Why We Need More Women Designing Buildings

March 16th 2015

Ashley Nicole Black

According to romantic comedies, all white men are architects. That isn't true in real life. But it does turn out that almost all architects are white men. Only 17 percent of architects are women, and only 10 percent are ethnic minorities (believe it or not, that's after the numbers have grown quite a bit in recent years). And it isn't that women and people of color don't want to be architects. While there is a little bit more diversity in architecture school, numbers drop over time. For example, in 2012, 5.3 percent of students self-identified as African American, but less than two percent of registered architects did. The field of architecture gets whiter and more male as you reach top. 

Why do we need more diverse architects?

First of all, because equality is awesome and should be reason enough. But also, as with all fields, a lack of diversity among architects deprives everyone of a diversity of architecture. The way spaces are built shapes the experiences we have in and around those spaces. Imagine the types of experiences we could have in and around buildings built by people who have had diverse experiences. I'm going to go out on a limb and say that if more female architects designed movie theaters there wouldn't always be a line of 25 women outside the ladies' room while the men's room stands perpetually empty. Seriously, how hard is it to just build twice as many lady toilets, dudes? If you've ever carried a wet baby in and out of multiple buildings searching for a diaper changing station, or needed a clean and safe place to pump breast milk while at work, you might wish for more female architects then, too. 

But it isn't just about bathrooms. When architects and city planners take more diverse experiences into account -- spaces become safer and easier for women and people of color to navigate. Vienna provides a great example. Over the last two decades the city has made an effort to create city infrastructure with these needs in mind. This has included things such as wider sidewalks and staircases make them easier for strollers and wheelchairs to navigate, as well as to provide more safety. Wider sidewalks (and hallways) make it easier for women to avoid street harassers. Easier access to public transportation (women reported using public transportation more times a day due to having to run more household errands), safer parking, and extra lighting were implemented. And parks were designed to stop boys from chasing the girls out of them. While people of color have also traditionally advocated for city planning that addresses their needs (safety, access to transportation, affordable and mixed-use housing, etc.) recently, city planning in the U.S. has focused on efforts that aid gentrification -- often to the detriment of poor communities and communities of color. Of course, not only women and people of color can design spaces with these things in mind, but people who have actually had these life experiences may be more likely to do so. 

What's happening to all the female architects? 

Women earn 42 percent of architecture degrees, but make up only 25 percent of architecture staff (which includes peripheral architecture jobs as well as architects), and only 17 percent of principals and partners -- the numbers get smaller the higher you go in the field. Similarly, more people of color graduate with architecture degrees than end up working in architecture. Some organizations are focused on getting more diverse applicants interested in attending architecture programs, but it appears that the real problem is getting them to stay in the industry once they've graduated. 

Architecture is an investment many can't afford to make. 

The reason women and people of color fall out of the architecture profession is built into the structure of the industry. Architectural training is very expensive. Students pay (or take out loans to pay) rising college costs, have to build expensive models while in school, pay -- or take on more debt -- to get Masters degrees, and then have to get even more training in the form of internships. Even after internships, entry level jobs are low paying and involve very long hours; meanwhile, those new architects are continuing to pay for licensing exams and professional organization fees. Most architects don't earn their licenses until they are 34 years old. That is a long time to wait for a return on an educational investment, and the pay still isn't that great after you are licensed. Simply put, if you don't already have a ton of money, you may not be able to afford to take on debt to study for 10+ years to be an architect. And due to a history of racism and sexism in this country, the people who can afford to make a huge investment into an education that won't pay off for a decade are going to be mostly white and male. 

Conventional wisdom has held that women leave the architecture profession because licensing and professionalization happens just as they are at their prime child bearing years. But women leaving the industry to have children doesn't answer why men of color also leave, nor why women don't come back to architecture after having had children. If women were leaving architecture simply to have and care for children, then we would see a sharp drop-off in women working in all industries in their early 30s, but that is simply not the case. Women are leaving architecture and choosing to go into other fields presumably because the financial burden of becoming an architect is only increased once one also has children to provide for. It becomes much harder to work long hours for little money when you have to pay for childcare, and women with children may leave the industry for one where they don't have to wait so long to make money or work so many hours for so little. Child rearing may not be as big as a factor for male architects because, in married couples, women are more likely to take on practical, flexible work that allows them to spend more time and resources caring for their children. While married men are more likely to utilize their spouses' support to take bigger career risks. Studies have shown that it isn't children that hold women back in the workplace as much as it is inequitable marriages in which wives' careers take a backseat to husbands' careers. This type of dynamic would make it difficult for female architects to stay committed to a high-investment, high-risk industry. 

It is also likely that women don't return to architecture after having children (or just leave) because they don't see a path to success in the industry. Since there aren't very many women and people of color who are architects they may lack the role models and connections one needs to get ahead in a competitive industry. No matter how good you are at your job, you still need your potential and progress to be recognized by those higher above you, and often it is easier to recognize potential in people who remind us of ourselves. Architects also need to attract clients; discrimination may make it more difficult for women and people of color to secure contracts from clients who are more willing to trust white men with their projects. 

Of course, women and people of color deal with sexism and racism in every industry, but the combination of discrimination, low pay, long hours, and high investment contributes to architecture being a particularly difficult industry to survive in if you are not a white man. 

The bigger issue

Architecture schools and professional organizations have been working to figure out ways to diversify the industry. Traditionally, architecture has always been an elite profession for the rich, so it stands to reason that it would be one of the slower industries to become more diverse. But we should also be looking towards architecture as a cautionary tale. As the price of college increases for everyone and students take out more student loans, and more companies save money by turning entry level positions into internships, more working and middle class people could be priced out of professional industries. If all education gets longer and more expensive and starts to look more like architecture education, will we return to a time where women and people of color find it harder to get ahead?