In the 45 years since Denise Scott Brown came on the scene, female architects have come a long way. Or have they? An essay by Sarah Williams Goldhagen investigates the serious obstacles that remain.
Think back to the late 1960s, when 94 percent of the students enrolled in American architecture programs were men. Or to the early 1990s— decades after the Civil Rights Act’s Title VII outlawed discrimination by gender—when more than 80 percent of architects were still men.
Times have changed: more than 40 percent of graduates from architecture school are women. Attitudes about working women have also changed; nobody questions their presence in design charrettes or client meetings, and of the few architects to win a MacArthur “genius” grant, two, Elizabeth Diller and Jeanne Gang, are women; since 2004, two women, Zaha Hadid and Kazuyo Sejima (the latter with her design partner, Ryue Nishizawa), have won the Pritzker Prize. Thanks to the Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation and the International Archive of Women in Architecture, women’s historical contributions to the field are better known. Women-owned practices are common, as are female-male— often wife-husband—partnerships. And today, architecture’s future rests largely in the hands of men and women nurtured on the precepts of gender equality.
Given all this, one might anticipate that soon, most of what still hinders women architects on their climb up the professional ladder will disappear. But statistics—the lamentably few that are available—suggest a less heartening outcome. Consider this: despite near parity in architecture schools, men outnumber women in the profession four to one, according to the U.S. Labor Department. Salary inequities in the U.S. remain the norm: the median salary for women working full time is roughly 28 percent lower than for men working full time. Women remain grossly underrepresented in the uppermost echelons of American practice: take just five prominent firms—Ennead; HOK; Kohn Pedersen Fox; Skidmore, Owings & Merrill; and Pei Cobb Freed—and note that their leadership teams are nearly entirely male. In general, 17 percent of principals and partners are women.
These figures paint a far bleaker portrait of women’s status in architecture today, one that is comparable to other laggard professions, such as communications (15 percent of executive leaders), business (4.2 percent of CEOs in the Fortune 1000), and law (15 percent of equity partners in law firms).
Attitudes, anecdotal evidence, and numbers conflict. What do they mean? Are these numbers merely an artifact of past discriminatory practices? Does the success of many women practitioners today represent ongoing improvement? Will this social injustice slowly disappear?
As much as all of us would like to answer yes, statistics suggest that the answer to these questions is no. Abundant research on law, medicine, and business reveals that women’s progress in those professions has plateaued. Why should we think architecture is any different? For at least a decade, the number of female architects has hovered around 20 percent. And by any standard, women’s attrition from the profession is shockingly high, but especially so compared to men. Statistics from the U.S. Department of Labor show that last year, 27,000 male architects were beginning their careers (ages 25 to 34) and 36,000 were early mid-career (ages 35-44). And women architects? 16,000 of them were beginning their careers, and only 6,000 were in early-mid-career. Where did the rest go? Especially telling is data from U.S. Census Bureau report, which indicate that in the critical, career-building years between the ages of 35 and 44, four times more mothers than childless women drop out of the field.
Going forward, absent a sea change, the highest-profile, most highly profitable commissions will continue to go to larger, male-dominated practices. The field’s less profitable sectors—public projects; academic and other nonprofit work—will continue to be where women-owned and wife-husband-partnership practices see the greatest success. Many talented women will stagnate, underchallenged and inequitably compensated for their labors. Or they’ll bail.
Architecture remains rife with discriminatory practices. Why?
First, the workplace continues to be biased against women, despite an abundance of good intentions. In a New York Times article about Denise Scott Brown’s exclusion from the 1991 Pritzker Prize awarded to her partner, Robert Venturi, curator Barry Bergdoll of New York’s MoMA said architecture is “thought to be boy’s stuff.” Men are assumed to command more authority with clients and contractors, to be more confident making large-scale interventions in the environment, to have superior abilities in engineering and technology. This is nonsense, but the assumptions are likely to subtly guide hiring and promotion.
Second are the intertwined issues of mentorship (career advice from an experienced elder) and sponsorship (concrete professional opportunities from the same). Mentors and sponsors are critical to a young professional’s success. As Facebook’s COO, Sheryl Sandberg, reports in her bestselling book Lean In, studies show that mentors (and presumably sponsors) overwhelmingly choose protégés who remind them of themselves—whose gender they likely share. Men still largely control architecture’s higher reaches. And they’re more likely to lavish attention on younger men.
Third, the structure of the architectural workplace is rigged against mothers, which 82 percent of American women eventually are. Think about it. What makes a successful career in architecture? Aptitude, talent, and training, yes. But that’s not enough. You must be able to clock the 50- to 60-hour (or more) workweeks common in this 24/7 profession. Because intensive collaboration is intrinsic to making architecture, those hours must be mostly clocked at the office. You must travel, sometimes on short notice. And in off-work hours, you must network, establishing your ability to attract new clients and promote the firm. All this for pay at the lower end of the white-collar scale, in a profession highly vulnerable to the economy’s ebbs and flows.
Which demographic group is most likely to be derailed by such workplace conditions? Women with young children, as the Labor Department statistics indicate. Most professional women have children in their 30s, a few years out of school—years that UC Berkeley law professor Mary Ann Mason calls the “make-or-break” period in a career. These are years when an architect must establish not only her competence but her commitment and profitability to a firm.
This may explain why many of architecture’s most successful women are childless and/or run their own offices. Of the architects I spoke with for this article, every top professional who is also a mother volunteered that during her own “make-or-break” years, she took home less income than she spent on child care, and worried that she saw less of her children than they needed. Every one considered dropping out.
Children have fathers, too. But the structure of today’s professional workplace is such that men are not penalized for procreation. According to Joan C. Williams, director of the Center for WorkLife Law at UC San Francisco (who happens to be my sister), nearly 40 percent of male professionals work more than 50 hours a week, while fewer than 14 percent of college-educated mothers work that much.
Such workplace conditions could foster bias against not only mothers but all women in their “make-or-break” years. Given the number of young women who opt out, who would be surprised if some employers weren’t concluding that it’s cheaper and easier to invest in men?
Discrimination is discrimination, whether it’s because women become mothers (or could become mothers) or because an employer presumes that customers don’t want to be served by minorities. It’s unethical, and it’s illegal.
Who loses out? Men, women, and children do. Men who want to participate more in the raising of their children, but can’t. Women who, having invested substantial money, time, and hope preparing to become architects, discover a culture that often forces them to “choose” between their career and opting out.
Architecture also suffers. Most studio professors will tell you that they teach as many gifted women as men. Since the reasons women leave architecture have little to do with talent, discrimination diminishes the overall quality of the profession.
Is architecture diminished in other ways? Whether a woman qua woman brings anything special to architecture is a tricky, uncomfortable question. So let’s leave it aside and consider this instead. Might women, owing to the roles they typically play in the workplace, the family, the community, and the public realm, experience physical environments differently than men? Probably yes. If so, crowding women out of design creates a built environment in which men’s experiences are disproportionately concretized in built form. That’s not good for anybody.
How can architecture’s pervasive patterns of gender discrimination be redressed? By starting a substantive conversation about the structure of the workplace and the inequities it systematically and predictably produces—and then refusing to let the subject drop until changes are made. By demanding that the American Institute of Architects better track and publicize data on women’s status in the profession. By celebrating firms that promote women and establish measurably effective family-friendly policies, and by shaming firms that don’t. By warning young women that success in school is no guarantee of a successful career. And most of all, by admitting there’s a problem, and demanding that equality become a reality, not just a good idea.
Sarah Williams Goldhagen, the architecture critic for the New Republic, is writing a book on the experience of the contemporary built environment. RECORD assistant editor Laura Mirviss contributed research.