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The truth is that sexual harassment has marked my career

Christine Murray

The accusations on the Shitty Architecture Men list do not surprise me, writes Christine Murray

I perused the Shitty Architecture Men list with two famous women architects at the Venice Architecture Biennale last month. Standing in the Giardini at the Voices of Women protest, they recognised names, (‘Oh yeah, he’s the worst!’) and shared a few choice anecdotes, but none for print. 

I’ve avoided discussing the personal fallout of a sexist culture in architecture, preferring to focus on positive action – the AJ and AR Women in Architecture campaign for equality, the awards, the mentoring and the data.

But Ellis Woodman’s column last week was a watershed, as he called time on behaviour so normalised to be par for the course, such as tutors sleeping with students.

The truth is that sexual harassment in the profession has marked my career, particularly in the early years as a thirty-something AJ editor. I brushed it off then, and since, as a side-effect of a broken profession, and I focused instead on provoking change. My work on the Women in Architecture campaign has focused on inspiring others by championing equality and excellence in design, and in turn, has inspired me. 

Some of the UK architects named on the Shitty Architecture Men list are known to me, having suffered unsolicited sexual advances in the past that have made me feel uncomfortable, and I’ve frequently warned female colleagues to be wary of one architect in particular. This usually took place at AJ events, when the alcohol is flowing, and I’m representing the magazine and forced to behave professionally, even when someone else is not. 

What might I have accomplished without the additional bullshit of navigating sexual impropriety?

When I add it all up, there’s not much to tell from a few bad eggs – ducked kisses, a hand on a thigh, late-night solicitous text messages, and mildly threatening behaviour such as when an architect followed me back to my hotel room at the World Architecture Festival and I had to close the door in his face.

More frequent were the undermining questions about my job – ‘When you say that you’re the editor, what exactly do you mean?’ – which eventually led me to add the words ‘-in-chief’ to my job title, for the avoidance of doubt. 

I haven’t named these men. I was not their student or their employee. There was no imbalance of power, but some of it felt like powerplay (‘I can make the editor squirm’). All of it was tone deaf.

As Ian Hislop said of sexual harassment on Have I Got News for You: ‘This is hardly high-level stuff.’ And as Jo Brand retorted angrily: ‘Actually, women, if you’re constantly being harassed, even in a small way, that builds up and that wears you down.’ 

I didn’t pause to think about whether it had actually worn me down, though, until #MeToo. That’s when I began to think about all that energy I had wasted over the years through the effort of laughing it off, making witty retorts or reasserting authority – skills you don’t put on your CV, but are seemingly critical to a young woman’s business success.

What might I have accomplished without the additional bullshit of navigating sexual impropriety? What might all of us accomplish without the bullying culture of the office and the crit, sexism and racism? In a creative industry, energy must be harnessed, not squandered. 

I would have liked the same respect conferred on white-haired guffawing editors, but although I had the job title, the mantle never quite fit

In the early years, the AJ was seen to be losing traction (now firmly regained), and there was fierce competition for exclusive building studies. I felt that I couldn’t challenge the culture; I had to navigate it – and there was tremendous pressure to not be a bitch. I felt that I had to be nice – to everyone. This mostly wasn’t difficult, but there are some people that I wish that I’d been less nice to.

Back then, I had a few trusted colleagues who would ‘rescue’ me at events if I looked uncomfortable. And so it was that I never confronted the men who crossed the line, I simply made a quick exit. I would have liked the same respect conferred on white-haired guffawing editors, but although I had the job title, the mantle never quite fit. 

The allegations in the Shitty Architecture Men list are unpublishable without women and men coming forward, even off the record, to verify its claims. But there is a feeling that any woman doing so would be eviscerated by trolls, socially isolated and blacklisted by employers. That says a lot about where the profession is right now, and how far it has yet to go.

This reluctance is compounded by a protective veil of silence at the top, because in architecture so much depends upon the reputation of the names above the door. 

As the list’s anonymous author told Co.Design, ’I’m sharing these things because being harassed can be isolating. Maybe being able to see that they’re not alone will help someone feel empowered to take action.’ 

Whether more women in architecture speak out or not, it is essential that #TimesUp and the profession moves on. Practices should take the initiative to stamp out sexual harassment as a business priority – not only your moral and legal imperative, but also a liability. 

To the survivors, I give the Latinate words of Margaret Atwood from The Handmaid’s Tale, ‘Nolite te bastardes carborundorum’. Don’t let the bastards grind you down.