“History Is Not a Meritocracy:” A Deep Dive Into Confronting Gaps on Wikipedia

In honor of next week’s Art + Feminism Wikipedia Edit-a-thon

“History is not a simple meritocracy.”[1] So goes the opening salvo of Despina Stratigakos’ “Unforgetting Women Architects,” an essay on writing women practitioners back into the historical record. We’ve touched on this topic in previous blog posts about the history of women in architecture and the importance of making their work visible, especially online. Yet in advance of the Women in Architecture and the Arts Wikipedia edit-a-thon next Wednesday March 28th, it seemed an opportune time to take another look at the troubling lack of female representation on Wikipedia and within the architectural profession.

When we talk about representation of women on Wikipedia, we actually talk about two distinct, yet intimately connected, issues. One issue is a gender asymmetry in the site’s content, the other is an asymmetry in the site’s contributors.[2][3][4] Myriad and complex factors contribute to both. Wikipedia’s structure and ideology, the fact that many of its veteran editors are white and male, the perceived lack of importance and cultural relevance of issues significant to women implicit in Wikipedia’s criteria for “notability,”[5] sometimes ruthlessly enforced by the site’s self-appointed gatekeepers; these and other factors[6] cause significant lacunae and stark attrition among female editors (who account for 13% of contributors)[7][8] in an encyclopedia that purports to be the “sum of all human knowledge.”

In fact, some quick research demonstrates the widened scope of notability criteria where men and men’s interests are concerned. As a much-circulated New York Times article from 2011 points out[9], and indeed accounts from (sometimes expert) women contributors writing about women[10], there can be a lot of pushback on articles addressing women’s interests: nitpicking about sourcing and whether an article’s subject is “notable” enough to warrant inclusion on the site; indeed, articles on women are often flagged as not even adhering to Wikipedia’s neutrality guidelines. Yet there are lengthy articles and sub-articles about video games, video game characters, male-dominated television shows, and, of course, biographical articles on men in many fields that are often published without challenge.[11] To this point, a research article addressing gender bias in Wikipedia’s content has found that women on Wikipedia are, on the whole, more “notable” than their male counterparts, indicating that one must reach a higher threshold of accomplishment as a woman in order to be deemed important enough to merit an article – a threshold that the article characterizes as “the glass ceiling effect.”[12] Also of note, the article presents evidence that certain topics are overstated in women’s biographies and tend to receive more attention than their work, i.e., their personal relationships and family status.[13]

Wikipedia culture is, perhaps unsurprisingly, a microcosm of culture writ large and its participatory homogeneity mirrors that of other kinds of open online forums that depend on user-generated content. The way the site reproduces bias, however, may be exacerbated by its claim to neutrality that is meant to bolster its reliability and credibility. This principle, when coupled with a lack of diversity in its user base, is problematic in that neutrality then comes to be synonymous with a white male point of view. This likely explains much of the resistance and flags that women encounter when they attempt to publish pages about other women.[14] They claim that women should write their gender out of their entries;[15] this may very well be because male editors have become accustomed to perceiving their own form of gendered analysis as the default – it is not, however, neutral.

Many scholars and practitioners (Susana Torre, Denise Scott Brown, Ellen Perry Berkeley, Dolores Hayden, Despina Stratigakos, Lori Brown, and Gabrielle Esperdy, to name but a few) have worked to challenge and dismantle pernicious myths about the architectural profession.[16] Institutions like the International Archive of Women in Architecture and the Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation have made the collection of women architects’ papers a top priority and have helped to “recover a cultural past” and properly historicize the conditions of women’s professional exclusion.[17] Additionally, in recent years scholars, information specialists, and architects have worked to ensure greater representation in online environments – enhancing discoverability of otherwise underappreciated or forgotten historical figures.[18][19][20] Unfortunately there isn’t space here to fully unpack all of these women’s various contributions to the field and its literature. Please join us next Wednesday in the Multipurpose Room at Newman Library to engage with their analysis more fully and to rewrite digital history! RSVP for the Women in Architecture Edit-a-thon here.

References

1. Despina Stratigakos, “Unforgetting Women Architects: From the Pritzker to Wikipedia,” Places Journal, April 2016. Accessed 21 Mar 2018. https://doi.org/10.22269/130603

2. Cohen, Noam. “Define Gender Gap? Look Up Wikipedia’s Contributor List.” The New York Times, 30 January 2011. Accessed 21 March 2018.

3. Gardner, Sue. “Nine Reasons Women Don’t Edit Wikipedia (In Their Own Words),” Sue Gardner’s Blog, 19 February 2011. Accessed 21 Mar 2018.

4. Wagner, Claudia, et al. “Women through the Glass Ceiling: Gender Asymmetries in Wikipedia.” EPJ Data Science, vol. 5, no. 1, 2016, pp. 1-24.

5. Davidge, Tania. “How to be ‘notable.'”Parlour: Women, Equity, Architecture website, 24 April 2015. Accessed 22 March 2018.

6. Gardner, 2011.

7. Cohen, 2011.

8. Bear, Julia B., and Benjamin Collier. “Where are the Women in Wikipedia? Understanding the Different Psychological Experiences of Men and Women in Wikipedia.” Sex Roles, vol. 74, no. 5, 2016, pp. 254-265.

9. Cohen, 2011.

10. Vigor, Emily. “Down the Rabbit Hole: (Miss)adventures in Wikipedia.” Environmental Design blog, UC Berkeley, 3 April 2015. Accessed 21 March 2018.

11. Ibid.

12. Wagner et al., 2016.

13. Ibid.

14. Vigor, 2015.

15. Gardner, 2011.

16. Torre, Susana, 1944, and Architectural League of New York. Women in American Architecture: A Historic and Contemporary Perspective : A Publication and Exhibition Organized by the Architectural League of New York through its Archive of Women in Architecture. Whitney Library of Design, New York, 1977. Scott Brown, Denise. Having words. Vol. 4;4.;. London: Architectural Association, 2009. Berkeley, Ellen P., and Matilda McQuaid. Architecture: A Place for Women. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington [D.C.], 1989. Hayden, Dolores. “What would a Non-Sexist City be Like? Speculations on Housing, Urban Design, and Human Work.” Signs, vol. 5, no. 3, 1980, pp. S170-S187. Stratigakos, Despina. Where are the Women Architects?. Princeton University Press, in association with Places Journal, Princeton, 2016. Brown, Lori A. Feminist Practices: Interdisciplinary Approaches to Women in Architecture. Ashgate, Burlington, VT; Farnham, Surrey, 2011. Esperdy, Gabrielle. “The Incredible True Adventures of the Architectress in America,” Places Journal, September 2012. Accessed 22 Mar 2018. https://doi.org/10.22269/120910

17. Torre, 1977.

18. Moritz, Cyndi. “Project Aims to Raise Profile of Women Architects on Wikipedia.” Syracuse University News, 1 June 2015. Accessed 21 March 2018.

19. “The Year Five Campaign.” Art + Feminism. Accessed 22 March 2018.

20. “Welcome to Parlour.” Archiparlour. Accessed 22 March 2018.

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Common Practice: How Human Needs Should Inform the Design of Public Space

Among Melita Rodeck’s many admirable traits were her keen sense of community engagement, her social awareness and activism, and her recognition of others’ needs. Her commitment to educating and encouraging citizenry to be active participants in shaping their environments was a defining characteristic of her life’s work, as evidenced by several article clippings and her personal writings.

In the early 1960s, Rodeck became involved in grassroots community organizing and commons-building projects. This, just when the applications of social theory to architecture (and the environmental impacts of design planning on urban communities) were starting to be theorized. These projects were spearheaded by architect-psychologist Karl Linn, whose initial efforts to reflect community needs in common living spaces expanded across multiple cities and transformed into a non-profit called Neighborhood Commons. Rodeck formed part of his team as his Assistant Director when working to revitalize several  neighborhoods in the Washington, D.C. area. The projects were innovative in that they depended on an active corps of volunteers and sponsors, often drawn from the communities themselves, but also in their creative re-purposing of old building materials.

It’s safe to say that Rodeck became a student of (and later, a full-blown advocate for) responsive design, and, indeed, how architecture functions as environment and structures human relations and communication patterns. In 1969, she co-authored a short guidebook called People Space, to help community leaders cultivate a sensibility for how public and private spaces are structured and how they serve (or perhaps disserve or underserve) their inhabitants. In its introduction she writes about the following design ideal : “the process must be seen as organized space flowing from public to private to public space, rather than as a collection of unrelated piles and emptinesses” (1). According to this statement, public and private spaces should be informed by continuity rather than fragmentation. The guidebook is filled with fairly detailed instructions and questions for leading and developing discussions. It’s divided into several parts, such that participants can create and merge various functional profiles for their city or town.

 

Several years after the publication of the modest People Space, Rodeck wrote yet another piece – this one returning to her earlier work on the Neighborhood Commons projects in a kind of postmortem analysis. One can sense some of her frustration as she’s since returned to several of these “Commons” spaces, only to find them abandoned and neglected. She reflects on some of the shortcomings and difficulties of implementing and maintaining the beautification schemes for urban open spaces, and on the historical developments and sweeping social changes of the 1960s that influenced their lack of upkeep, while still reaffirming the underlying values that the projects represented. In fact, she illustrates a very interesting tension in her report: the occasional ambivalence and indifference of inner city residents to the projects, and the dissonance between what they perceived their needs to be and what architects believed their needs to be.

Her questions and meditations are remarkably timely insofar as our society is becoming increasingly urbanized. Fraught questions surrounding concepts like urban renewal, revitalization, gentrification, and population displacement are being posed with greater frequency and urgency. Her offerings broach the complexities inherent in approaching and sustaining such projects. They certainly give cause for deeper reflection on the “sense of interdependency of people in a defined space.”

Building the Builders: Egalitarian Pedagogy and Sustainable Design

When taking part in Frank Lloyd Wright’s preeminent architectural school known as the Taliesin Fellowship, Lois Gottlieb came to understand architecture as a kind of Lebensphilosophie, in that she came to consider it a mode of living that touched on and derived inspiration from all aspects of life. Hence the title of her account of her apprenticeship A Way of Life, which deftly highlights the interplay of the rarefied and the mundane, the interdependence of humans and their natural surroundings, and the fluidity between the concreteness of day-to-day living and abstract worldview. Furthermore, it presents art as an act of cultivation and sustained effort, rather than a quasi-mysterious realization of personal genius.Gottlieb005

It’s of note that Wright’s teaching style deviated significantly from the norms of his time and tended to subvert the traditional master-apprentice relationship. His radically egalitarian approach to pedagogy came to inform Gottlieb’s own teaching style and her outlook on the ways humans shape and control the environment. Her first major publication, the book Environment and Design in Housing, first workshopped as a series of lectures at UC – Riverside, articulates the effects of design on both the micro- and macro-scale, i.e., the way the “[physical] environment we each create for ourselves and our families does affect every part of our lives” [1] and the implications of poor design in terms of ecological sustainability and financial cost. In her view, humans have an unrivaled capacity to adapt the environment to their needs – a capacity that is problematic at scale and exacts high tolls, both from the land itself and from people affected by landslides or other natural disasters (see picture below). In light of these concerns, she advocates a more thoughtful approach based on client needs and leveraging the natural assets of building sites rather than the one-size-fits-all attitude of traditional design. (As a side note, Julius Shulman, famed architectural photographer, worked with Gottlieb on this book as photography consultant. The work itself features many of his gorgeous black-and-white photographs, prints of which are available for viewing as part of Gottlieb’s architectural collection here at Virginia Tech. Two copies of Environment and Design in Housing are also available for research as part of Special Collections’ selection of rare books – the captions and broader expositions provide invaluable context for the photographs.)

Gottlieb008
Gottlieb’s caption: “The result! The gadgets in the kitchen no longer matter.”[2][3] Photographer: Julius Shulman.

Design and Gender Norms

A notable feature of this book is its emphasis on practice and its demystification of architectural knowledge. While much of Gottlieb’s approach is informed by cultivating self-knowledge and considering the dwelling as a vehicle for personal expression, it tends to balance this view with injunctions to draw on the specialized knowledge of experts – lending itself to a kind of tempered humanism and recognition of personal limitations. This methodology, I think, can also be traced to Gottlieb’s time spent at Taliesin, which, for the time, was certainly unique in its combination of self-reliance and communal dependencies.

A different, but related, novelty of the school’s social structure was its disregard for gender norms. It is generally recognized these days that, historically, there have been gender-inflected labor divisions in both the public and domestic sphere. At Taliesin, these “traditional” divisions were not enforced – men would often perform tasks like preparing dinner while women would thresh wheat. “Homemaking” was not the strictly circumscribed domain of women, nor was outdoor labor the exclusive domain of men. While her work’s primary focus isn’t on cultural assumptions regarding women, Gottlieb clearly has thoughts on the connections between gender and under-recognized labor. On the subject of domesticity, design, and value, she offers the following observations:

“Another attitude toward the occupation of homemaking is that it is ‘nothing’ or of little importance. An answer to the typical question ‘What does Jane Doe do?’ is ‘Oh, nothing,’ or ‘She doesn’t work, she is just a housewife.’ Yet this housewife is supposed to do most of the buying for the family, keep them all in good physical condition, keep them attractively housed and clothed, see to it that the children are educated, and so on and on.

“In other situations any of these tasks is considered a field of specialized knowledge…But the homemaker is supposed to have absorbed and be all these things at once, a sort of twentieth-century version of the Renaissance man” (without any of the credit for doing so, presumably).[4]

 

It’s clear that Environment and Design in Housing is at least partially intended to serve as a practical resource for homemakers. It’s also clear that the book is meant to bring analysis to typically underserved segments of society and to address real (if hidden) needs.

Gottlieb010
Gottlieb-designed home – a great example of California Mid-Century Modern architecture. Photographer: Morley Baer.

References

1. Lois Davidson Gottlieb, Environment and Design in Housing (New York: Macmillan, 1966), 1.

2. Gottlieb, 5.

3. Lois Davidson Gottlieb Architectural Collection, Ms1997-003, Special Collections, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Blacksburg, Va.

4. Gottlieb, 231.

Looking Back, Moving Forward: Addressing Architecture’s “Woman Question” Then and Now

Forty years ago the book Women in American Architecture: A Historic and Contemporary Perspective took shape under the editorial hand of Susana Torre. While the work arose out of an exhibition meant to expose the undervalued contributions of women to the built environment, it evolved into a discursive response to a series of dogged and complex questions concerning the roles of women in society, the exclusions of educational and professional culture, and the ideological underpinnings of “tradition.” (Torre’s papers are held by the International Archive of Women in Architecture here at Virginia Tech and the collection contains a wealth of research material related to her work on this exhibition and book project.)

Yet after two-fifths of a century have passed, a few questions linger: Have women made appreciable gains within the profession? Did Women in American Architecture’s 1977 publication herald a sea change in the attitudes of practitioners and architectural culture writ large? The answer may effectively be found in a book published just last year called Where Are the Women Architects? by Despina Stratigakos: while significant advances have been made, yes, equity (in pay, recognition, representation, etc.) has yet to be achieved. Indeed, in an interview with The Architectural League just four years ago, Torre commented that she had hoped sexism in the field would have become an artifact of the past: “I would have hoped that by now this topic would have become entirely passe…that it would be a quaint reminder of another time.”

In certain respects, women are still battling a culture that lionizes the “exceptional one:” a culture that valorizes individualism–the “lone genius”–while erasing female collaboration and one that lauds exceptional women to justify the marginalization of other women architects (paraphrase of Torre’s words). The “lone genius” archetype is partially a product of the narrative structure of many architectural histories (I’m looking at you, monograph). Stratigakos re-examines this emphasis on “stardom” and its underlying assumption “that the best architecture is created by mavericks.” Alongside assumptions that persist in mainstream treatment of architecture, Stratigakos looks at the bare fact that young women still confront woefully high professional attrition rates and a lack of visibility in educational curricula, the analog historical record, in online content, and among online content creators.

Digitization and Representation: Strategies For Winning Over Hearts and Minds?

Part and parcel of rectifying gender imbalance involves the activist approach of “consciousness-raising,” which partially entails the documentation and recovery of a cultural past that is often unrecognized or invalidated in historical works. The IAWA, founded in 1985, was itself borne out of Milka Bliznakov’s frustration that the historical record for architecture remained so lopsided: as many women grew old or died, evidence of their work was quietly being relegated to the ash heap of history. In some ways the digital era has presented new challenges regarding historical incompleteness.

In recent years, the internet has played a profound role in shaping cultural memory and, in some cases, reproducing bias–where ample content can be found and accessed so easily, many people erroneously believe that most information resources have been made available online and, following from this assumption, (mis-)perceive an absence of online content as a positive demonstration of triviality or non-existence. As Ricky Erway and Jennifer Schaffner noted in their digitization report “Shifting Gears,” “in a world where it is increasingly felt that if it’s not online it doesn’t exist, we need to make sure that our users are exposed to the wealth of information in special collections.” The current CLIR grant-funded project to digitize the IAWA’s holdings is underway and one of its express goals is to combat the notion that women architects didn’t exist or didn’t contribute much to the built environment. For those of us working on the project, it’s our belief that the work of changing hearts and minds can begin with something as (seemingly) simple as visibility. Check back in another forty years.