“We can all choose to challenge and call out gender bias and inequality. We can all choose to seek out and celebrate women’s achievements. Collectively, we can all help create an inclusive world”.
The Context team takes the pleasure to celebrate this event and to call for actions to change our mindset and to make a difference at our workplace together with our male colleagues.
The decision to make the women’s day an international event was taken at an International Conference of Working Women in Copenhagen in 1901. Then in 1975, the United Nations member countries began celebrating the day.
Although the day originates from women’s struggle for equality, at present, 110 years after its inception, the day has become a celebration of the everyday woman and their role in the society. In Bangladesh, women have always played an active role alongside men in making progress, starting from the 1971 Liberation War to the present political sphere. The flourishing readymade garments industry owes much of its success to its 80% women workforce. The number of women working outside their homes has increased tremendously in the past two decades and women continue to excel in many disciplines such as sports, business, law, arts, science and technology. From completing the Seven Summits, to winning the Women’s Asia Cup tournament, from heading Microsoft Bangladesh to taking the lead on decoding Genome of SARS-CoV2 in Bangladesh, the list of achievements by Bangladeshi women is endless.
In the case of the architecture discipline in Bangladesh, which has completed 60 years, there is a considerable presence of women in the undergraduate programs since the beginning, which initially had three women in the program, including Nazma Anwar. When it comes to the profession itself, the discourse often centers around their struggles of balancing work and family life, and not on their professional achievements. While it is impossible to ignore the statistics that show that gender imbalance among practicing architects, it is also equally important to celebrate and praise the works of the women in the profession.
The most rewarding aspect of acquiring a degree in architecture is that despite being lengthy and strenuous, it can lead to several career paths. Architects often shift to related disciplines within the built-environment sector, like urban planning, landscape architecture, real estate and infrastructure management; or in creative industries like product design, filmmaking and performing arts. Some also use their unique problem-solving abilities to contribute to the greater issues in the humanitarian and development field.
Women architects do not consider their gender as a barrier to reach for their dreams. To start with, we salute Tasmin Doza, who reached for the sky by becoming a commercial pilot for Biman Bangladesh Airlines. Some other inspirational figures are Khaleda Ekram (late), the first woman to be appointed as the Vice-chancellor of Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET); Zarina Hossain, president of the Sylhet unit of the Institute of Architects Bangladesh (IAB); Luva Nahid Choudhury, Director-General of Bengal Foundation; and Syeda Tuhin Ara Karim, National Film Award-winning actress, to name a few.
At the global scene, women leaders have demonstrated great achievements. The first three positions of the world’s top 50 thinkers are occupied by women. They include the Keralan Health Minister, the New Zealand Prime Minister and the Agha Khan Award winning Bangladeshi architect Marina Tabassum. In the international development scene, Dr. Afroza Ahmed, has been a key figure in implementing infrastructure services programme worldwide. Most recently, Nadia Khalid Tithi has been working at the forefront of humanitarian response and recovery, engaging her architectural skills in rebuilding lives and livelihoods in many war-torn and disaster affected countries across Africa and Asia.
At the academic scene, we salute our teachers, who are shaping the minds of the new generation of architects. We would like to acknowledge the contribution of Dr. Zainab Faruqui Ali, the Chairperson of the Department of Architecture at BRAC University, Sarah Bashneen the Acting Chairman at the Department of Architecture at Stamford University, Shaila Joarder, the Chair of the Department of Architecture at North South University and many more.
In the practicing arena, although the architecture profession consists of only 37% women practitioners in Bangladesh, some remarkable works have been done by them over the years. Tanya Karim, of TKNRK, has been co-leading her practice for the past 30 years with various successful national and international projects. At the community level, Farhana Rashid, co-founder of Bhumijo, is working across the country to establish healthy and hygienic public toilets. There are also plenty of solo practitioners who are confidently working in mainstream practice.
Denise Scott Brown, the first American woman architect to be awarded the Pritzker prize, mentions in her essay, Room at the Top? Sexism and the Star System in Architecture, that architectural writers focus too much on the sexism and gender-based discrimination women faced in the profession. She requests them to write about her work, instead of the challenges she faces. This is a global problem that exists in Bangladesh too. Most discussions or newspaper articles regarding women professionals often tend to focus on their ability to juggle work and family life, and the sexism they face at workplaces. This mindset needs to be challenged.
And yet the fact remains that women do face these challenges in their professions. But these challenges can be resolved with genuine efforts from those at the top. As creative professionals, we can address this issue, by talking about it. We need to encourage both women and men to discuss this together. So far, there has not been enough effort. The Context team has highlighted this on several occasions. Most recently, in the webinar, ‘The voices of women architects in Bangladesh’, the then Vice President of Institute of Architects-Bangladesh informed that the female architects associated with IAB for over 20 years have dropped by 20%. Some believe that there is a multitude of reasons behind this; pressure from the family, dearth of proper mentoring and lack of learning opportunities from peers are the leading causes behind this. The professional institution can play a key role in this regard. Furthermore, a supportive work environment may attract a large number of women architects in practice.
To call for action, we need to make sure adequate support is provided to both men and women architects, by our encouraging families, our professional bodies who can establish systems for inclusive workplace and by our academic institutions to establish skilled professionals.
To succeed in the architecture discipline, like any other rigorous career, cooperation from one’s family and partner or the employer is of utmost importance. On the other hand, the architects need to be able to fulfill their family’s need. To consider this, employers should make their workplace as inclusive and diverse as possible.
To challenge our work culture, special attention should be given to address overtime work and under-paid staff. The employers should also address individuals’ family needs such as introducing leave to care for family members, introducing both maternity and paternity leaves or shared parental leave, allow childcare provisions or any other special provisions as and when needed. This can help both men and women to support their family equally. This will enable both parents to take the fair share of responsibility for childcare. Then the women will not fall behind their careers just because they choose to become a mother.
To strengthen our systems, architectural firms and other institutions who employ architects, must set up adequate policies that can offer professional development such as promotions, mentoring and sponsoring training. To establish these systems and better work ethics, the IAB has a crucial role to play.
Finally, women should be encouraged to put themselves forward for any leadership positions. Educational institutions have a key role to ensure that skilled individuals are nurtured, who are able to face the world outside academia and succeed professionally.
No cultural bias should hold either women or men back. As architects, it is our collective responsibility to build a better society. As architects, we all claim to think outside the box and to challenge our own mindset, we all dream to reach for the stars. And to do this, we need to act together with our male peers.
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Denise Scott Brown – Making Difference: Architectures of Gender. Blogs.ethz.ch. (2021). Retrieved 7 March 2021, from https://blogs.ethz.ch/making-difference/2017/10/26/denise-scott-brown/.
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