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Architecture should have the widest gene pool to draw from

Paul Finch

While the gender gap has been eliminated in schools of architecture, the gap in respect of race and class is scarcely discussed, says Paul Finch

An article in The Times this week, by Matt Ridley, concluded thus: ‘When it comes to gender, some sex differences are genetic; breasts and beards are not social constructs. It is harder to decide which sex differences in behaviour are derived from nature, but the paradox of heritability provides a clue. Two psychologists last month published a paper showing that in countries where women are least discriminated against, women are most under-represented in science, technology, engineering and mathematics [STEM]. The percentage of STEM graduates who are female is twice as high in Turkey, Algeria and Tunisia as in Finland, Sweden and Norway. It appears that the more freedom girls have, the less likely they are to choose STEM subjects.

‘Today we rightly try to make sure that any differential outcomes by sex, race or education are not caused by discrimination. But the result is that we will maximise the contribution of innate preferences and abilities instead. A perfectly meritocratic society would be one in which people who went to Oxford were genetically, not socially, advantaged.’

As the AJ embarks on its survey of race and the profession, I couldn’t help thinking that what doesn’t get much discussed these days is class, except when yet another old-Etonian actor claims to have been discriminated against because of their educational background, usually as they are given a big TV role or are winning an Oscar. Our hearts bleed.

We live in a semi-meritocratic society, and that may be as close as we can get unless we start opting for positive discrimination. The thing about positive discrimination is that it is easy to define women and non-white, though at the margin we now have the ‘self-defined’, those people who like the looking-glass world where, because you say something, it is automatically true. As a child of Enlightenment thinking, I find this an absurdity, as I do the idea of discrimination of any sort based on extremely crude binary thinking.

In respect of architecture, the most likely way that the profession can grow and prosper is if it has the widest gene pool of intelligence and ability from which to draw. Currently, while the gender gap has been eliminated in schools of architecture, the gap in respect of race and class is scarcely discussed, let alone addressed.

Meritocracy does not mean that that everyone is equal, nor that everyone is paid the same

Meritocracy does not mean that that everyone is equal, nor that everyone is paid the same, nor that the constitution of every company or representative institution is a replica of the gender/race/class split at a given moment. It means that the opportunity for what used to be called ‘advancement’ is based on talent and application. In other words, a world in which everybody has the opportunity to achieve all they are capable of. This can only be a worthy aspiration, not an imposed condition.

And, as the research to which Matt Ridley refers notes, genes may play a bigger part in all this if educational and social playing fields are more equal – without any certainty as to the outcomes of individual choices as to career and lifestyle. At this point money enters the equation. People will make choices based on economic self-interest, so if society wants to give a nudge to, say, mathematics teachers, it can encourage them by enhancing their salaries. Is this fair to other teachers? Discuss.


Readers' comments (5)

  • Paul,

    You’ve been doing some reading while everyone else was in the bar networking at MIPIM? Sapiens? The latest Pinker?

    With a little patience, 350 years of white male dominance will naturally be enhanced by all the other genders and colours? All those incredible advances made by the white guys from the Royal Society of Wren, Pepys, Newton et al onwards would not have been possible without the poor slaving away to pay their wine and coffee bills? And what would those poor mothers have come up with if properly educated? We went to see Hamlet performed by a mainly black cast last week. The best Hamlet ever? Goes on to Washington DC after Easter, where it might be seen by Barack Obama’s and Paul Simon? The sad thing was that there were few BAME residents in the Hackney Audience? And one day Oxford might be able to win all four races on the Tideway? Perhaps with young Black and Asian crew members? At first from South Africa, India or the US? It will happen given time?

    As I hinted yesterday while commenting on the housing shortage on these pages, the one group neglected by architectural education is the slightly, and even more elderly! And we are now generally the clients and or Nimbies. Start letting the people on the Brentford omnibus and Volkswagen SUV in on the secrets of Brunelleschi, Brunel, Corbusier and Foster. Then they might understand why the cities are the way they are, and how they could help make them even better for their children and grandchildren?

    The AJ/AR should be able to kick this off, with the financial help of the property people and PowerPoint help of Academia? Or a quicker payback to the Travel companies? Meet in the local library instead of watching daytime telly, or on the riverboat on the way to Vien?

    Come on guys? Then see you in Novgorod for the Belgium game, via Paddypower to put £50 on England to beat Germany in the Final. Penalty shoot out withstanding our way this time! Southgate Gate?!

    This is like Soccer Saturday on Skysport talking about cricket? Unbelievable Geoff!

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  • I have nothing to add!

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  • Both the above comments are well meant (I think?) but both demonstrate architecture's inability to be plainly honest with itself... without equivocating. Architecture is horribly undiverse given it's ubiquity and effect over ALL our lives. It is a bastion of privilege which actively perpetuates itself while firmly excluding other groups, ostensibly because of some subjective idea of meritocracy (are the majority of new buildings really of such shiny quality?).

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  • Following on from this rather reasonable and understandable piece (except that it must be mentioned that gender equality in architecture schools isn't enough)The real problem with privilege and lack of diversity is that society is robbed of the best possible profession, the built environment suffers and we all suffer. I think the profession has gone completely AWOL. As far as society is concerned it has retreated both literally and figuratively into the architectural equivalent of Made In Chelsea. The profession increasingly doesn't care what society gets up to and society increasingly isn't bothered what architects so.

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  • At last! an intelligent and balanced piece that does not fall into the traps of virtue signalling. There is a great deal of cynical bandwagon-jumping going on everywhere as if these problems can be 'equalised'. Life doesn't work like that.....
    Well said Mr.Finch

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