Dear Peter Russell
On 8 March 2017, International Women’s Day, the TU Delft Feminists grassroots organization will celebrate its first anniversary. Over the past year, students and staff from TU Delft have built up a strong network, learned about intersectional feminism, and discovered the need for inclusion in society and education.
In May 2016 Peter Russell, Dean of the Faculty Architecture and the Built Environment, promised to support the cause of equal opportunity, inclusion, fair representation and diversity. Up to now, however, little has been done or even changed. That has prompted students to write him an open letter.
To our Dean Peter Russell,
We, the undersigned, are writing to you in 2017 on the cusp of radical changes for our living world, culture, economy and society. We write to you out of conscience and a need for action. We ask you to make a choice. We ask you not to take one side or another, but to create the platform on which we call can thrive. To create a faculty where all members, students and staff, have equal opportunity. We need you to shape an academic culture that promotes awareness, inclusivity and actual solutions to the pressing problems we face. As Dean of Architecture and the Built Environment at TU Delft, you have the power to make a difference. You can use your influence on the profession, on society, on world opinion and on the built environment, to promote models in education, research, management and practice that benefit us all. We ask you to take heart, be brave and set an example.
A diverse faculty, with a wealth of perspectives, is vital for the resilience of our profession and academic life, both economically and socially. Within the field of architecture, which greatly affects society, biased thinking can be increasingly harmful. Through explicit and implicit biases, we limit not only others, but also ourselves – whether you are a white able-bodied man who undercuts innovation and the profitability of our organization by continually employing someone who looks and speaks like you, or a highly gifted student who has been taught her whole life that she is worthless, and does not dare to take up space. It’s time to stop wasting talent.
It’s also time we start getting a larger truth about the world and break the echo chamber of our own normative assumptions. It must be clear where we are coming from in order to perceive our biases. It’s time to overcome the faulty historical constructs passed down to us and learn to think critically about our cultural backgrounds and agendas. We can decolonize our knowledge and our science and make room for a plurality of histories and approaches. This lucid, broad contextual thinking and methodology can allow us to navigate complexity and cultural differences in order to create a more whole understanding of reality. We must learn how to respect one another because of, and not in spite of, our differences. We must gain an appreciation for how lived experience shapes what we know of the world, and how an appreciation of those differences in experience makes us versatile and stronger as a group.
Only by making habitual and ‘normative’ ways of valuing transparent to ourselves can people become free to choose how to behave and think. For instance, most people in our culture have learned binary value systems like black and white, man and women, able and disabled. These binaries privilege one value over another and reflect on expectations of competency that are constructed but not based on fact. We need to learn not to centre whiteness, heterosexuality and masculinity as the default human body and experience, as we now almost universally do. We need to challenge assumptions about superiority based on old, neo-colonial narratives that allowed a few to dominate many. In this way, we can stop reproducing discrimination and oppression of ‘others’ without even noticing what we are doing. Through education we have an opportunity to transcend binary and essentialist thinking to become infinitely more nuanced and sublime as professionals, and as human beings. We can’t design and think effectively about the complexity of the built environment without this richness at heart. Why condemn another generation to standards that don’t fit, technologies that won’t sustain, and practices that exclude far too many?
For women in the Netherlands, hitting the glass ceiling in the fields represented by architecture and the built environment begins very early on. And it’s not just women who hit the ceiling; our field is also disproportionately white and well to do. For people of colour, people from a working-class background, transgender people and people who suffer from disability, the barriers of participation become even more difficult to pass. We need to understand how these additional barriers intersect. In architecture and urbanism, women start their careers strong, but leave in massive numbers early in their practice, and continue to leave throughout their careers. Why is this? A lack of passion, motivation and ability is certainly not the correct answer. That some choose to become parents is also not the answer. To create equal opportunity, qualified women should not have to choose between family and career. Do we want to know the facts about what happens to women in our field? Do we want to know what happens to the brilliant students who graduate here? If the answer is yes, we need comprehensive research to understand and address inclusion.
The argument that ‘there are no, or not enough, qualified women’ is also no longer an excuse to justify underrepresentation. This false statement also reinforces silencing and erasure of women’s academic and professional achievements. As the recent study by the Minister of Education Jet Bussemaker has revealed, as soon as you consciously ‘look’ for qualified women you will find them. The problem is not a lack of talent or availability; the problem continues to be our biases.
The TU Delft Feminists are done with one or even two women on a panel of eight men when 50% of the student population is female. We are done with one out of eight professors being a woman. We don’t want a symbolic gesture: we want and need real change and equity. We want gender balance in representation and gender equity in policy. The only way to change this is to challenge the implicit biases and judgements everywhere (and by everyone) in the faculty: from the management team to the appointment of guest teachers, from the lack of female references in history education, to the names and portraits in the hallway.
We propose to make 2018 the year of Gender Awareness and Diversity in our Faculty. Change is not going to happen by itself, and we need to kick off the new institutional culture in a big way and all pervasively. We’d like Gender Awareness and Diversity to be a focal point for every department, from design, to theory and history, to computing and maths. In the Bachelors, the Masters, the new PhDs, and the research programmes. It should be the focal point for festivals, for management, for lectures, for the education board, for human resources, for marketing and communication, and for all student associations. This will launch a new culture of inclusion from this point forward.
In order to help implement this, with the opportunity provided by the Minister of Education Jet Bussemaker, a new independent Chair should be introduced in Department of Architecture, (where underrepresentation in the chairs related to design is acute), for ‘Intersectional Design and Interdisciplinary Practice’. This Chair will speak to the paradigmatic shift that has taken place in architectural practice since the economic crisis of 2008, by building direct bridges between education and practice. It will also will take on the task of inclusive, intersectional design. Providing a model for best practice here and abroad.
In a banquet held last year on Gender Equity, many members of the faculty from all departments, from Full Professor to PhD to Student to Researcher, came together to discuss what we could do to address and implement inclusion in order to ensure the diversity we need. In addition to the proposal for a New Chair and a year of Gender Awareness and Diversity, we provided an action list with a summary of our requests for change. This is by no means an exhaustive list. Rather, it is intended to start a dialogue, and to draw the first outlines of an action plan.
Peter Russell, during the Town Hall Meeting in May 2016, you made a promise. A promise to support the cause of equal opportunity, inclusion, fair representation and diversity. We want to do everything in our power to enable you to meet that promise. And we expect that you will do everything in your power to achieve these goals.
The Architecture Affinity Group of TU Delft Feminists