On Tuesday, the New York Times broke news that architect Richard Meier had stepped down from his eponymous firm following allegations of sexual harassment by five women. The following day, Co.Design received a tip about an open spreadsheet in which women and men can anonymously share stories about alleged misconduct in the architecture profession. The Shitty Architecture Men list describes incidents with various degrees of severity, from “kissing/ grabbing/ hugging women against their will” to “general shittiness.” It has not been independently verified, nor should it be interpreted as an official verdict on any individual architect. What follows is an “as told to” from the spreadsheet’s creator, who asked to remain anonymous because the spreadsheet isn’t about her, it’s about everyone.–Suzanne LaBarre, Editor
Why I Started An Anonymous, Crowdsourced List
I had heard about Richard Meier and some bathrobe-related behavior six months ago from a friend. And I remembered seeing the Shitty Media Men list [a spreadsheet of sexual misconduct allegations against powerful men in media] and thinking how frequently the abuse of power happens in repetition.
When people in subordinate positions are harassed or experience an abuse of power, a coping strategy is to minimize what happened–to think, ‘I must have misunderstood. It’s probably just me.’ So they don’t say anything. Or they fear retaliation and retribution. And why wouldn’t they? The traditional ways of speaking out, like complaining to human resources, have historically failed women. Whisper networks form so women can navigate a patriarchal world. I deeply recognized that moment in the Times article about Meier, where one worker tells another one to write a letter and mail it to herself [so she has postmarked evidence that misconduct took place]. Communication among peers is a mode of survival. What was so powerful about the Shitty Media Men list was that it allowed women the space to say, ‘I’m not the only one who’s had something weird happen to me.’ Maybe it’s easier to come forward as part of a group than as a single person.
My purpose in creating this document was to get a conversation started. In no way do I think this is a legally binding list, or that it even purports to be factual. General shittiness? I don’t know what that means. What my hope now is that someone who worked in someone’s office, and thought they led some architect on, or tried to dismiss a bad incident, can say, ‘I’m not the only one. I can validate my own experiences.’ I want people to be able to recognize potentially unlawful behavior for what it is, and to feel less alone. Being harassed can be isolating. Maybe being able to see that they’re not alone will help someone feel empowered to take action. There’s a lot of power in information and in sharing information openly. So I built an open spreadsheet and shared it with a few friends.
Why Power Imbalance Is So Pronounced In Architecture
The power in architecture is absolute. Relationships are extremely important. It’s a very small community. Everyone knows each other. People are always references for us, whether they’re writing a letter or not.
Another thing is that there’s such a problem with architectural labor, with performative and enforced scarcity. When I graduated from architecture school more than a decade ago, it was understood that we were all going to suffer for the next 15 to 20 years, we’d never sleep, we’d be underpaid, we’d work until midnight. We’re trained from the very first studio class to believe that we are going to suffer in service of a higher calling. Our professors modeled this for us, and architecture firms reinforced it.
There’s this idea that architecture is a magical, important contribution to the world that is undervalued. We’re trained to view suffering as deeply related to the work. So something like harassment is easy to dismiss as part of the sacrifice. And even when it’s absolutely wrenching and not easy to dismiss, the culture of genius in architecture remains. Many firms are structured around a “Great Man” with a singular vision, which lowly employees are tasked with carrying out. It’s very top-down. This can create power imbalances that make junior employees vulnerable to exploitation, whether it’s harassment, pay inequality, or something else.
Then, if someone gets to the point where they are moderately high up at a firm, and they’re harassed, I can completely understand why they wouldn’t want to say anything, because if they go up against someone that powerful, they could risk everything. I wouldn’t want to take that risk.
As a young woman in the architecture field, I became acutely aware that my gender and my youth and my looks and charm were instrumental to the development of my career. I became very conscious of flirting in interviews. I remember thinking, I need to let this famous architect hug me. I don’t want him to hug me, but I’m a young woman, and I don’t want to alienate this powerful man. Everything is done by network. So if you get a reputation for being difficult, maybe this powerful man won’t introduce you to another powerful man, and he won’t introduce you to another powerful man, and there goes your career.
On The Risks Of An Open Spreadsheet And False Accusations
People in the industry keep saying, ‘When will MeToo come to architecture?’ People have been wanting something like this [spreadsheet]. This is as a service to my community. Produce the platform for people to share stories, and let others take ownership of it. This is not my spreadsheet.
I left it open, because I don’t think people are going to mess with it. False reporting is not something I’m concerned with. Yes, information can be weaponized, but I have basic faith that people aren’t going to use the spreadsheet for personal grudges, and that any misreporting will be corrected. I believe in the group conscience. My intent is to provide a forum where information can be shared.
What I Want To Happen Next
I am not an arbiter, I am not a judge. I don’t know exactly what kind of punishment is appropriate. I think it would be great if firms had to start paying closer attention to who they’re hiring–to who’s signing people’s paychecks, even. I do think on a broader scale, that there should be consequences for people who abuse power systematically. Carl Elefante, the president of the American Institute of Architects, wrote this bland statement saying that the AIA is against harassment. That’s weak. There’s nothing remotely practical in that statement. Here’s another option: Make it risky to harass someone. Make it scary to harass someone. Make people worried about getting found out. Create actual stakes the same way that women have been balancing the stakes for decades. The balance of power has been with white men for so long. People need examples. People who abuse their power or abuse others should be concerned about measurable consequences.
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