The Power of a Watchdog: Lessons from Yale's Peggy Deamer

unnamed By Sarah Rafson

In Lean In, arguably the most influential recent book on women in the workforce, Sheryl Sandberg tells us that by adopting certain professional behaviors women can contribute to the betterment of the gender as a whole. Sandberg's critics counter that institutionalized barriers­–some obvious, others hidden– prevent even the most ambitious, savvy women from achieving their full professional potential. It's these insidious policies, they say, that can be the most difficult to identify, let alone correct.

If every institution needs a watchdog for these elusive roadblocks, Peggy Deamer fits the bill at the Yale School of Architecture. In addition to her current roles as Professor and Assistant Dean, Deamer has earned a reputation as the YSOA’s most vocal advocates for gender equity. She served as its Title IX Coordinator, participated in the university’s Women’s Faculty Forum, and coordinated targeted actions and complaints against the administration. Deamer’s approach to advocacy at Yale bridges the fault line between Lean In and its critics; she supports the Lean In Foundation’s work to teach corrective behaviors to women, and yet has taken steps to address more systemic discrimination at Yale, both within and beyond the architecture studios.

Deamer is also the Principal of the New York-based Deamer Studio and a seasoned critic of the discipline, who is better known for her work examining labor and capitalism than advocacy for women in architecture. Her recent books, Architecture and Capitalism (2013) and Building in the Future (2010), are critical texts examining the changing nature of architectural work and  The Architecture Lobby, an organization she founded in 2013, has become a magnet for thought–and action–in reforming the business of architecture. Though seemingly separate, these issues have everything to do with the persistent gender gap in our field. As we will see at the conference Deamer is convening later this spring, on April 3 and 4, “Feminism in Architecture: Women, Architecture and Academia,” the academy is where many gender-based problems with the profession originate. Here she discusses with ArchiteXX the challenges of defining feminism, navigating bureaucracy and learning from her students to make a difference in school policy.



SR: When did you become interested in advocating for women in architecture?

PD: Feminism has never been the focus of my intellectual work, it’s just part of my life and consciousness. I don’t often address architecture and feminism in my writing, although my article in Building In the Future (2010) related changing building paradigms to feminist discourse. As we discussed recently at the Parsons Conference [Feminism and Architecture: Intergenerational Conversations] with Susanna Torre, there’s a huge generational gap between my students and me. In my generation, if you were a thinker and you were a woman, you were a feminist. It is in my generation’s DNA to look out for these kinds of issues.

In my early professional life, I was lucky to work for a firm that was enlightened about women, and when I began my own practice I chose a business partner who saw me as an equal. It wasn’t until I began working in academia I could see that things were amuck. Yes, I personally experienced sexism in the academy, but more than this I have found the limited models of success presented to students distressing.

When was the first moment when you noticed things were “amuck” and what made you decide to do something about it?

My interest emerged from conversations that I began having with students, and conversations that I overheard students having with the dean and with [Yale professor and feminist author] Dolores Hayden. There was discussion about architects who are fearful of hiring women, worried that they’ll waste time training them when they’ll go off to have babies as soon as they reach a position of knowledge and leadership. That conversation needed to change. The first thing I did, then, was organize a small conference at Yale called “Women, Families and the Architectural Profession,” in 2002.

Aside from that, there was a year—2006—when there were really strong, outspoken women students who started the first formal women in architecture group at Yale. Those students, somewhat coincidentally, were also part of a group of (mostly women) students who were asked to to take a “composition” support course because they were deemed to be formally insecure. As it would happen, I was assigned to be the teacher of that courses as well as their next studio instructor. These women were and courageous because, as an already targeted group, they had the most to lose by identifying themselves as feminist. (At Yale you do not get any kudos for identifying yourself as feminist.) And they were stepping into that position of disempowerment with a lot of guts. They were fabulous.

These students registered the women’s group with the University and hosted discussions with students and faculty, coordinated women-oriented news with other schools of architecture and organized lunchtime lectures. For me, this was really exciting. It came from the students.

But after that class graduated, interest in the cause just disappeared. Completely disappeared. Dolores Hayden and I kept thinking that interest might spontaneously arise from the students again, but until recently, it didn’t!

Why do you think it disappeared so quickly?

People don’t want to identify themselves as feminist. I think it is a subculture that students generally don’t find appealing. Recently, during discussions with students about why the term is a problem, many people thought “feminism” was too specific, too antagonistic.

There are plenty of gender-related concerns at our school that still need to be addressed– the male dominated lecture series; the male dominated advanced studio critic options, the under-representation of women in the bulletin and the website– but student angst about of the problems is not all that evident. For example, after I noted at a group review that only the male members of the group had presented, a woman student told me later that the fact that I had commented on this was “awkward.” We should avoid awkwardness? It was stunning to me that this is why we should be silent about a feminist conversation.

Of course not all students are so resistant to engaging in this type of conversation. In the fall of 2012, there was a “Yale Women in Architecture” symposium organized by the Alumni Association that was a huge success. It wasn’t an event targeted at students, and the students complained that they had been excluded from seeing all the great YSoA alumnae. The fact that there was outrage is a good sign. It made it clear that a “Women in Architecture” discussion needed to happen more publicly at Yale.

As head of the curriculum I then organized a discussion about what the administration could and should do to support its women students. Two really interesting, somewhat contradictory things came out of this meeting. The first, which I found fascinating, was that students steered the conversation away from gender and family issues and stressed instead that the need for mentors at the school. It was worrisome to me how quickly the conversation moved away from the family. The second was that it did get a group of students to organize around the issue of women, gender and family - although the fact that they ultimately called themselves “Equality in Design” indicates the stigma of the “women’s” issue.

You've worn a number of hats in the YSOA administration through the years, among them a brief period as Title IX Coordinator. I know Title IX was designed to prevent gender bias in institutions that receive federal funding, but beyond its enforcement in athletic programs, what does Title IX mean for architecture? How did you become the coordinator? 

I was given that title because, besides Dolores Hayden, I am the one who complains the most! I was the obvious choice.

At Yale, the university administration requires the Title IX position within each faculty to identify sexual misconduct. After some particularly bad behavior by Yale fraternities, the Title IX meetings have taken on a great deal of importance. The issue with Title IX discussions at Yale, for me, is that the university is looking less for cases of sexual discrimination than cases of sexual harassment. Harassment has never really been a problem at the School of Architecture during my time there; the issues we’re dealing with are more subtle.

I did advocate that the university administration look more closely at our school after we had an Open House for perspective students in 2011 where no women faculty were represented at all. It was bad. I couldn’t believe we let that happen. Soon after, when 18 male option studio critics presented their programs, I wrote an email to the Dean and the Deputy Provost of the Arts and asked, “How can we address the perceived-- and maybe actual-- gender issue here at the School of Architecture?”

The Dean asked me to prove there was a problem. The administration sent me to the Yale Women’s Faculty Forum. (Who knows whether that was a marginalization of the issue or not.) The WFF was very supportive and kept the pressure on the university. We began data collection to identify whether Yale was worse than other universities in its representation of women, but the issue of data collection disappeared once we recognized the enormity of the task and the need for support from the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture. But I think that due to the WFF and the initiatives we’ve spoken about there is a greater culture of awareness at the YSOA. When comments are made now about gender inequality, the response is no longer “that’s not an issue;” it is, “we did our best.”


Sarah Rafson is a co-editor of subteXXt.