Newsletter | Mar/Apr 2004

The Changing Faces of Architecture

by Erin Olson-Douglas
The inspiration for my research paper, "Changing Faces: A Look at Gender Diversity in the Profession of Architecture," stemmed both from my six years of personal experience as a practicing registered architect and from reading the recently published British study entitled "Why Do Women Leave Architecture?" I was struck by the boldness of the RIBA-sponsored report and the parallels in the challenges that I saw confronting my own professional development. My research sought to identify conditions in the United States regarding gender diversity within the profession of architecture and to examine the causes for its absence.

Three demographic statistics highlight the issue of gender diversity in architecture and raise related, but separate, questions. To begin, our professional organization, the AIA, released information late last year showing that twenty percent of registered architects are female. While this was a nine percent leap since 1999, four out of five of our country's architects are men. Secondly, in the area of gender diversity, architecture lags behind almost all other professions. For example, this ratio is roughly fifty percent behind the professions of law and medicine where approximately a third of their practitioners are female. The final pertinent and puzzling statistic concerns architectural education. Schools show near-parity in gender among their student ranks, a demographic that has remained stable for nearly twenty years. Yet, from this balanced ratio emerges a profession where women represent only twenty percent of all registered architects.

The statistics show an attrition rate in architecture that stalls women far more often than men and affects our profession more acutely than allied fields. In my analysis of these puzzles, I proposed that a hard work - low pay combination rooted in education, a lack of mentorship, and stymied advancement loosely categorize aspects that contribute to gender disparity in the profession. I further theorized that the lack of an underlying public service initiative within architecture separates our profession from other fields. I agree with the U.K. research; women do not leave for a singular reason. My research posits that an entrenched culture within the profession produces an obstinate cyclical pattern that disadvantages women in the practice of architecture. While isolated issues contribute to women's under-representation within the field, these issues are intertwined in such a way that specific factors or encounters weave a pattern that together reinforces the profession's homogeneous composition.

Fortunately, interest in the issue of architecture's gender diversity is beginning to coalesce, with the British study marking a new level of institutional recognition. "Why Do Women Leave Architecture?" was quite possibly the best thing that could have happened to the diversity cause in American architecture. It has boldly and publicly asked a question that is as relevant to the United States as it is to the UK. One does not have to strain to see correlation between cultural and professional conditions on both sides of the Atlanticóour architectural system is a largely a blueprint of the western-European tradition. The report was sponsored by a well-respected professional organization (RIBA). Our own professional organizations, however, do not have to take the heat for reporting the situation; they can simply disseminate the findings. The British study not only tackles the realities within the profession with candor, but it also compiles an impressive matrix of over one hundred recommendations that outlines actions and responsibilities in a strategic manner.

Meanwhile, with renewed focus on a 2020 Vision devised to "achieve a substantially more diverse profession by the year 2020," the AIA is taking an evenhanded, information-based approach to realize an outlined list of initiatives. While hardly bold or unabashed, the listing, if followed ardently and creatively, could promote change. It recommends:

"standardizing, accelerating, and enhancing research;
fostering leadership development;
heightening awareness of diversity issues in the profession;
educating about the value of diversity."
This roughly fifteen-year old "vision" derives from a committee that evolved, conceptually, out of the early 1990's AIA Diversity Task Force. Now termed the AIA Diversity Committee, the new eight-member group operating at a national level is comprised of two committed staff members and six invited volunteers with full-time architecture-related positions.

Nationally and internationally, pronounced disparity in gender diversity in the profession of architecture is increasingly recognized as a problem. The matter of gender diversity is both a fundamental issue of fairness and opportunity for women; further, it is also one of meeting the pragmatic needs and desires for American society. Even so, the dynamics of architecture's culture are slow to change. As a profession, architecture stands to gain from this shift. Diversity's sine qua non surpasses practical survival to enhancing value, a corollary that stands to offer long-term benefits to the entire profession. Momentum from other professions, as well as from within architecture, is on the side of greater diversity. Continued pressure within our profession is required to keep this fragile momentum moving forward. Keep in mind, as the British research has shown, women do not want to leave architecture.

The research paper on which this synopsis is based was written for Professor Despina Stratigakos' course, "Gender, Space, and Architecture,"offered by the Women's Studies program at Harvard University in fall 2003.

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