When attending the 2018 Venice Biennale, Architect Maria Paschini of MCP Architects & Arbitrators felt that the exhibition for South Africa was disappointing.  

Fast forward to 2023 and the success of the 2023 pavilion, “The Structure of a People”, was therefore welcome news. However, Paschini noted with concern that there were no women curators representing South Africa, with three males selected. 

A lost opportunity 

Considering the number of female architects leaving the industry, the Venice Biennale could have provided an excellent opportunity to encourage female architects with a platform to contribute on a global stage. “There didn’t seem to be enough notice given for the tender process, or for those outside of academia to apply for curatorship of the pavilion, which is a great pity,” says Paschini. 

“Female architects should be represented at this level, giving our input and having a leading role, particularly women of colour, who are an under-represented group in our industry.” 

The female architect’s touch 

Female architects bring different aspects to the fore in the profession and balance out the narrative on site and in the office. Paschini explains how women bring their experiences as daughters and mothers to design practice, navigating spaces through assisting children and elderly parents with their limitations in public and private spaces. 

It is unfortunate that some younger architects still view the design or office work and project administration as better suited for female architects, while site work is reserved for their male counterparts. “It takes a certain amount of tenacity and perseverance to be in this male-dominated environment and to deal with the unique challenges of being a female architect,” says Paschini. 

Female exodus 

Although many people leave the architectural “fraternity”, it seems to be more women that exit – either not completing their studies or leaving the industry early in their careers. 

There are many factors for this exodus and work-life balance seems to a major one. It takes significant co-ordination and organisation to have a family and practise architecture, but it can be done, especially if one has support. 

The W.H.Y. Project 

Maria Paschini of MCP Architects & Arbitrators.

Enter the We.Hear.You. (W.H.Y.) Project. Founded in Cape Town by architect Kirsty Ronné, this is a mentoring network for female architects in South Africa. Some pertinent questions are asked through the project: 

  • Why are only 3% of registered architects black women? 
  • Why do so many female students “drop out” of architectural tertiary programmes? 
  • Why are there so few woman-owned architectural practices in South Africa? 

According to statistics from the South African Council for the Architectural Profession (SACAP), of the female professionals registered with the council, only 16% are black, 8% are Asian and 6% are coloured women. Through this mentoring network, students and young architects, particularly black females, are given support over their years of study and in the early stages of their careers, and have a platform for the sharing of resources, skills and information. 

The how of W.H.Y. 

The W.H.Y. Project aims to address the marginalisation of black female architects, and effect transformation in the industry. Students/young professionals and experienced female architect mentors are matched in a mutually beneficial relationship, to help grow black female-owned businesses and make it the norm. 

Mentors are assigned one mentee per year, with an agreed upon number of hours per month dedicated to their mentee. Topics under discussion include not just technical skills, but soft skills too. Students receive emotional support and are encouraged to continue and complete their studies or to continue in their career paths. 

“Architecture is a difficult course and profession to be in, but women shouldn’t have to lose their softer touch to succeed. Even though I am not of colour, I want to contribute and support young female architects and grow the Johannesburg chapter of the W.H.Y. Project,” concludes Paschini. 

The W.H.Y. Project pairs experienced female architects with students/young professionals in a mentoring programme – supporting them, providing them a platform to discuss issues and giving them the opportunity to participate in the industry. 

Acknowledgement and thanks go to Maria Paschini for the information in this article. For more information on the W.H.Y. Project or to sign up as a mentor, visit https://www.thewhyproject.space/. 

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