International Women’s Day marks time to reflect on status of women in design

Monday, March 10 marked the first-ever celebration of International Women’s Day at the Harvard Graduate School of Design with an afternoon tea, co-sponsored by Women in Design and the Office of the Dean. Dozens of students, faculty and staff crowded into the sunbathed Loeb Library to enjoy food by Sofra, a women-owned business in Cambridge, and reflect on the progress, challenges, and opportunities of women at the GSD—and in the design professions at large.

Dean Mohsen Mostafavi kicked off the event, taking stock of the GSD’s efforts to create an inclusive and diverse environment for all and, in particular, women.  

In October 2013, the GSD invited architect Denise Scott Brown to lecture in recognition of her important contributions to design. The invitation affirmed the grassroots movement launched by Women in Design with the petition to recognize Scott Brown for her role in the 1991 Pritzker Prize.

Anne Tyng (AB ’42, MArch ’44), who attended the first co-ed class at the GSD, delivered a lecture at the School in October 2011, just four months before her passing at 91 years old. At the top levels of leadership, the GSD is working to promote women, including recent faculty appointments such as Diane Davis in the Department of Urban Planning and Design, and Grace La in the Department of Architecture, Dean Mostafavi said.

Executive Dean Pat Roberts shared her perspective as a staff member at the GSD since 1989, when there were few female faculty. According to Roberts, the GSD is striving towards 50% tenured women faculty. Dean of Students Laura Snowdon, along with recent grad Mia Scharpie (MLA ’13), is organizing a series of workshops designed to help women entering the profession build confidence and sharpen their negotiation skills.

On the topic of demographics, professor of architecture Grace La (March ’95) recalled that women in her graduating class comprised only 20% of the student body. While the numbers have shifted (49% of the current student body is female), the challenges women face today can be more subtle and less quantifiable. “Women—and men—have to contend with big questions,” La said. “Women often feel on a crash collision course between family and work.”

Jane Hutton, assistant professor of landscape architecture, shared her fascination as a student at University of Toronto with the work of Dolores Hayden (MArch ’72) and others who examine critically the power structures within a gendered landscape. She recalled how her mentor, Sue Ruddick, raised awareness of the relationship between space and power, both in the organization and flows of cities and in the classroom: “Where are people sitting? Who speaks, who doesn’t? How can space be arranged so that multiple voices are heard?”

Hutton’s concerns were echoed by design critic Katy Barkan (MArch ’10), who spoke about the inclusion of many voices as a means of creating opportunity for all. Barkan, whose graduation class day speaker was Denise Scott Brown, was president of Women in Design while a student at the GSD.

Attendees also included members of the wider Harvard community, including Beth Altringer, a lecturer from the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, who credits her research in psychology and group dynamics with helping her find her authentic voice as a leader. Altringer recalled her days as a PhD student, surrounded by women who “seemed to fit a stereotypical image of what a ‘leader’ looks or acts like.” She now incorporates leadership coaching in her courses, joint-listed by SEAS and the GSD. 

Theresa Lund, managing director of the Office of the Dean, closed out the discussion by sharing powerful results of studies demonstrating that the presence of women in leadership has powerful ripple effects. “Seeing is believing,” she said. “The presence of one woman leader in a context such as a design school affects people’s perceptions of what a leader looks like.”

Afterwards, Women in Design invited students, faculty and staff to share their thoughts through photo portraits. “The Faces of WID” demonstrates the diverse perspectives—about design, identity, and being a woman—expressed that afternoon.

International Women’s Day may come once a year, but for WID co-chair Caroline James (MArch ’14), the conversation has only just begun: “Women in Design and the GSD are committed to the values of International Women’s Day and will continue to collaborate on efforts to build a culture of support, excellence, and recognition for the women of the GSD and the design profession.”

Learn more about Women in Design and the Design for Equality Campaign at
Find out more about International Women’s Day at