A significant percentage of women with architecture degrees never reach licensure or positions of leadership in the profession. What can be done about it?

By Renée Cheng, AIA

The value of gender equity in the workplace is well known; multiple economic and labor studies by management consulting firm McKinsey & Company, Harvard Business School, and nonprofit Catalyst have shown that companies that achieve gender equity and diversity benefit from higher levels of innovation, reduced cost of staff turnover, and greater alignment with societal needs and expectations. In the field of architecture, women are underrepresented at every professional stage, with the gap increasing at each higher level of achievement and recognition. There is clear consensus that the profession would be stronger if the ratio of women with architecture degrees—close to half—matched the ratio in the profession.

Instead, there is “the missing 32 percent”—a phrase that has galvanized an AIA San  Francisco group focused on the issue (themissing32percent.com). Nearly one-third of women with professional degrees in architecture do not become licensed architects, AIA members, or senior leaders in the profession. We know that greater numbers of women than men leave the profession. We see evidence of a leaking pipeline as women become increasingly scarce at the points of licensure, partnership, and high honors. That these women do not advance may not be a negative thing for them—just because they are not architects does not necessarily mean they are not contributing to the building industry or finding other means by which to leverage their education. But their absence makes the profession less gender-balanced, which means it is less relevant, creative, and innovative.

What can be done to close these gaps, and what scale of action would be most effective? Changes to national policies? Changes in the building industry? At AIA? In architecture firms? In architecture schools?

Recent studies cited in Claire Cain Miller’s May 26 New York Times column (“When Family-Friendly Policies Backfire”) looked at countries with generous national policies in place for working parents. In several notable cases, the policies had unintended consequences for women—lower pay, for instance, or diminished opportunities for professional advancement. The first-cost economics are clear: When businesses have a choice between hiring a man with fairly inexpensive benefits and hiring a woman with mandated and expensive leaves, they tend to choose the man. Promoting a better understanding of the value women bring to their work may change this equation, but only if that value is clearly tracked and demonstrated over time.

National policies demonstrate good will, but they do not always achieve the desired results—and can even be counterproductive. Fortunately, other scales of action can be controlled more directly and adjusted to meet their intent. Architecture firms, for example, can look for potential inconsistencies between their stated goals and their actual practices. If flexible time is a goal but critical meetings are held at 8 a.m. and 5 p.m., does that set an expectation that decision-makers are present at the beginning and end of each workday? If strong internal communication is a core objective, are there mechanisms for candid or anonymous feedback on issues related to gender equity?

Firm leaders and senior staff can prepare themselves for a richer discussion of these issues by taking a test designed to measure unconscious associations between gender, family, and career. (One such test is available from the highly regarded nonprofit research organization Project Implicit.) If, as many researchers believe, intuitive decisions are mostly based on unconscious biases and assumptions, then firm leaders becoming more aware of their own ingrained gender associations—and of how these associations can influence decisions that impact employees—holds great potential for meaningful dialogue and change.

In schools of architecture, the challenges are different; I know this from my own past experience as head of the University of Minnesota School of Architecture. I can recall numerous occasions in which, to our great chagrin, jury panels for student reviews were predominantly male. Sometimes this had to do with schedule conflicts, but more often it was a simple math problem: Women in senior levels of the profession were scarce, yet we wanted 50 percent of our teachers and invited critics to be women. One way to work toward gender-balanced juries is to extend a greater percentage of invitations to women. This approach requires women in the profession to pull more weight than their male counterparts—teaching more, spending more time on juries. It also requires architecture firms to provide women architects with the flextime or other kinds of support they need to fulfill these academic commitments.

A potential new tool in the effort to increase gender equity in the profession is the University of Minnesota’s Master of Science in Research Practice (MSRP) degree. The program offers a streamlined path to architecture licensure, which is really a streamlined path to leadership—it makes it easier for graduates to showcase their strengths, bridge their academic passions and professional aspirations, become licensed, and rise to leadership. Today, representation in the program is roughly split between men and women. But if this degree track and others like it were intentionally skewed toward women and other underrepresented groups, the time frame to significant demographic change in the profession could be shortened.

The challenges ahead are formidable because the factors in play are deeply complex and interconnected, and not all of them lie within the profession’s influence. The good news is that architecture firms and schools can address gender equity with tools and resources within reach. The work may not be easy, but it can—and should—be done.