In recent visits to a variety of eco-communities across Britain and to eco-build sites I have realised quite how gendered everything still is, even in places where you might expect a more ‘progressive’ view. There exists a presumption that men like to build and that women like to garden and cook. When I ask people on site whether this is deliberate, conscious, or a problem, the majority have said ‘it is simply the way things are, men are stronger and can do different jobs to women’. But is determining what we are able to do simply a matter of physical prowess, or are other assumptions made in such statements which we need to disentangle a little?
The assumption that building is a ‘man’s job’ has all sorts of implications for what a woman’ s role in these communities or in building is. In the places I have recently visited it was assumed that childcare is a woman’s job (which remains highly undervalued), and that the support work such as cooking, collecting build materials, multi-tasking all the other things that need doing, just sort of happens. It is rarely acknowledged how much work women are doing on site generally, and particularly to support the build process. The result is that finished buildings which draw attention for their innovation and design are often implicitly attributed to the male who spent most time on it. It becomes ‘Jim’s house’ for example, excluding all the work that others, especially women, have put into it.
It also creates an environment where women’s ideas about building can more easily be perceived as ‘impractical’ or ‘costly’ (both terms heard used to dismiss a woman’s build ideas). So is there a need for a more assertive creation of women’s experimental eco-build spaces? How might houses be different if designed and built by women? Do women approach building differently? That building is still considered a male domain means gender is an important marker of difference when it need not necessarily be so. There are plenty of female architects and some notable eco-builders – Barbara Jones (amazonnails), Brenda Vale (The Autonomous House), Cindy Harris (Centre for Alternative Technology), Paulina Wojciechowska (Earth Hands and Houses), and Rachel Shiamh (Quiet Earth) to name just a few.
Do these gender assumptions matter? Yes, they matter because they perpetuate the assumptions about male skills and strengths which might not necessarily be true (there are men who might struggle to lift a tree trunk and there are women who are strong and manually very competent), excludes female voices from design discussions, and also limits the possibility of women actually building their own homes. It also prevents some men from understanding what they actually enjoy doing. For example, in one community the men had to take over the gardening business for a while as the women were heavily pregnant. One of the men realised that actually he loved gardening, more than building, and has ever since been far more hands-on in the gardening.
Moreover, if women are told ‘you are not strong enough to do this’ it creates an atmosphere which is hard to challenge. While learning how to ram earth into tyres on an Earthship course, I asked about gender and was told that it ‘was a better use of resources if a bloke did the manual work, and the women do something easier. It makes more sense to use resources where they are best placed’. I had been struggling to learn ramming and felt intimidated by others’ strength and agility. But I tend to take a while to work out my rhythm for a new skill, I need practice and patience at the beginning. But who is to say that in time I would not become good at it, or even adjust the taught method to something more superior? In other words, while I was clearly not as strong or quick as the men on the course, there is no reason why I could not have become just as proficient or found a different way of doing it that suited me better. In reality I felt I was not learning quickly enough and my decidedly unassertive response was to take myself off and fold cardboard into the bottom of tyres instead. I found I conformed to the gender stereotype because it was easier.
Building has a lot to do with confidence and skill, not just brute strength, and the lack of women eco-builders is surely a bigger waste of ‘resources’ than determining roles based on physical ability alone. I wonder if women being ‘out of place’ in the nitty-gritty of pounding tyres affects their broader role in decision-making about eco-building? If we are made to feel out of sync in the build process then we lose the confidence and knowledge to be part of other aspects of the build. There is much work yet to be done on gender and eco-building, and perhaps the easiest way to start is by celebrating the work of some women eco-builders. One of the best houses at Tinkers Bubble (Somerset) was built by a woman – her first house that she built, with no money, and just some advice from others. She has built a beautiful, robust, cosy, building out of natural materials; it is an inspiration for all.