Beyond the quinquennial years: the rise of female students of architecture in the UAE

About the Author
About the Author
Tala Alnounou and Yosr El Sherbiny
Tala is head of marketing and research for the MENA region at LWK + PARTNERS. She’s also an independent published researcher, interior designer and art enthusiast.
Yosr has worked in the AEC industry as an architect since 2013. A firm believer that design and storytelling are correlated, Yosr founded Wrichitects, a creative writing and educational platform for stories about art, architecture, design and everyday people.
About Red Envelope
Red Envelope is a series of journals published by LWK + PARTNERS and is a collaborative project between the practice and Round City co-founder Rima Alsammarae.

An analysis of the rise of female students of architecture in the UAE, and the paths that lay ahead of them.

It can hardly be disputed that women are assuming more and more leadership positions in our globalised world, especially across the Middle East and North Africa, where businesswomen rank among Forbes’ topmost lists. This gradually increasing balance in leadership is visible in many sectors, and architecture, as an interdisciplinary profession, is witnessing fundamental shifts as more female graduates enter the industry.

There has been a noticeable trend in the rising number of women studying architecture in the GCC over the past 10 years, with an average ratio of four women to every one man – an increase from the two to one ratio (respectively) just six years ago in 2015. It’s an observation that, beyond the hard data, students, alumni and professionals have also acknowledged.

While reasons behind choosing the profession for women are quite diverse and reflect differing cultural, political or even social POVs, spending one’s quinquennial years at architecture school is not the traditional first choice of many Middle Eastern families for their children.

The authors of this article conducted a survey of a small pool of students and faculty at universities in the UAE to understand the drivers behind the growing gender imbalance in regional architecture departments. To much surprise, 52 percent of participants interviewed did not grow up around architects nor the practice of architecture, and were only introduced to the field upon enrollment. This poses interesting questions regarding influences and reflections on the type of design output we see in the Middle East, a region that is in no short supply of borrowed references from foreign examples and which has, until relatively recently, rarely engaged with minute drivers that leverage change and identity.

Influential architects such as Zaha Hadid and Hassan Fathy were among the names most commonly shared that inspired local students to study architecture. Being a creative and interdisciplinary field that interweaves art and design with technical engineering and which covers varying project scales, from city planning to small residential units, captivated others.

School programmes are slowly introducing design and architecture into their curriculum, which is fundamental to creating awareness of such professions at elementary levels, thus tipping the scale to attract more students and achieve diversity that will eventually benefit the industry. This will also help reassure the multifaced opportunity spectrum that awaits post-graduation, breaking down some of the stereotypes associated with architecture.

The rise of ‘archipreneurs’ is proving that innovation, great business and passion all trump traditional perceptions of the architecture profession. On joining architecture school, 63 percent of surveyed students stated that passion for art and design was the main factor; and a few of the participants further stated a leaning towards entrepreneurship and wanting to start their own design companies.

Average Numbers (females & males) collected from various universities – Data Name of University, Location, Female and Male Ratio, Year of graduation (batch)

Beyond technical and theoretical responsibility, academia has an important role to play in attracting and retaining talent – little more than half the surveyed participants (59 percent) grew to love architecture more throughout their school years and chose to continue exploring opportunities in the field. Yet we cannot deny the numbers here are very close.

30 percent of the participants regretted their decision of studying architecture and considered changing their majors in the middle of their undergrad experience (the remaining 11 percent remained unchanged in their opinions). This might help explain why some women are shifting from practice to academia, as noted in the increase of qualified female faculty joining institutions in the GCC and nearly completely balancing the gap between women and male academics, or, in some instances, even outweighing their male counterparts.

As a young art enthusiast, Dr Nadia Mounajjed, now an educator at Abu Dhabi University, found herself drawn to architecture and was encouraged by a family friend to pursue higher studies, which eventually led her into academia.

One of the challenges she faced was finding balance between being a practicing architect and a teacher, leaving little room for the ambition of combining both. On freelancing, she mentioned the challenges for independent designers to get commissions, as the regional architectural field is dominated by large international firms. Thus, full-time academia became the preferred option.

Discussing the gap between academia and profession, Mounajjed, who has taught in different institutions, stated, “Some institutions prefer to teach students how to be creative designers using savvy technologies, while others focus on the technical and business dimension, which is a must for an interdisciplinary subject such as architecture.”

Finding the right balance, though, is important to enable students to understand that career options are versatile. Exposing them to different experiences will also impact student retention in creative fields. Mounajjed added, “I would say the gap [between practice and academia] is slowly decreasing and students are better prepared to disrupt the market facing the ever-evolving industry.”

Research culture is critical to the development of the architectural study, particularly in a region such as the Middle East, where we still have a long way to go from building on other people’s research to those who contribute new information. There is a growing belief that the system should create more opportunities for educators to get involved in developments and projects being realised, empowering them to lead research labs that contribute to new forms of knowledge. The retention of knowledge centres is very important for the sustainable development of this ecosystem, although, sometimes it is difficult to manage due to the transient nature of work across the region.

Research and development are fundamentals in the collection of data and the advancement of the practice. And although innovative firms and studios engage in the process, they struggle with funding. Architecture has always been a discipline that is not necessarily associated with research, and culturally, there is a disconnect between the general understanding of the field and the reality of its importance. A positive scenario sees the industry and academia having a more symbiotic relationship, learning from each other to maintain progress and improve frameworks that lead to a greater benefit of the industry in the region.

Both men and women face equal difficulties in the fields of architecture and design as they are undergoing great changes due to globalisation, new technologies and their expansion from traditional practice to new areas and ways of working. At worst, there is an immeasurable pressure that inspires career changes, and at best, it’s a reality that professionals face together. Introducing change is inevitable yet must happen at fundamental levels starting with academia.

Curiosity and self-development are keys to success in this profession and whether you are a ‘he’ or a ‘she’, a professional or academic, commitment and motivation are likely your drivers. As women slowly brake stereotypical associations, it is within their hands to acquire their dreams.

Read more from Red Envelope.

This article was originally published in the Red Envelope series, as part of the third journal themed ‘Women’. The Red Envelope journals are published by LWK + PARTNERS, and edited by Round City co-founder Rima Alsammarae. They aim to provide knowledge and insight on global urban design for readers interested in architecture, design, development and the built environment.

Volume I, Journal III is available to read in digital format here.