Beware the herd instinct

13 March, 2018

The Elephant Campaign to tackle discrimination and harassment of women in architecture makes its debut at MIPIM today. But this is ‘patronising nonsense’ that fails to further genuine diversity argues associate director of the London School of Architecture, Vicky Richardson. 

As copycat versions of #MeToo sweep through the arts, the charity sector and property, tensions at MIPIM run high with delegates wondering who’ll be next to be shamed or forced to resign in disgrace. Barratt Homes and Residential Land are just two examples of property companies scaling back their presence at the conference that opens today (March 13th).

Organisers are policing the event closely, promising to crack down on the first sign of bad behaviour. For feminists, an atmosphere where people are nervously checking themselves and being scrutinised is a victory. Tamsie Thomson, director of the London Festival of Architecture is in Cannes to launch the Elephant Campaign, architecture’s version of Hollywood’s Time’s Up campaign to ‘stamp out discrimination’. Her team is giving out elephant badges and calling for architecture to be made ‘safe and welcoming’.

Meanwhile, the Architects’ Journal has published its own guidance on how to behave at MIPIM where it strongly advises practices to create a social media campaign promoting ‘fab females’, to intervene on ‘too-close-for-comfort conversations’ and warns men ‘don’t be a pervert’. This is patronising nonsense that is insulting to both women and men.

Men at MIPIM have been told to ensure female colleagues are “comfortable and safe”

I do not believe this is the culture change that women need or want: an atmosphere of fear, where we rely on codes of conduct and self-appointed moral guardians of the LFA, RIBA and press to tell us how to behave.

International Women’s Day gave a taste of the sort of world feminists would like to see: nauseating cooing over photos of women architects on social media and finger-wagging events such as ‘Must do Better’ hosted by the RIBA. Even Dezeen  has joined the herd, launching its own awareness-raising campaign, ‘Move the Needle’.

The reality is that the Elephant Campaign and other #MeToo copycat campaigns are having a much more damaging effect on society that we realise, and tragically this is being done in the name of women’s liberation.

The idea we need a ‘safe’ profession takes us back in time to the Victorian era when women were kept safely at home. Architecture is a tough world for men and women, but that’s because the stakes are high. There’s no doubt change is needed, but we should call for greater experimentation and risk-taking rather than protection (you could almost add, ‘for the weaker sex’).

Sexist prejudice in the workplace doesn’t match my experience: every practice I know is desperate to promote women. Apparently surveys report widespread groping, harassment and assault. What they don’t acknowledge is that the definition of harassment covers everything from winking and chat-up texts to extremely rare cases of violence. Scaremongering like this makes the term harassment meaningless and trivializes the experience of victims of rape and violent assault.

I hate the fact that the Elephant Campaign divides men and women and makes us all unsure how to behave in each other’s company, or even to express an opinion. Rather I’d like to see male and female architects working together to make the profession more socially diverse; to reject exploitative competitions, demand higher fees and end expensive bidding wars. I’d also like to see more outsiders, such as working class boys and girls, have the possibility to become architects.

But the main reason I hate the Elephant Campaign is that women deserve better. We don’t need to be patronised by architectural safe zones – we’re well able to deal with its tough environment. We don’t need special, separate awards to recognise our talent. If there are structural barriers to equality, let’s understand them and demand practical changes that could really make a difference.

Rather than ‘elephant badges’, guides for men on how to behave and gender diversity events, institutions like RIBA and LFA could start by providing free childcare, so those of us with kids can attend as many talks and networking parties as we like.

Vicky Richardson is Associate Director of the London School of Architecture and the former Director of Architecture, Design and Fashion at the British Council.