The demographics of landscape architecture have changed dramatically in recent decades as more women have entered the field.
At the ASLA 2018 Annual Meeting in Philadelphia, Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF) president and PWP Landscape Architecture partner Adam Greenspan, ASLA, pointed out that the signatories to the 1966 LAF Declaration of Concern were all men. But in 2016, the LAF convened to draft the New Landscape Declaration. This time, 48 percent of its signatories were women.
“The composition of the field is changing, and the identities and voices coming up in the profession are more varied than they were 50 years ago,” Greenspan said. “We would like the discipline to continue to grow and change in order to shape the world in ever more meaningful ways.”
However, women landscape architects face a number of gender-related hurdles, which are compounded by the male-dominated culture of the larger construction industry.
“I never wanted to be a woman designer; I just wanted to be a designer,” said Michelle Arab, ASLA, director of landscape architecture at Olson Kundig. “But then I find myself in a situation where I’m the only woman in a room of sixteen people.”
“We’re missing women,” she said, pointing out that only 36 percent of ASLA members and just 20 percent of ASLA fellows are women.
Akiko Ono, ASLA, associate at Shades of Green Landscape Architecture, argued that certain subsets of the design professions carry gendered connotations, which can sideline both careers and entire areas of design practice.
For example, residential design is the single largest area of practice for landscape architecture, but large-scale planning and public projects often receive more attention and accolades. Ono suggested this may in part be because domestic landscapes and gardens are associated with femininity, while large-scale public projects are associated with the masculine ideal of the visionary, heroic architect or planner.
Ono also highlighted a New York Times article published after the death of starchitect Zaha Hadid in 2016 that highlighted the gender-laden assumptions faced by women in the design professions. “I Am Not the Decorator,” the article’s title declares.
For Michelle Crowley, ASLA, founding principal of Crowley Cottrell, values and culture were key factors that ultimately led her to start her own firm.
“As I gained more experience [as a landscape architect], I began showing a counter-culture approach to staff, clients, and contractors,” she said. “I showed a more vulnerable side, admitted mistakes, listened to contractors, and may have agreed to give up something in the design that was proving hard to build.”
“At one point I was told I was too maternal, which I took to mean I was too nurturing, protective, caring, kind, and comforting – all usually feminine qualities that I didn’t feel should be a negative.”
“Instead of changing my own behavior, I chose to start my own firm. I try to pride myself on being very transparent and honest. One the best parts of starting my own business is that I can be me.”
Parenting remains one of the largest challenges faced by women in the workforce. Recent studies have identified motherhood as the source of the persistent pay gap between genders, even in countries with generous social safety nets.
And despite large cultural shifts over recent decades, women with children still spend more time on housework and childcare on average than men, making balancing work and personal schedules extremely difficult.
In the design professions, where many firm cultures celebrate working into nights and weekends, this can make for an unsustainable trajectory. Ono said that expectations about hours spent at the office ultimately forced her hand. “When I was told I couldn’t work part-time or have a flexible schedule, I knew it was time to move on.”
“You have to acknowledge that there is life outside of work, and that life enriches your work as well,” she said.
For Ono, motherhood is an example of a “personal, intimate, and compassionate relationship with nature,” which “can be turned into a quiet strength and understanding in designing the natural environment.”
Arab echoed that point, arguing that motherhood has only made her a better designer. “It was a defining moment when I had my son,” she said. “I had this stroller and I was defined by wheels – that’s an important perspective to have.”
Now that her son is older, Arab said her son helps her to “stop and, literally, smell the roses, look at the rocks, and explore things in a new way.”
“As designers, the more perspectives we can bring to things, the stronger we are.”