Women in Architecture: An Individual Perspective

September 13, 2014

I have a bad habit of reading up on a topic, getting excited about it, starting a blog post, and then dropping it. Time passes, the issue may start to feel resolved, and then my post begins to sound passé or irrelevant. What can I possibly add to the conversation that hasn’t already been said? I’ll delete my draft, or just let it sit there. But sometimes, the issue hasn’t really gone away, and I see it pop up over and over. This is one of those times, and here is one of those posts.

If you’re not familiar with the “issue” of women in architecture, here’s the general gist: 50% of architecture students are women, and have been for some time, but only 18% of licensed architects are women. That leaves a “gap” of 32% (see: http://themissing32percent.com/), who are women who leave the profession or otherwise fail to get licensed. In case you prefer your content in infographic form, I’ve got you covered. This topic is now all the rage, and has continued to attract attention because of a few well-timed (or poorly-timed?) architecture news items:

  1. The Pritzker Prize committee refused to award the Pritzker retroactively to Denise Scott Brown (of Venturi, Scott Brown & Associates, now VSBA). (More details from the Times.) While Scott Brown’s partner and husband Robert Venturi won the prize solo in 1991, their work, according to the pair, has always been a partnership, and recently there were calls to grant her the award as well. The Pritzker, the architecture award considered equivalent to the Nobel, has only been awarded to partnerships since 2001 (and has only been so awarded twice, once in 2001, when they changed the rules, and again in 2010). The campaign for Scott Brown was carried out by some architecture students at the GSD after she spoke there and said she wished she had been jointly awarded with Venturi back in ‘91. The Pritzker committee refused, and I can’t much blame them, since retroactive awards could set a dangerous precedent of re-writing history. So while Scott Brown hasn’t gotten her Pritzker (yet), the discussion of women’s inclusion in the profession’s highest honors has been thrown wide open.

  2. Hence (one might say cynically), the posthumous AIA Gold Medal that was awarded this year to early 20th-century architect Julia Morgan, more than 50 years after her death. It’s not that she wasn’t worthy, and it’s about time we honored a woman in general and her in particular, but couldn’t we find any good living women architects to honor with our first award to a woman? The answer might be that it was safest to award someone who’s long gone and generally agreed to have been an outstanding architect in her day.

I’m as annoyed as the next female architectural professional at past discrimination and present lip service to equality that results in no better pay or opportunities. But let’s look a little closer. Yes, something like 18% to 21% of licensed architects today are women. But in 1994, 20 years ago, only 11% of licensed architects were women - so the ratio is definitely improving, albeit slowly. And to provide some additional context, in law and medicine, the gender balance is also skewed: although 50% of medical students and law students are women, roughly 33% of doctors and lawyers are women. Compared to 33% in other professions, 20% doesn’t look so bad anymore. This makes architecture’s gender gap look more like the gender gap in the professional world as a whole. Maybe the real issue is “the missing 10%” rather than 32%. But maybe that’s a defeatist attitude, to think that we won’t reach gender parity among licensed architects. There are so many cultural, economic, and even personal factors at play that it’s hard to know what to count as success.

I’m not going to solve this problem, or even provide a tentative solution, in this blog post. Lots of very smart and talented folks are working on it already; these people are advocating for more flexible work hours, fighting to return to the profession after leaving for personal or family reasons, and working to institute a revised licensure process that might make it easier for women (and everyone else) to get licensed. What I can do, is tell my own stories of what it’s like to be a woman in a male-dominated profession, and maybe provide some hope and encouragement to anyone else out there who’s walking the same road with me.

So here are some stories.

At a friend’s wedding, my husband and I were seated near the bride’s grandmother during the reception. We spoke of how I was working on my architecture license, and how she had raised a dozen children. She shared another story with us: she had always wanted to be an architect. Once, she entered an architectural drawing contest as a student and won. When she received her award, she was told that it was too bad she couldn’t actually be an architect, since she was a girl. She said she never stopped wishing she could have been architect. It’s hard to believe that even our grandparents’ generation was denied the kind of freedoms we now take for granted - but I will always remember this story, and it’s part of why I will continue to seek my license.

My parents are both lawyers - yes, both of them (this probably explains a lot about me). My mother was one of the first women admitted to her undergraduate college, and has plenty of stories about being the only woman in some of her classes; about suffering discrimination from professors; and even about converting men’s restrooms into women’s restrooms in her dormitory since there weren’t any women’s restrooms. She went on to graduate school, passed the bar, and has been an attorney ever since. I grew up never thinking twice about whether it was possible to raise a family and also be a professional, whether women were capable of being managers and leaders, or whether it was right or reasonable for women to be anything that men could be. Of course it was, and is - my mother did it! She was a woman attorney at a time when there were next to none, and perhaps none she knew or worked with. Now my parents' law practice has other women attorneys besides my mom, but for all my childhood years she was the only one. This never seemed strange to me as a kid (although I admit I always enjoyed the question of “what do your parents do,” since I could get a reaction from people by telling them that my parents were lawyers, BOTH of them) but perhaps it was significant: she was doing something incredibly difficult. Her story of breaking the glass ceiling so that her daughters could follow through is another I will always have close to my heart.

My own experience has been far different. As a student, I was welcomed wherever I went, and sometimes even excelled beyond my male peers (if I had any - male students in art history were a scarce commodity at my university). In graduate school, both men and women were my studio professors, and I had a gender-balanced peer group. I have worked for women-owned firms and men-owned firms, had male and female managers, and now work in an office that’s slightly skewed towards women, although owned by two male firm principals. We have a strong firm culture of work-life balance, encourage people to be rested and healthy, support sustainable projects and pro-bono work, and have a grassroots leadership culture that balances the leadership from the principals. This must be a vast improvement over what my parents and grandparents would have experienced as young professionals, but I’m sure that not all firms are like this. When I attend construction meetings, however, I’m often the only woman present, among the team of architects, engineers, owners, construction managers, and contractors. The old boys' club still rules in many projects, although sometimes the person sending me the final drawing set from the engineer is a woman, and the person doing the hard management work on the contractor’s side is a woman. The head engineer or contractor usually seems proud to have these women on their teams, and not just because they can say they’ve achieved some gender diversity (although surely that’s a contributing factor). We even have a woman engineer from the California DSA overseeing our school projects. So I guess what I’m saying is this: If you aren’t happy with your firm, look around, because there are good places to work, places that will value your contribution and help you advance. If where you are isn’t one of those places, then it’s their loss when you leave and take your talents elsewhere. Especially now, when the economy is returning/has returned somewhat, is the time to seek out the places where you can be heard and find the kind of position you want. Our mothers and grandmothers have laid the groundwork - we can continue building the future that we want.

Architects Rock!

Architects Rock!

I don’t want to go as far as this doctor in saying that my work is a lifetime vocation that should take precedence over most other considerations. While we architecture folks like to compare ourselves to doctors (7 years of school + three years of internship versus 8 years of school + four years of residency, but with a tiny fraction of the final salary!), architecture isn’t actually a life-saving profession. Life-altering, we hope, not life-and-death. Picking up those redlines isn’t going to prevent the next epidemic. But I do want to agree with this author that women can bring a unique perspective to the work, and that we should all be cognizant of being inclusive and of continuing to advocate for equality and fairness. This activism should extend to welcoming all minority groups and not just women. I am someone who is in a privileged group in basically all ways except gender, but I will try to own this identity and use it for the good - to use my privilege in all the ways I can to bring equality to those who do not share my privilege, and to be mindful of how I am (rarely) singled out as less-privileged. I invite, and challenge, the rest of the architectural profession to do the same. Share your stories of what motivates you, what frustrates you, and what you think we can do differently, and share it with your co-workers, bosses, and friends. We’ll make the change, eventually, as we always do. Even GSAPP’s new dean is a woman! Much of the hard work has been done already, although as we say in architecture, the last 10% of the work often takes 90% of the time. We can still do this, together.