Can architecture and design help improve women's rights?

At the Clinton Global Initiative's Annual Meeting, leaders in the architecture field discussed how innovation in the built environment can help empower women and girls worldwide.
Written by Reena Jana, Contributor

NEW YORK--"This panel is a bit of a pioneer," Nicholas D. Kristof, New York Times columnist, said with a smile. He was speaking to a crowd of leaders in the areas of diplomacy, business, and culture gathered at the Clinton Global Initiative's Annual Meeting, taking place through September 25. Kristof was moderating a discussion, "Women and the Built Environment: Designing for Opportunity," the opening session of the event's second day, and which he described as a mash-up.

"In the past, the women and girls [topic] is a separate track at CGI, but this year, it's integrated with another topic, the built environment...to get ahead of the curve," Kristof said, referring to the Annual Meeting's overall theme of designing for impact.

Kristof hosted onstage a group of experts in the area of architecture that relates to social innovation: Joan Clos, Under-Secretary General and executive director, UN-HABITAT (pictured above, on the right, with Kristof); Salma Samar Damluji, chief architect, Daw'an Mud Brick Architecture Foundation; Elizabeth Heider, senior vice president, Skanska USA Building Inc. and chair, Board of Directors, U.S. Green Building Council; and Jonathan Reckford, CEO, Habitat for Humanity International.

The conversation began with the question of how to offer more women titles to land, a query that Kristof lobbed first to Clos.

"Only one percent of the titles on Earth are owned by women," Clos said. "But only about 20% of the land on Earth is titled. There are other, ancestral ways of titling the land." That represents a complex issue, he said, and we need to design institutions that offer modern land registration around the globe.

Kristof then asked Reckford how design can impact women's rights directly.

"We built 10,000 houses in South Asia after the [2004] tsunami. Now women are participating in village councils in those areas," Reckford said, offering a powerful example.


Kristof went on to discuss the issue of bringing more women into the building field. "Architecture and design is a huge employer, but a huge employer of men," Kristof said. "Are there things we can do to make this an employer of women as well as men?"

The women on the panel answered by discussing areas where women already are highly present and influential in design and architecture.

"Skanska has a staff of about 14% women in the field, and 80% women in the office," Heider said, referring to her employer. "In my own career, I've been engaged in sustainable design and construction, and there is a large subset of women in this area."

Elizabeth Heider of Skanska USA and Jonathan Reckford of Habitat for Humanity International

Nearly half of the senior executives of the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) are female, she said. Women, she believes, are generally drawn to environmental and humanitarian work.

"There are about 40% women on the USGBC board," Heider said. "I've read that If one woman is included [in a group], you have a token; two women, a conspiracy; three, you experience meaningful change." So when an organization achieves a ratio of about one-third women, she said, it equals a tipping point.

Kristof then focused on a specific design topic: mud-brick architecture in resource-constrained communities.

"Three billion people in the world live in mud-brick architecture," Kristof pointed out. "What can we do to make women in those buildings more empowered?"

"Women in Yemen actually participate in building," Damluji, who is Yemeni, said. "They are responsible for the beautiful color, design, and renderings in these buildings made of mud brick and stone...we call them 'earth architecture' now." The Yemeni culture is rich because of these efforts, she said, although the nation is financially poor.

Salma Samar Damluji, chief architect, Daw'an Mud Brick Architecture Foundation

Kristof asked about using design to alleviate the specific problem of women inhaling dangerous smoke while cooking in mud-brick buildings.

"We in the West have a lot to learn from [the earth architecture] in Yemen," Damluji said in response. "In 5-6 story high buildings, kitchens are set up with terraces and open areas, or on courtyards. They are always well-ventilated. There are separate rooms for baking, cooking, preparing. They have a complex design, that we in the West can learn from."


Reckford joined in with a strong point. "A lot of our solutions wind up being siloed. If girl doesn't have shelter, she won't be healthy, she can't go to school. If she has a door that doesn't lock, so she has no security," Reckford said, suggesting that designers and other organizations should consider how they can work together to promote women's rights in a more holistic way.

Clos added, "At the same time we are improving our design for safety, especially for women, we need to encourage the ruling elites of this country to take new steps to guarantee these kinds of services."

Kristof closed the quick-moving session by asking the panelists for one specific takeaway on what needs to be done to promote women's and girl's rights via the built environment. Here they are:

Clos: "The challenge is so big...The most important idea we need to consider is that we have a huge task in front of us. This is something that will shape the global agenda, including security, in the next 20 years. Especially in Africa, where it will be very important for the next 10 years."

Damluji: "The future is in mud-brick and earth architecture; this is the future, not the past."

Heider: "Look for those moments of genius. The USGBC created a green schools program. The beauty of engaging with schools is that women want to send their children to places with healthy environments. The lessons that schools provide, kids take home to parents. Entire communities can be transformed. There are opportunities through schools."

Reckford: "It's about access. We must allow women to own property and offer access to credit and loan programs to lift themselves up."

The panel echoed earlier remarks from U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who opened Day Two of the CGI meeting by asking leaders to consider global efforts in social innovation collectively, as "portfolios." In other words, individual nations, NGOs, and corporations would be wise to understand how their work relates to that of others in different fields or sectors. The goal: to more efficiently work together to address international challenges. Borrowing from the language of design, the portfolio approach could very well allow valuable cross-disciplinary connections--and ultimately effective actions--to be made.

Images: Paul Morse/Clinton Global Initiative

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Design: A key strategy for large-scale social innovation?

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