BY TAZ LOOMANS
Architecture must evolve or die. Historically, it's been an old man's profession and slow to change, resulting in what's known as the missing 32 percent, representing the number of women that are missing from the ranks of leadership in the profession. The number of women who are AIA members, licensed architects and senior leadership varies between 15 and 18 percent of the total.
A historic conference was held here in Portland last Saturday to address this persistent disparity: The Forum for Women in Architecture and Related Design (ForWARD) hosted the one-day Equity by Design event featuring co-founder Saskia Dennis van Dijl and a number of local architects and academicians to address the question of why women are leaving the profession at such alarming rates and what we can do about it.
Equity by Design, a subcommittee of the American Institute of Architects, recently commissioned an important survey exploring the reason why there are so few women leaders in the profession. Some key findings of this survey are:
- Only 28 percent of women are satisfied with their jobs, as opposed to 41 percent of men.
- Women made an average of $15,000 less than men with the same level of experience.
- Fewer women than men even aspire to be principals or owners of their own firms.
- There are as many women as men up to the 10-15 year mark, but after that point, there are significantly fewer women left in the profession. The gap is the starkest at the principal level.
- Fewer women get licensed than men, but of the women who make it past the 15-year mark, more of them are licensed than men. This means that the women who are left tend to be licensed.
- Women tend to start their own firms to get more flexibility whereas men tend to start their own firms to get design autonomy.
It's one thing to look at an issue through the lens of statistics, but how does the equity gap show up in the everyday life of architects? The conference on Saturday did a great job of showcasing real-life stories along with the big-picture data. I had the honor of speaking on the day’s first panel, which was about career pinch points. It was moderated by Celeste Lewis and comprised of women at different parts of their careers, including Katie Seifert, a young intern architect at TVA Architects; Lorraine Guthrie at Lorrain Guthrie Architect; Stefee Knudsen, a senior project manager at Hacker; and myself, a project architect at Communitecture.
The five pinch points in the career of an architect, according to the Equity by Design 2014 survey are: hiring, paying dues, licensure, caregiving, and the glass ceiling.
This first panel showed how different women have dealt with the various pinch points and created careers that work for them. Guthrie became frustrated with brand-name design firms and decided to open her own practice, which allows her to do work that's meaningful to her and in a way that works with her life as a partner and mother. Knudsen talked about what it's like to meet the heavy demands of being in charge of large projects at a large firm and finding enough time to be the best wife, mother, friend and community member she can be. And Seifert, representing the millennial generation, presented a message of hope and excitement for a future in architecture without barriers for women.
This panel was followed by a discussion about the equity issue in academia, with a penel that included Clive Knights, director of the PSU School of Architecture; Judith Sheine, head of the Department of Architecture at the University of Oregon; Nicollete Stouffer, graduate student at the University of Oregon; and Julia Mollner, a recent graduate from Portland State University who is working as an intern architect at a local firm.
It became clear from this panel that the equity gap is practically nonexistent at the academia stage, but really becomes a problem once students make the transition into practice. In fact, Knights pointed out that half of NAAB (National Architectural Accrediting Board) graduates are lost before they are licensed. Another theme that emerged from this panel is the idea that the hierarchy that so defines the practice of architecture is a very male way of doing business, and that perhaps the key to greater equity is to change the way that architecture practice is organized. Lastly, an audience member challenged the academics that students are all taught to become starchitects, while the reality of practice is much broader and more diverse. The starchitect mentality that is inculcated into students may later discourage people to stay in the profession once they find that they aren't going to become one.
The last panel of the day, moderated by Jennifer Wright, focused some of the strategies firms are using to address the equity issue. On the panel were KPFF structural engineer Jennifer Eggers, DLR principal Lisa Johnson, Dao Architects owner Joann Le, Pivot architect Karen Williams, and ZGF partner Jans Willemse. Strategies that emerged from this discussion were providing formal and informal mentorship opportunities, finding out the strengths of employees and nurturing leadership around those strengths, encouraging employees to follow their passion, and hiring with diversity in mind. A consistent theme was around flexibility. Willemse contended that "flexibility is key to retaining good staff in architecture." Le reiterated that equity is not only an issue that impacts women and minorities, it's an issue that impacts everyone. She noted that having " diverse voices in an architecture firm really has an impact on the types of projects we do."
The day neared the end with roundtable discussion on various topics such as making the transition from architecture school to practice and running a values-based firm. This allowed attendees to talk with one another and share stories and hopefully create a network of support. Coxe Group Partner Hugh Hochberg concluded the day with his reflections on what was said at the conference. Some key observations he shared were that:
- Life/work balance means different things to different people and ultimately it's about not feeling that your choices are limited.
- Leadership only happens if there is a fellowship, thrusting someone in a leadership position doesn't make him or her a leader automatically.
- Good people stay at firms where they feel recognized and compensated for their achievements and where they enjoy their co-workers and office culture.
- The most effective mentorship often happens informally
This conference was historic because it brought to light and legitimized a lot of the struggles that women face in their architecture careers, yet have a hard time naming and defining, and thereby overcoming. It was also a great opportunity to share our stories and find that we are not alone in the struggles we face. We found that gender discrimination is real, entrenched, and systematic, and not something that is in our heads. The 2014 Equity by Design Survey gave credibility and depth to what has always been the elephant in the room with architecture - the gender gap. Armed with this knowledge, the profession can address the pinch points, the pay disparity, and a culture that penalizes taking time off for caregiving, among other issues leading to the gender gap. This conference was one of the first steps towards closing the gap.