As I am travelling around different eco-build sites I continue to ask about the importance of gender in eco-building.. Unfortunately, examples of women being leaders and full participants in build projects are rare – though I am aware of some great examples such as the Mud Girls in Canada and Amazonnails in Britain. In some places, like La ecoaldea del Minchal in Spain, heterosexual couples work as a team on a build, but in others building appears as a male domain.
When I asked the men whether gender is an issue the common response has been that gender determines physical strength and that as strength is an important attribute in building, then gender becomes important. Notably this is not seen as an unaviodable obstacle to women, and several of the men (and women) I recently interviewed in Thailand argued that some forms of building – like adobe – could be adapted for women by making smaller bricks, hence requiring less strength to lift.
At the same time some men also supported that age-old assumption that men are best at science (another apparent requisite for building) while women are more naturally attuned to the artistic elements of life. Following this logic, it was argued, men should do the practical design and building, and women could contribute to the aesthetics. This is so deterministic that I am unsure where to start in critiquing it, but lets just be clear that women can be, and are, just as brilliant at science as men, and men can be, and are, just as good at art and aesthetics as women. These are not attributes determined by gender, and neither weight is strength – as sportswomen have long been arguing. Rather they are assumptions that we are taught to accept as we grow up – they are socially constructed by society.
So why does gender remain such an important marker of difference in ec-building? An Australian women in Thailand noted that if it has little, in reality, to do with strength or science or art ability, then actually it was about communication, and the power implicated in that communication. This is expressed in two ways. The first is that intentionally or unintentionally women’s ideas about eco-building are often ignored, not acknowledged and not listened to. Their ideas are perceived as lacking authority on the subject and brushed aside without due consideration. The second is that women and men have been culturally trained to communicate in subtly different ways, which creates a disjuncture when trying to discuss a build project. I saw an example of this onsite where a woman wanted to talk over an issue and the man simply got impatient about ‘wasting time talking’. There is a need for far more conscious communication where all parties are aware of how their power might subordinate the other (often women) and exclude their contribution. This can be in how we listen or ignore others, but also in the language we use.
If women are not contributing to a build I would ask that the men in that project reflect carefully upon their actions and the way their simple acts of communication might be excluding a wealth of knowledge and labour. You do not know what skills women might have to contribute to a project until you start listening to them. As for the women, we need to learn to be bolder and louder if we are to get our ideas heard, but not feel that we have to change what it is about us that makes us women.
[Chiang Mai, Thailand, 4th July 2010]