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Hurdles // Emily Whitty


Written by Emily Whitty



I knew the Design + Make Studio would provide me with many hurdles to jump. The one I didn’t expect however was being a woman. Although the percentage of women in the architecture schools has grown significantly, women still only represent 41-42% of recent architecture graduates. Growing up with three younger brothers, being outnumbered by men is something I am used to. For the most part in school I have been treated as an equal. After working on the construction site, I quickly learned I am not.


The first hurdle to jump was gear. There is a list of things you need while on the job site, many of which you find out about along the way. Most of my male classmates already had construction experience in some way or another. This means they have tools, work clothes, boots, hats, gloves, you name it, they probably already had it. The frustrating part about buying construction gear wasn’t just that I was starting from scratch, it was the lack of gear options available for women. The market for women’s gear is extremely small. 9% of U.S. construction workers are women according to OSHA. Much of what is offered for women is either low quality, dysfunctional, or pink. After researching I discovered many company’s options for women’s work boots were scarce, and just smaller versions of designs intended for men. Finding a pair to try on in a store was almost impossible. The importance of a good shoe on the job site is great and women have different needs in a shoe than men. Walking around in a shoe that wasn’t designed for me didn’t sound like a good idea. Luckily Timberland provided a solution. Unlike most work boots, these were designed and dimensioned with women in mind. As a result, my feet are the only thing not sore after a day of work. Another issue I faced was work pants. Somehow the women’s fashion industry has made a general decision that women don’t need pockets. I don’t own a single pair of jeans with pockets deep enough to hold my phone. Some jeans even have faux pockets! Because of my in-depth research in gear I have found the few real solutions offered for women’s gear. I was now prepared to get my hands dirty!

The second hurdle was communication and knowledge. The initial question I had my first time on site was “What do I do?” I quickly learned that was the worst question to ask. If I was lucky, I received tasks the group desired least (scoop the mud out of the street, pound stakes in the ground, hammer off formwork, pick up trash and organize the site.) If not, I was met with a lot of “I don’t know”. Much of this I blamed on our lack of tools. When you have two hammers, one nail gun, a saw, and seven people on site not everyone can participate. But the real issue was communication. People that were already working didn’t want to stop and explain to another how or what to do. They already had a groove going, a system. Add on that fact that the only tools I’ve ever used are a tape measure, a screwdriver, and the occasional hammer. Every time I did something new, I had to be shown how. I had trouble understanding why there was so much frustration toward me until I had to show another female in the studio how to nail electrical boxes. I assumed I had explained it well enough and walked away. I came back to see that it was nailed in the wrong height and the grooves didn't line up with the edge of the framing. If I had just stayed by her and showed her how instead of just explaining it, we wouldn’t have to pull the box back out of the wall. But after we pulled the box out and I showed her how, the work went effortlessly. It reminded me of an old saying “give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day, but teach a man to fish and feed him for life.” If my classmates would just show me how to do things, I could soon become just as good as everyone else. I learned how to be hyper vigilant about how people were doing things, get a brief understanding and then ask for the explanation. Also, the more I learned by watching, the less I had to be shown. Each day on site made me more intuitive about how things work and go together. 

Abstract: The Design + Make Studio is a completely different experience for women. There are many ways to overcome certain obstacles within the studio. With a lot of research, dedication and perseverance anything is possible.


Audience: Women in Architecture



[1] "UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF LABOR." Occupational Safety and Health Administration. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 Apr. 2017.


[2] Chang, Lian Chikako. "Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture." Where Are the Women? Measuring Progress on Gender in Architecture. Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture, Oct. 2014. Web. 14 Apr. 2017.

Electrical box installation.

The final hurdle to jump was strength. I weigh 125lbs and carry most of my strength in my legs. Working on site requires an incredible amount of upper body strength. A bag of concrete weighs 50-80lbs. Many of the tools are heavy as well. Using the nail gun took two hands just to brace myself for the kickback. To use the skill saw I had to have help, one person to hold the board down while I use both hands to get a straight cut. Most men can just cut one handed and use their free arm to brace the board. It takes 100% of my strength to hold down a board for someone else to cut and operating the saw one handed a few times kills my wrist. The sledgehammer I could barely lift above my head, let alone swing it at a stake no one would hold for me. Any task a man could do alone, I needed assistance with.

Jumping this hurdle wouldn’t been easy. I stepped back and thought about just how to tackle these issues. One way was to team up with other women, but they aren’t always on site. Sometimes I would have to work on my own. What do I bring to the table that the men don’t? I am agile, balanced, organized, and think ahead. I found it easy to keep track of what numbers need to be cut and what the next steps were. I learned that any time I was walking from one end of the site to the next I should be carrying something. Then at the end of the day, cleanup would be easier. I also found it quicker and easier for me to climb in and around the formwork to give people more nails, a hammer, tape measurer, or anything else they needed. I also saw that the person operating the saw had to continually walk up the hill to get more 2x4s and after cutting a piece would have to climb over the hill to deliver it inside the formwork. I found myself become the runner. I made sure everyone had what they needed and the team worked more efficiently. Slowly but surely I will gain strength from knowing what my limits are and not exceeding them to avoid injury. It isn’t a competition, and it’s okay to not be as strong as the men. What matters is the time and effort put in.


Jumping these hurdles throughout the studio has been a great learning experience for me. I wish things would have been easier, but I joined the studio because I knew there was a disconnect between what I know and what my male counterparts do. I wanted to understand how to construct things by doing while gaining a deeper understanding of how a construction site operates. I hope women in the future can have the same opportunity to experience what I have in the studio. The knowledge gained I will carry with me for the rest of my architectural career. My advice for the women in years to come would be simple. Listen to what others have to say, watch carefully how things happen, and ask effective questions. I wouldn’t have gotten where I am today if I hadn’t found a good way to communicate with others in the studio.

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