearly 700 women completed the survey, which was open to all women working in the built environment there. Almost two thirds of respondents believed the building industry had yet to accept the authority of the female architect. When asked if there are as many opportunities for women as there are for men in architecture, 55% said no. Astoundingly, 47% of the women surveyed claimed that men get paid more for the same work. [4]

Numerous studies have found that a disproportionately small number of women hold directorial positions in architecture firms. Firm surveys by the American Institute of Architects in 2003, 2006, and 2009 have reportedly found that the number of women involved in architecture goes down as steps in their career paths go forward. [5] A 2005 report [6] on the findings of a study examining the careers of women in the architectural profession in Australia highlighted that despite an increasing proportion of females studying architecture in recent decades, there continued to be a lack of women in senior roles within architectural practice. [7]

The recently released Parlour Guides to Equitable Practice [8] (compiled by Australian research- and discussion-based website Parlour) confirms that in Australia “[t]here remains a huge gap between the proportion of female architecture graduates and those represented in the formal leadership roles of architecture firms and the profession. Whether this is due to the work/life balance problem, a lack of confidence and persistence, or plain old garden-variety discrimination, the resulting stagnation or premature conclusion of many architectural careers is simply a waste of highly educated, talented staff.”[9]

The experience of practice


SPARK’s band of women in senior positions may be collectively challenging industry norms by number; but does their daily experience of practice equate to that of their male counterparts? Some surprising insights emerge from their recollections of day-to-day practice in Singapore and China. Says Shanghai-based SPARK Director Mingyin Tan, for example, “I have experienced a few scenarios where people assume the key projects in our portfolio and the design language our office adopts look the way they do due to gender!” Singaporean Tan has been with SPARK since its inception, becoming an Associate Director in 2009 and a Director in 2012. She has worked in China since 2005.

Tan’s first-hand experience of the persistence of gender-based stereotyping is at odds with her own point of view. “In my opinion, one’s views and attitude toward design are shaped by one’s experiences and world views. These experiences are less derived from gender differences than the education, cultures, and environments that one is exposed to.” In general, however, she has found that what clients are primarily concerned with (as opposed to gender) “is whether you can deliver to their expectations – design-wise and schedule-wise – in a responsible manner.”

With regard to the opportunities available to women (in general) to reach senior positions in China, Tan notes: “ I’ve observed that there seem to be more women in leadership positions in China than elsewhere in the world. I think there are two reasons for this: firstly, the emphasis placed on education, and secondly, the emerging nature of the Chinese market in the last decade. There have been opportunities for women to seize .”




In agreement is SPARK’s Chief Financial Officer Carolle Chen, who joined the firm in 2011 and is based in Shanghai. “The market creates opportunities for women in Asia to grasp,” she says. “From this perspective, women in Asia are perhaps luckier than women elsewhere in the world.”

Before joining SPARK, Chen worked as Finance Director and Controller for several multinational companies in China and Hong Kong. “I have never experienced any resistance to advancement in my career due to my gender,” she says. “This experience could be particular to the finance industry, which, as I have observed it, tends to employ more women than men.”


SPARK Associate Director Jianyun Wu (who heads SPARK Beijing’s interior design team) also sees opportunities for women in the architecture and design field in China thanks to the booming market. “I’ve seen quite a lot of women working successfully with both architects and developers. But i t seems there has still not been an appropriate and relevant discussion in the architecture and design field about gender considerations,” she says. Indeed, in the Chinese workplace in general, the United Nations Development Programme notes that discrimination remains on the basis of factors such as gender and age. [10]

Wu has led the interior design of a number of SPARK’s high-profile projects in China. She reports that she has on occasion experienced resistance to her senior position, and believes the cause to be her gender. Once engaged in communication, however, she has been able to mitigate this response through a demonstration of her knowledge and professional experience .





SPARK’s Singapore-based Associate Director Lim Wenhui agrees that – eventually – gender is rarely an issue that affects acceptance of her position when she interacts with clients and consultants. It can be the cause of some initial commentary, however. “ When I meet clients for the first time, my gender, age, and appearance often provoke a surprised reaction and comments. This quickly becomes a non-issue as one proves her abilities to run projects and make decisions as well as, if not better than men.”

Lim joined SPARK in 2006, becoming an Associate Director in 2011. “Architecture and design practice is a time-consuming and demanding profession requiring great commitment,” she says. “Finding work-life balance, proving your worth, and achieving a level of success in the workplace is perhaps more challenging for a female architect/designer, who is still often the one spending more time in a care-giving role at home. If you wish for a certain level of ‘success’ in your career, there are sacrifices to be made: sleep, time with family and friends, expedited aging process … Many of my female peers leave the architecture/design industry in their 30s to pursue less time-consuming interests for the above reasons .”



The profession’s challenges

As pointed out by Australian architecture academic Naomi Stead in her article ‘Redesigning Practice’,[11] “One key reason for women’s relatively low pay, and low representation at the upper levels of the architectural profession lies in the fact that many work part time, a pattern which is often seen to preclude more senior positions.” She rightly added, “This is an issue much broader than the architecture profession.”

The Parlour Guides to Equitable Practice affirm, “Competing demands is one of the critical issues that still affects women much more than men. Women who seek to achieve a balance between their work and family are often perceived as lacking commitment to their work and career progression. When female architects embark on parenthood, they often find that their advancement slows, or stops altogether.”[12] Flexibility is often unavailable to those in senior roles, suggests the Guide, which recommends that practices should embrace it at senior levels. Stead draws attention to the entrepreneurial spirit of some female architects in her country, who have invented their own modes of practice in response to the lack of flexibility in mainstream firms.

There is perhaps not a more apt illustration of the difficulties associated with the advancement of women in architecture than the follow-up reportage on the 2012 Pritzker by Spanish newspaper El País . [13]ArchDaily reported on the Spanish-language article’s quotation of Lu, who was interviewed. It emerged that she was content not to share the Pritzker with her husband, even though he would have wished to do so. “In China, you lose your life if you become famous,” she was quoted. “I want a life and I prefer to spend it with my son. Over there I don’t accept interviews. And not in English-speaking countries either […] I’m happy to be able to do architecture that I believe helps our towns and cities to be better. I’m convinced that to talk about this awakens interest in others – not being famous.” [14]

One wonders what Scott Brown would think of this particular rejection of public recognition in favour of work-life balance – an issue whose impact is so keenly felt by the architecture profession’s women (by choice or otherwise), and that, in an equitable environment, would be equally felt by its men.

[1] K. Rosenfield, ‘Denise Scott Brown Demands Recognition from Pritzker’, ArchDaily, 29 March 2013,http://www.archdaily.com/349920/denise-scott-brown-demands-recognition-from-pritzker/ (accessed 29 April 2014)

[2] Women in Design, ‘The Pritzker Architecture Prize Committee: Recognise Denise Scott Brown for her work in Robert Venturi’s 1991 Prize’, [petition], http://www.change.org/en-AU/petitions/the-pritzker-architecture-prize-committee-recognize-denise-scott-brown-for-her-work-in-robert-venturi-s-1991-prize (accessed 17 June 2014)

[3] C. Hawthorne, ‘Pritzker Prize goes to Wang Shu, 48-year-old Chinese architect’, Los Angeles Times , 27 February 2012, http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/culturemonster/2012/02/pritzker-prize-wang-shu-architect.html (accessed 29 April 2014)

[4] Architects’ Journal, ‘Women in Architecture Survey: Results in Full’, Architects’ Journal , issue 12.01.12, 2012, pp.6-11

[5] A.  Lira Luis, ‘ArchEX2011: The Female Brain-Drain in Architecture’, 9 November 2011, AIA Knowledge Net, http://network.aia.org/blogs/blogviewer/?BlogKey=e48181b1-8cf6-4ddc-ab4a-dfec952eee2a (accessed 29 April 2014). This article presents a summary of information presented by Rena M. Klein at the Architecture Exchange East conference in 2011 (USA).

[6] P. Whitman, ‘Going Places: The Career Progression of Women in the Architectural Profession’, 2005,http://www.archiparlour.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/Whitman_going_places.pdf (accessed 29 April 2014)

[7] ibid., p.7

[8] J. Clarke, ‘Parlour Guides to Equitable Practice’, Parlour, 9 May 2014,http://archiparlour.org/parlour-guides/ (accessed 19 May 2014)

[9] Parlour, University of Melbourne, and University of Queensland, ‘Parlour Guides to Equitable Practice’, Guideline 9: Leadership, 2014, p.3, http://www.archiparlour.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/Guide9-Leadership.pdf (accessed 19 May 2014)

[10] United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in China, ‘The Millennium Development Goals: Promote gender equality and empower women’, UNDP,http://www.cn.undp.org/content/china/en/home/mdgoverview/overview/mdg3/ (accessed 19 May 2014)

[11] N. Stead, ‘Redesigning Practice’, Parlour, 15 March 2012, http://www.archiparlour.org/setting-our-own-house-in-order/ (accessed 29 April 2014)

[12] Parlour, University of Melbourne, and University of Queensland, ‘Parlour Guides to Equitable Practice’, Guideline 9: Leadership, 2014, p.2, http://www.archiparlour.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/Guide9-Leadership.pdf (accessed 17 June 2014)

[13] A. Zabalbeascoa, ‘La arquitecta que renunció al Pritzker para evitar la fama’, El País  , 1 October 2013, http://cultura.elpais.com/cultura/2013/09/30/actualidad/1380569553_963993.html (accessed 29 April 2014)

[14] V. Quirk, Wang Shu’s Partner Lu Wenyu: I Never Wanted a Pritzker’, ArchDaily, 6 January 2014,http://www.archdaily.com/463985/wang-shu-s-partner-lu-wenyu-i-never-wanted-a-pritzker/ (accessed 29 April 2014)