woman walking on a railway track away from camera

Reclaiming the Passive Voice: Stories of Women Who Leave Landscape Architecture

Call for Participants!

Do you have a landscape architecture background but work in an alternative career? Are you a landscape architect considering a career change? Or have you considered leaving the profession of landscape architecture in the past? If you self-identify as a woman and one of these scenarios are true for you, I’d like to invite you to participate in this research study.

Your story of a lost, unfulfilled, or redirected landscape architecture path is valuable, even in landscape architecture—and especially important in the broader context of place making! Your participation is voluntary and will involve a video call interview, which will take about one hour of your time. Excerpts of the interview may be used in research outcomes but your identity will remain confidential (i.e., your name will not appear in any publications, presentations, etc.). See below for more project details.

If you are interested in participating, please send me a note through my contact form or to: reclaimpassivevoice@gmail.com

Project Theory

As the common saying goes, “history is written by the victors.” In every profession are biographies of those who flourished. Landscape architecture is no different: Frederick Law Olmsted, Dan Kiley, Lawrence Halprin, Cornelia Oberlander, etc. Yet in the age of equity conscientiousness, what does it still mean to succeed? If success means to have your voice heard within a system, then is there still value to the stories of those who don’t succeed? Can we still hear their voices—the ones who believe that they have been abandoned, the ones who accept a different definition of success, the ones who leave in disillusionment, or the ones who leave for greener pastures?

In her renowned essay “Can the Subaltern Speak?” feminist scholar Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak argues that under our world’s (post-)colonial structure, specifically, in the industry of knowledge production, the subaltern cannot speak.1 The one who speaks, as a representative of the subaltern, either already possesses authoritative powers or must operate within the constraints of the hegemonic narrative. Therefore, the subaltern is not just anyone labelled as “marginalized” in a social system but anyone who does not meet the requirements of the dominant culture.

To account for the constraints of our social structure, this project recognizes that gender inequality is a two-fold phenomenon: 1) a tension that can be documented in the lived experiences of women, and 2) a conflict within the deeper psychological patterns of our social consciousness that enable this inequality to manifest into our reality.

A look into gender archetypes

To address the deeper psychological patterns, we must look at archetypes. The concept of archetypes may seem esoteric for many people, but from a pragmatic perspective, archetypes are simply the basic building blocks of human relationality. Patriarchy and colonialism can be described as manifestations of the universal wounded father archetype who sees vulnerability as weakness. To cope with the perceived threat of disempowerment, the wounded father finds justification to deny the value of a person, group, or idea. Like a self-fulfilling prophecy, the subject of his marginalization is his needed counterpart: the archetypal mother (i.e., Mother Earth and the Nature of one’s own self). Therefore, the underlying gender imbalance of our society is not about gender per se, but rather about our collective psychological dismissal of the “feminine” archetype, also referred to as yin in Daoism or the anima in Jungian psychology. While the masculine archetype acts and creates structure, the feminine archetype participates in the world by feeling, flowing, and intuiting.

The gender gap in the design professions

Landscape architecture, a career that combines structure-building, creativity, empathy for others, and relating to the land, ideally, would be one of the most archetypally balanced vocations that exist. But as a profession, it also has not escaped the gender inequality of mainstream society. Here are some statistics recorded within the last decade or so:

  • According to the CSLA 2015 survey, female representation was below average compared to other occupations in Canada (38% vs 48%)
  • According to the CSLA 2019 compensation study, the percentage of female respondents decreases as the position increases in status (from 65% of interns to 57% of landscape architects, to 45% of business associates and 41% of senior landscape architects, to 31% of business partners and 29% of business principals).
  • According to the VELA project, the representation of women in the US landscape architecture career ladder drops by 40%, starting at 55% of landscape architecture graduates, to 47% of LARE candidates, to eventually, 27% of licensed landscape architects.
  • This gender imbalance is also found in the profession of architecture, with close to 50% of American graduates being female, but only 15-18% end up licensed. This discrepancy in architecture spurred a gender equity initiative called Equity by Design, which held The Missing 32% Symposium in 2012.

To heal the dysfunction of our patriarchy, this project seeks out the most unvaluable stories in the eyes of the system and makes them invaluable. This act disturbs a wounded paradigm of limitation and competition and shifts the social narrative to a new paradigm that honours unconditional worthiness. Instead of seeking the “active” voice of the victor, this project seeks value in the metaphorical “passive” voice of women who have left, have considered leaving, or are in the process of leaving landscape architecture (in its traditional sense).

A play on language: Why the passive voice?

In mainstream society, action is considered the most appropriate way to live life—to the extent that many people feel pride in being busy and feel guilty for doing nothing. From this perspective, the Daoist principle of wu-wei (non-action) would be considered negatively passive. However, the passivity of wu-wei is the embodiment of the feminine archetype—to allow for and receive inner guidance as a prerequisite to action. Similarly, in English grammar, the passive voice is less preferred than the active voice, and yet, through the passive voice, the subject receives. Therefore, in reclaiming the allegorical passive voice of a woman’s career trajectory in a profession about place-making, this project diffuses the polarities of subject and object, high and low, men and women, to bring out the feminine aspect of what it means to embody one’s own authoritative voice in what has historically been an inequitable and oppressive world.

  1. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” In Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, ed. C. Nelson and L. Grossberg, (Basingstoke, UK: Macmillan Education, 1988), 271–313. ↩︎

The main methodology for this project is hermeneutic phenomenology. In laymen terms, that means the study of how we interpret our experiences. Between 10-20 interviews will be conducted with women who may be at various phases or interpretations of leaving the profession of landscape architecture. Research questions include: What kind of circumstances lead women to consider leaving the profession of landscape architecture? If they have left, where did they go? If they have considered leaving in the past or is considering a change currently, what are the factors behind the dilemma? What does landscape architecture mean to them in the past, present, and future?

The main purpose of this research is not about finding ways to improve the profession (i.e., the “system”) or to make it more equitable because that approach prioritizes an existing patriarchal paradigm. The main purpose of this research is to give value to the voices of these women in and of themselves. Therefore, the maximum number of interviews is set to ensure that the project can hold space for the depth of the participants’ stories.

Research findings will be shared in a webinar presentation and a summary document made available to the landscape architecture community by the end of 2024. The purpose of the webinar is to make time and space for the community to explore and discuss the topic. The summary will include interview excerpts and an introductory reflection by the researcher. The document and other research findings will be expanded for use in a future book publication.

Van Thi Diep, PhD, OALA-Retired

I am an environmental philosopher, independent scholar, and creative designer, with a PhD in Environmental Studies. As an avid landscape lover, I first felt called to pursue a career in landscape architecture as a teenager. Despite the obvious gender discrepancies in my experience as a student and young landscape architect, I was not consciously aware of how they affected me. As I grew older, I realized that the success I attained in my teenage and young adult life came from how my intelligence and obedience (often translated as work ethics) were favoured qualities in our world’s patriarchal system.

If it were not for my need to find myself in the years I spent on “leave of absence” to complete my PhD and discover what landscapes and place making meant for me, I would have simply joined the ranks of the missing women in the design professions. In the process of learning how to retrieve my “passive” voice is the realization that I have been given a mission to make space for other missing voices (i.e., the suppressed authentic voices within our collective consiousness) by navigating our systems without being controlled by them.

Reclaiming the Passive Voice: Stories of Women Who Leave Landscape Architecture is generously funded by an Annual Grant and the Gunter Schoch Bursary from the Landscape Architecture Canada Foundation (LACF). I am grateful to LACF for supporting this project.

The remainder of the research budget and any future publications is self-funded. If you’d like to help fund the research, support me with future expenses related to book publishing, or buy me a tea, donations can be made via PayPal with the link below. Thanks!

Get Notified

If you’d like to get notifications for when the webinar will happen or news of any publications that arise from this project, please subscribe to the mailing list below. Only news about this project will be sent (and I promise, it will be very infrequent).

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