Women in Design.

They locked her in a cage and clipped her wings,

Alone with her earthly thoughts and things,

She rose, unshackling her sensitive tight strings,

With her flight predestined, she flew, as she filled the skies with silver glitterings.

On 5th March 2018, during her Oscar acceptance speech for Best Actress, Frances McDormand said, “Women have ideas, and to put those ideas into action, they need a seat at the table”. This message goes beyond the Film industry and applies to workplaces of each diligence.

With International Women’s Day around the corner, dwipbox discusses gender inequality and the women who stood against the society norms contributing and inspiring young women all around the world.

In today’s date inequality in the workplace, equal rights, equal pay and equal power are often discussed. But imagine a time when even mentioning equality was a taboo. A time when women were not seen as an individual, but a shadow of their male counterparts. To understand this better, let’s go back in time to the 1890s. The end of the century proved to be the start of women's independence, threatening traditional and social norms.

Fig 1: Margret MacDonald

Margret and Frances MacDonald were raised in an upper-middle-class family due to which they were able to receive proper education and attend Glasgow Art School. It was there that the sisters connected with Charles Rennie Mackintosh and James Herbert McNair and were known as the “Glasgow Four”. The sisters left school in the mid-1890s and set up their art studio. Margret and Frances later married Charles and James respectively. The marriages led to an end of their partnership as they started collaborating with their partners. Although Frances and James had a career downfall, Margret and Charles had a very successful career. As a great amount of Margret’s work was credited to her husband, she exhibited her artistic input internationally. Despite the difficulties faced by her based on gender roles and artistic exclusion due to her spouse, she inspired many young women in and around Europe. Her artistic expression led to the rise of the Art Nouveau style in architecture. Standing against society, Margret always had the support of her husband. Charles once stated, “Margret has genius, I have only talent”.

Even though the MacDonald sisters brought out a revolution, the journey towards women's empowerment was a long way ahead. This brings us to the 1950s where history was rewritten owing to the contributions of Norma Merrick Sklarek.

Fig 2: Norma Merrick Sklarek

She was the woman of many firsts, becoming the first African American woman to receive an architecture license in New York City and California. In 1959, she was the first woman of colour to become a member of the American Institute of Architects. Despite the odds stacked against her, she shined from the very beginning. She landed a job at Skidmore, Owings, and Merril before moving to California and working with Gruen Associates. While many architects became the face of the projects, Norma worked as a product architect, collaborating with design architects and turning their vision into a reality. She eventually became the firm’s first female director after working on landmark projects like the US Embassy in Tokyo, Pacific Design Centre and Terminal 1 at Los Angeles International Airport. In 1985, she once again made history to launch the largest female-only architectural firm with fellow architects- Margot Siegel and Katherine Diamond. Although she was always on a move due to her busy schedule, she never stopped mentoring and guiding the young architects following her footsteps.

In the late 1990s, women got closer to the glass ceiling. One such example is of the Indian conservation architect, Abha Lambah

Fig 3: Abha Lambah

After completing her graduation in 1993, she set up her practice at Mumbai in 1998. In India, architecture, especially conservation, is often seen as a male-dominated industry. During an interview, Mary Woods recalls an anecdote Lambah shared, “Once when Abha was working on one of her restoration projects, she was encountering not outright resistance but passive opposition. Things changed when she climbed the bamboo scaffolding in her sari. It was almost as if they were daring her to do that, a way of physically testing her resolve.” Over a 27 year career, Lambah has refurbished many historic buildings in India. She made the headlines for securing UNESCO World Heritage Site status for Art Deco buildings on Mumbai’s Marine drive and has won 9 UNESCO Asia Pacific Awards. ­

While the rest of the world progressed in terms of women empowerment, Japan was making little progress towards gender equality. Having said that, many women have inspired young architects. One such architect is Yuko Nagayama.

Fig 4: Yuko Nagayama

Yuko took a keen interest in architecture after high school and started her firm in 2002 after just four years working for Japanese architect Jun Aoki. Back then, she was just 26 years old and youthful due to which clients thought of her as unreliable. Yet, she persisted and eventually landed on large projects including the Louis Vuitton Boutique in Kyoto, the revamped Kiya Ryokan and port-side museum Teshima Yokoo House – a project she worked on while she was expecting her first child. Throughout her career, Yuko emphasizes the importance of researching the context of the client’s request and identifying the social and local community cityscape to strengthen the project’s vision.

Fig 5: Robyn’e Garton

Over the years, the world has had many women leading and designing huge projects, but the sight of women working on site is very rare. Due to the issues regarding safety and security, few women are appointed with on-site jobs.

Robyn’e Garton worked as a property manager where she routinely dealt with contractors. She noticed that women in trades were the first to lose their jobs in an economic downturn. This gave her the idea of starting her own roofing company in 2011 – Pink Belts. When she first started the company, she became the “laughing stock” of the neighbourhood. She has had her share of death threats, hates mails and tyres being tampered with; but stayed strong through it all. Today, she has a crew of 12-15 core members. Robyn’e is also working towards making PPE for women and developing tool belts for women since most of them are designed for men.

Fig 6: Sumaya Dabbagh

Turning to a positive side of things, society has changed in their ways of viewing women. During the mid-1980s, women in Saudi Arabia were banned from studying architecture. Inspired by women around the world, the ban was then lifted in 2009. This brings us to Saudi architect, Sumaya Dabbagh, who was shortlisted for Tamayouz’s Woman of Outstanding Achievement Award in 2019. Hailing from a Saudi family, she moved to the UK when she was 13 years old. After her graduation, she moved to Paris in 1991. In the early 1990s, she decided to visit UAE which was a turning point in her life – personally and professionally, as she chose to move to Dubai in 1993. She started working at Schuster Pechtold & Partners and started her firm in 2008. After winning a Middle East Architect Award & a Cityscape Award in 2016, the firm has been widely acknowledged as a context-driven, contemporary style inspired firm. Sumaya continues to encourage young female architects from Saudi and show them that women can be successful architects and add value to their city and community.

Breaking through the glass ceiling still seems like a long way to go. Yet, women never cease to amaze and inspire us. dwipbox wishes everyone a Happy Women’s day and hopes to read and write about the women standing up for themselves in the generations to come.


1. https://www.constructionbusinessowner.com/how-i-did-it/how-pink-belts-roofing-construction-changing-way-industry-views-women-construction

2. https://www.remodeling.hw.net/article/all-female-roofing-company-is-in-the-fast-lane_c

3. https://www.indesignlive.hk/articles/people/yuko-nagayama-architecture-for-the-human-experience

4. https://www.architecturalrecord.com/articles/6391-yuko-nagayama-associates

5. https://www.coohem.jp/en/interview_02

6. http://www.forbesindia.com/article/2019-wpower-trailblazers/abha-narain-lambah-etching-stories-in-stone/52761/1

7. https://www.proptiger.com/guide/post/meet-abha-narain-lambah-the-lady-on-a-mission-to-preserve-our-past

8. https://www.marthastewart.com/1526576/meet-norma-merrick-sklarek-first-licensed-african-american-female-architect

9. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Margaret_Macdonald_Mackintosh

10. http://hist259.web.unc.edu/margaret-macdonald-mackintosh-1864-1933/


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