The disembodied male voice on our very pleasant cruise down the river Avon sounded slightly amused. “The new theatre, to replace the original burned down in 1926, was the first major commission for a woman architect in Britain. Her name was Elisabeth Scott.
“Elgar described her building as a ‘jam factory’,” he added cheerfully. What he didn’t tell us was the composer had agreed to be the Royal Shakespeare’s Company’s new musical director when Scott’s building was complete, but he refused even to go inside after his first – and last – visit.
It is “unspeakably ugly and wrong”, he flounced furiously, blaming that “awful woman” for what he saw as an architectural monstrosity.
Whether Elgar’s pompous anger at Scott’s red-brick homage to Shakespeare had an adverse effect on her career is impossible to tell, but the RSC was her first, and last, major public commission.
She continued to practice as an architect, latterly for Bournemouth Borough Council, but did not appear to live up to her early promise.
Renowned women architects are rare creatures, even today. The late Zaha Hadid, whose many ground-breaking projects included the majestic Riverside Museum in Glasgow, is probably the most famous of recent years, but it is not a large field.
A quick Google search suggests that architecture is still very male dominated, despite almost half of architecture students being female.
Professor Alan Dunlop, a visiting professor at Robert Gordon University’s Scott Sutherland School of Architecture and Built Environment, told the Architects Journal in 2017 that women were the top students in 65-70 per cent of the 12 years he had been teaching.
“But” – and there is usually a ‘but’ when it comes to gender balance – “it has always been a puzzle to me why these talented young women never make it as head of practice,” he added.
Not surprisingly, it has always been a puzzle to talented young women why they don’t make it as the head of their chosen profession. Take medicine for example.
Despite medical courses being the most popular choice for female students in Scotland, figures from last year show that just 15 out of 100 of the highest-paid consultants across Scotland’s health boards were women.
And in Scotland’s legal profession, where just over half (51 per cent) of solicitors are female, the gender pay gap is still statistically significant at 23 per cent.
The data can be depressing but, as architect Elisabeth Scott would have asserted, numbers do matter, which is why a new book out this week, ‘Invisible Women’, by women’s campaigner Caroline Criado Perez, is arguably one of most important publications of the year.
Criado Perez has gathered together a startling set of statistics that show the world as we know it is designed by men, for men.
I now understand that the reason I prefer my old-school iPhone SE to any of the newer models is quite simple. At an average 5.5 inches long, they are all too big for my female hands.
And most offices are too cold for women, with heating systems designed for male metabolisms rather than for women’s, which are considerably slower. We really do feel the cold more.
Joking aside, this in-built bias against women can have serious, even deadly consequences. The book shows that women are 50 per cent more likely to be misdiagnosed following a heart attack, because despite the fact that 77 women a day in Britain die from heart attacks, they are still seen as largely affecting men only.
And the typical crash-test dummy used to inform the design of cars is based on a male model, which is likely to be a reason why women are nearly 50 per cent more likely to be seriously hurt in a real-life collision.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about Criado Perez’s book is not that the data shows society is sexist by design, but that the evidence of this well-crafted misogyny is hiding in plain sight, just waiting to be Googled.
What do policymakers do with studies that show women suffering a heart attack are often, almost wilfully, misdiagnosed? Add them to their ‘holiday reading’ list?
And how can any car manufacturer justify using a safety test that puts the lives of half the adult population at risk? How much does a5ft 4in, 70kg crash-test dummy cost? Less than a prime-time TV ad, I would suggest.
But just because the data is being ignored is not a valid reason to stop gathering it. On Thursday, the Scottish Parliament debated the design of the 2021 Census.
The National Records of Scotland, which is in charge of the survey, has suggested that instead of asking the mandatory male or female question, it should include a third choice of “other”.
This idea was warmly welcomed by trans activists who insist that their gender is theirs to define, and that adding an ‘other’ box to the compulsory sex question is rightful recognition that a person’s lived identity is more important than their sex.
Except that all the evidence suggests otherwise. A trans man will still struggle to fit an iPhone X in his hand and be at far more risk of dying from an undiagnosed heart attack than his male colleague, regardless of his personal choice of gender.
It is this biological sex divide that matters to policymakers. They need to know how many men and women there are in the general population so that they can properly allocate resources in key areas such as health and social care.
It also helps track how sex and employment has changed – or not – over time. How many female architects or lawyers have lost out on promotion because they took time out to have a child, I wonder?
Whether policymakers always act on the evidence before them is a matter for political debate, as ‘Invisible Women’ has exposed. But without reliable data, we would all live in ignorance of the discrimination that still blights our society.
And as MSPs are largely agreed that the 2021 census should ask voluntary questions about sexual orientation and transgender identity, there could be, for the first time, useful national data that will help design appropriate public services for all Scots, whatever their lived identity.
Assuming, of course, that politicians take heed of the numbers.