My story of gender discrimination as a female architect began even before I became an architect.
In 2006, during my first year at university, a professor at the TU Munich found it adequate to remind us women about what he thought was a fact. Apparently we only, and I quote „bridge our time between school and getting children". But that was not enough. He concluded that we should drop out for the benefit of our male colleagues and leave university as soon as possible so that they could study in a better environment with less students.
I was an assistant at a university and, together with my male colleague, was responsible for preparing the semester plan for the professorship. This year, a special project was to be carried out which involved various cooperations and trips abroad to partner universities. The project promised international visibility and good contact opportunities. When my colleague and I discussed the details of the work distribution with the professor, the meeting had to be interrupted due to an important appointment. The professor said that we could continue the talks in the evening. Then he remembered that he had arranged a sauna appointment with colleagues from his office and invited me and my colleague to come and continue the talks. I rejected the offer because I didn't want to go to the sauna naked with my superior. Out of shame I did not take the subject any further. I was also too perplexed by the suggestion to demand an alternative appointment immediately. My colleague went to the sauna that evening.
This semester I stayed at the university and did the back office. My colleague travelled abroad and made important contacts.
"Why don't you make a model as well as you put on lipstick?"
From 2015-2017 I was employed in an architectural office in Potsdam, Germany. Like my male colleagues, I worked as a project manager and as a team on several projects. After a short time I found out that my colleagues in the same position earned much more per month than I did.
In a conversation with the management, who were two men, I demanded more salary. It was not given to me, because apparently my achievements were too bad and the fees for the projects were exhausted. A short time later another male employee was hired, who also got much more than me.
One of the projects I supervised was praised by the owner for the management, but this value was not important for the management.
My fixed-term employment contract was also not extended at short notice. That was a shock for me and for my colleagues, because we were a strong team, which the management did not understand.
"There's a lack of masculinity in your drawing."
Although women have been allowed to work for many decades and the number of women entrepreneur is growing by the day, it is still a mostly masculine - and sexist - ecosystem. In my opinion the general daily behaviour of the market is still outdated. How many times did I not enter spaces or rooms, where all eyes turned to me. Some interested in my appearance, others raise curious eyes with that look: "what is this girl doing here? " No, this is not an assumption, I have heard this many times from them, after they got to meet me properly. They were all judgments at first glance. Others do not even bother to look - or even say hello in a proper way - unless someone introduces us - and even so, sometimes I’m not taken serious, until I get to prof how serious I am. I've been called to meetings just by my looks. Just for being a woman. Interests that went beyond work. I've been rejected for jobs because I'm a woman - "she won’t handle it." Yes, I was the first choice, but sometimes a difficulty in the project asks for “a male option”. Not necessarily, I say.
I am one of those women whom people like to see as a perfect example of a successful career for women in architecture. At the age of thirty-nine, I received a full university professorship, I have three children - a model example of the compatibility of career and family!
It is often not about a spectacular example of discrimination. Rather, it is the mechanisms and behavioural patterns that have made discrimination an everyday issue.
If you research for years, write half of the publication and nevertheless: the male superiors are the authors of the books.
When I, as the project manager of an urban development project with a financial volume of several hundred thousand Swiss francs, got the "fatherly" advice of the investor to gather professional experience first.
If I express something in a meeting, but only get my approval when a male colleague repeats my arguments in his own words.
When male students confidently present me a completely thoughtless design project, while their female colleagues despondently hang up their good ideas in a corner.
As women, we do not have to be explicitly discriminated against. Discrimination happens much more subtly and becomes the norm when we - anticipating discrimination - adjust to it and adapt our behaviour accordingly.
As a construction supervisor I often need to be more convincing, but as soon as I earn the respect of the construction crew and craftsmen, it get’s easier to assert oneself.
It is much more difficult with the building clients. The father and co-owner of a project doesn’t look into my eyes during our meetings. He only talks with my male employees. He does not respond to my suggestions. The carefully designed color concept for the facade was discarded with the statement "But I want it to be bright green, end of story".
Enough is enough! I resist, I stand up and I say out loud „I won't let you treat me this way“. Then I leave the room. It worked!
There is and was no discrimination in my professional life that I would attribute to the fact that I am a woman. But looking back, I became aware, that an unspoken discrimination took place during my studies at ETH Zurich.
These were no direct allusions, rather more a general attitude towards female students, who were given less expertise. It was like some sort of being belittled. Projects or positions of mine were taken less seriously than those of my fellow male students, to whom I would not accredit greater quality in retrospect. At that time, I blamed myself and my work. But when observing some student critiques nowadays, I notice exactly the same mechanisms.
The natural reaction is to take responsibility for the criticism and try to do better next time. But if it's the system to keep the female students smaller, you will never be able to do it better, of course. Only afterwards did it become clear to me that this was often the case, even in my story.
What I consider the biggest obstacle, especially in the course of my professional engagement in the Chamber of Architects, is the ignorance on the side of many architects towards the topic of structural equal opportunities.
When it came to questioning these structures, it was often said: "Everything is regulated by law.“ This reference says nothing more than that the women themselves are to blame if they do not manage to succeed, hence it is nevertheless their sole problem.
The ignorance for the need for equal opportunities is enormous.
A second argument, which is often put forward, is: „It is only quality that counts and if women do not succeed, then it is probably because of the poor quality of their work.“ Here, ignorance of the sovereignty over definition of quality applies.
"Nuts are good for the brain - women should eat more nuts."
"You're the only girl and being bullied? Well, you wanted to go to this school!" "You must be one of those women who want to be an architect because her father is an engineer."
"I am in favour of equal rights, but not at the expense of my own salary.“
"I already hire disabled people and now I'm supposed to hire women?"
"You have so many women in your office. How does that work out?“
When I present before a group of people, I always start with something trivial. Normally at the beginning, I'm inspected from head to toe and there are a few loose remarks. In a rhetoric course they sold me this behaviour as a means of clarifying the hierarchy.
"It is important to convince the highest ranking man of his own point of view until he understands it as being his own knowledge."
I have worked for over 20 years as a research fellow and lecturer at the most important school of architecture in Switzerland and am internationally renowned as a publicist and specialist. Still, my achievements at my workplace were consistently pushed into the background, ghost-writing was the usual practice, but there were other methods of academic ignorance.
An escalation occurred in the course of my independent and generally respected gender research, which was internally systematically sabotaged. Also because of my political commitment against gender discrimination, I had to accept financial sanctions in addition to various harassments. After more than two decades of successful service, I was bullied out of the work process in an injurious and dishonest way, at a difficult, already advanced working age.
In addition to my personal fate, I also find the structural aspect questionable. Because I'm not only dropping out as a contact person for specialist gender research issues, but also as an authority that is always concerned with women's issues and represents women's careers outside of the academic curriculum.
We were commissioned by two women - a mother (approx. 70) and a daughter (approx. 45) - to rebuild and extend their detached house. I was the project manager and should have been in charge of the construction together with a female co-worker. An all women's team! We had already started to make tenders when the client asked us for a meeting full of uncertainty. She said in all seriousness straight into my face, that she would rather have a man as the site (manager) supervisor, because - and I quote her: 'Women on the construction site have no say'. I was speechless and tried to argue, that in my opinion, gender makes absolutely no difference. However, she insisted on her opinion and withdrew from our agreement. We haven't heard from her since and are in contact with her lawyer. The whole thing will probably go to court because she is not willing to pay the missing amount for the services provided.
During my master thesis in 2017, I selected the small-scale design task and dealt with questions of historic preservation, including questions of materiality and structural engineering in reconstructions. A fellow female student had chosen the same topic as well, a fellow male student chose to develop an urban scale project.
At the end of the mid-term reviews, our graduate professor commented on our choices of topics. He told my colleague and me, that usually, women tend to choose small-scale projects, because they could then work on "pretty little things". He wanted to point out to us, that "in the real world" there were also technical issues to be solved. Right, thank you very much for this lesson!
My boss and I share the local construction management of our current project. One day when I'm alone on site, I ask a member of the construction crew about the current status of his work. Without answering my questions, he asks back: "Isn't the architect coming today?“
I’m a 50 years old architect and urbanist, trained at the ETH Zurich, a single mother of two (eleven and thirteen), working in leading positions in the public sector for eighteen years now.
I started my professional activities thinking performance was the key to a successful career. When I expected my second child, trouble started. I had appendicitis six months pregnant, underwent surgery in hospital, realized when I came back that my colleagues had worked against me in my absence. My boss finally kicked me out of the board eight months pregnant with no substantial critique. I was so shocked and having no familiar support I was incapable of sueing him - I had to accept that humiliating defeat.
Over the time I realized that this happens over and over again, no matter what sector, what position, what qualifications the woman has. The cheapest one ist: „You can come back 100%; we unfortunately cannot reduce your work quota…“. Professional life for mothers in Switzerland is highly discriminating.
In order to be able to install the cover in the basement, I imposed a driving ban on the underground car park. As usual, this notice was disregarded. This time, however, with the comment: "Why don't you go to the hairdresser's and leave the job to those who really know how to build?"
I am the project manager of a demolition with blasting. For half a year I coordinate the demolition and prepare the blasting with the participation of all necessary project partners, agencies and offices. My signature is under the letters, my name and my voice on the telephone. Everyone knows me.
The big preparation date for the blasting with all project participants is on the agenda. My employer says "Please take your male colleagues with you so that we can stand out as a more important architectural office". How did it go? Everyone introduces themselves, and I as a project manager introduce my colleague. From then on, everyone talks only to him!
I will never forget this first presentation in my new job in Switzerland, for the client board: I was the only woman, surrounded by 18 Swiss elderly men in suits. As my name appeared on the introduction slide, one executive-board-member interrupted my presentation. “What kind of name is that?”, he asked. “It is of Bosnian origin,” I said with a smile. I heard how he lowered his voice, turned to his right and said to his neighbor: “We know her kind only as soccer players what is she doing here?!” The whole room echoed with laughter. My heart exploded, my eyes were filled with tears. Not of sadness, but of anger. I carried on with the presentation, with red all over my face and neck, but with a firm voice. In the end the executive board voted yes for my proposal (with a polite applause).
My colleague (project manager) and I (site manager) share our office in the barracks on the construction site. Once I had to point out to an entrepreneur that his work cannot be done yet, because others are not finished. He then wanted to talk to the site manager, rather than the secretary.
I applied for a research scholarship together with a friend and we were invited to the final round. In a small room with a large round table we had to present our research plan to the jurors. Unfortunately one (female) jury member was still on the toilet. We were nevertheless instructed to begin our presentation in her absence. Before we started we were asked if we were sure to have enough time for this scholarship. Since we had drawn up a detailed schedule, we were able to affirm this and presented our annual plan with the varying work schedules. Then one of the jurors said and I quote: "Well, it could happen that you both get pregnant, we’ve already experienced all that.“
I’m a professor for architecture and design. A female student told me the following story:
During her final presentation in her second year an architect interrupted her with the question:
"Are you a Virgo?" She was confused, didn't respond and finished her presentation. Only
afterwards did she confront him. He replied that people who can draw beautifully are often Virgo
as a zodiac sign. What I found most irritating about this story is that none of the people present
interrupted the architect, not even the professor.
During my time as a student and later as an assistant at the ETH, there were numerous
professors, who took the combination of a pretty female student and a bad project as an
invitation for an unprofessional and indecent criticism.
Here is just one example:
A student in a short skirt presents her project. The professor's comment: "I'm sorry, but your
pretty, long legs can't really highlight your project either."
Some fellow female students and I completed a semester at the studio of a very renowned
Swiss architect. When we worked late at night, as usual, he came to the studio. He put his
hands on my shoulders and said to us: "Why don't you come to my house. My sauna is a great
place to unwind after a long day of designing."
At a meeting with a contractor, the client, the site manager and myself as project manager are
present. I answer the questions of the contractor and explain the most important details of the
project. At the end of the meeting the contractor pulls out a black book with the technical
details and hands it to the site manager. At the same time he pulls out a white booklet. On the
cover a woman is stretching out on the sofa. It is placed in front of me with the comment: "The
black book is for those who build. And for you we brought a catalogue with the latest furniture.
This should be more in your line of interest." My remark that he was skating on very thin ice with
such comments, was accepted unaffected by all people present.
For a long time, only male assistants were employed at a chair of the first-year course at ETH
Zurich. At the time it was common among the professor and his assistants to discuss and
evaluate the looks of the new female students.
Photos of the prettiest ones were laid out and then evenly distributed among the assistants
ensuring no one was left out. When women were finally hired, this tradition was not continued.
I need to call the kitchen builder for a consultation on an offer. We had already met in person.
After I explained who I was, the answer was: "Oh, the beautiful architect, of course I remember!“
Our Zurich based office bears the last names of my office partner and myself. It is hard to
believe how often it happens that I pick up the phone with my last name and the reaction is:
"Oh Hello, may I speak to your husband?
Our Zurich based office bears the last names of my office partner and myself. It is hard to
believe how often it happens that I pick up the phone with my last name and the reaction is:
"Oh Hello, may I speak to your husband?"
I am a 50-year-old architect and urbanist, educated at the ETH Zurich, single mother of two
children, and have held leading positions in the public sector for eighteen years.
When I was six months pregnant, I had to undergo surgery for appendicitis. On my return I
realised that my colleagues had been working against me in my absence.
My boss eventually kicked me out of the management board when I was eight months
pregnant, without giving any substantial critique. Since I had no support I was not able to sue
him. I had to accept this humiliating defeat. Over time I realized that this happens again and
The simplest excuse is: "You can come back 100%, but we cannot reduce your workload...".
Everyday life for mothers in Switzerland is very discriminating.
Expecting my second child, I experienced an unpleasant story at a real estate company known
throughout Switzerland. I was dependent on my mandate as an external property valuer as an
additional income for our newly founded architectural office.
During the periodic qualification meeting, the head of the department concluded that in his
opinion I could not do the work of this mandate with my own office and a second child. Various
men in the same situation kept their mandates. Judging my work-life-plan differently he
withdrew my mandate.
While I was working on my master thesis, I had to make an appointment with my professor. He
only had time on a Friday evening and we arranged to meet at his private office. He was
working on an exhibition that combined artwork and poetry. He handed me a poem and asked
me to read it out loud while he was watching me. It had an explicitly erotic content. He visibly
enjoyed my confusion.
I answer a phone call, "Good afternoon, may I speak to the project manager?"
"Good afternoon! You're talking to the project manager, how can I help you?"
"Oh, okay, but wasn't there a man involved?"
I was an assistant at a university and together with my male colleague I was responsible for
preparing the semester draft. A special project was to be carried out which promised
international visibility and good contact opportunities. When we discussed the division of work
together with the professor, the meeting had to be interrupted. The professor proposed to
continue the meeting in the evening. Since he had already arranged a sauna appointment with
colleagues from his office, he invited us to come along. I declined the offer, as I did not want to
go naked to the sauna together with my superior. My colleague went along that evening. This
semester I did the back office at the university and my colleague made the important contacts.
At the university, where I am a professor, I gave a joint lecture with a fellow professor. We invited
a journalist to introduce the lectures and to moderate the conversation afterwards. My colleague
was introduced through his research work and his architectural practice. I was introduced as
the pin-up girl on the cover of the magazine he worked for.
Very embarrassing and completely ridiculous.
For a tender offer I organised an inspection of the site with the master builder. He had an
employee with him and spoke only to him the whole time. He paid no attention to me, I was not
existent for him. He talked about structural changes and when I corrected him he didn't react.
Until I said: "This is not the way it works, either you listen to me or we stop right here and now".
As a woman you very often have to appear twice as competent and self-confident to be taken
My office partner and I were lecturers at a university in Switzerland. We split the position 50/50,
which was also the agreed contract. When my office partner got pregnant, we wanted to take a
semester off. It did not occur to us that it should not be possible to take a maternity leave. But
the answer from the university was clear: Either the non-pregnant woman completes the
semester alone or you must give up your teaching position. We presented numerous scenarios
and solutions from our side, but there was no concession. In fact, it has never happened at this
university that a lecturer wanted to take a maternity leave.
During the final critiques at the ETH Zurich my project was not well received by my professor.
But instead of criticizing my work in a professional way, he said:
"Here you are, a beautiful girl with beautiful curls and big doe eyes, presenting such a project."
He did not stop talking in the same manner in front of the assembled audience. Never before
have I felt so humiliated.
I was an architect involved in a large museum project. The mayor of the city, our client, was
present at the opening party. As usual, he ignored me that evening as well. Before I left the
event, I went to greet him. He took his wallet out of his pocket, opened it and said aloud: "It's
not that I don't like you, it's just that you keep plundering my wallet to spend all my money. Just
like my wife".
What followed was exuberant laughter from bystanders.