Celebrating & Uplifting Women in the Design Industry
Louise Blanchard Bethune was the first American woman known to have worked as a professional architect when she took a job in 1876 as a draftsman in a New York office. She was a trailblazer, opening an independent office, serving in leadership roles in regional and national associations, and using her voice to expose the inequality between male and female architecture professionals. In 1891, she refused to compete in a design competition because men were paid ten times more than women for their building designs. I think she’d be disheartened to see that gender inequality, while less egregious, still exists in this modern day. The architecture industry has a tumultuous history with aspiring female architects. While women have been practicing architecture in the United States for more than a century, they are still not given the same opportunities as their male counterparts.
A 2018 survey from the American Institute of Architects San Francisco Committee shined a spotlight on the inequity that plagues the architecture industry. A previous 2014 iteration of the survey focused on the gap between the number of women graduating from architecture programs and those practicing architecture, but was expanded in 2018 to include other questions and metrics, such as ethnicity, sexual identity, and gender identity. The 2018 findings were an analysis of the largest data set ever collected on fairness within the design profession in the United States. What did it show?
Female and minority architects earn lower salaries than their white male peers and are less likely to hold positions of leadership. What can you do? Analyze your ratio of male to female employment, as well as the demographics of your leadership. If it’s disproportionate, ask yourself why that is and make changes. Then, do the same thing with their compensation. An interesting find from the survey was that lower-level professionals were largely uninformed about their performance and growth outlooks. By not communicating these expectations with your staff, including female employees, it could create a feeling of stagnation at your firm.
The culture of the architecture industry has always been very studio-heavy, with an emphasis on long work hours and heavy workloads. The AIA survey found that being a primary caregiver, which falls on women more than men, pays a price in the design profession. For many women, the pivot into motherhood happens at an important time in their careers when they’re really gaining traction. There is less of a gender parity the higher up the leadership ladder you go, and that’s likely because women who are mothers find it more advantageous to be studio founders rather than working mothers trying to rise the ranks at a firm.
There’s enough research out there now that corroborates the correlation between work-life balance and the improved mental happiness and physical wellbeing of your employees. Remember, happier employees are generally more productive, more creative, healthier, and are more likely to stick around longer. Think about that when you’re scheduling your firm’s events. Are they at night, when families are relying on their much-deserved quality time? Are they on the weekends, when parents would rather be on the soccer field sidelines?
Women have made, and continue to make, an impact on the architecture profession in a myriad of ways. From small roles at firms to leading national organizations, and volunteering on national committees to mentoring aspiring architects, women play a crucial role in the development of the architecture industry.