In honor of March being Women’s History Month, we interviewed the women at our firm to get their insight on the gender gap in the design and architecture industry. Women’s history month may be just one month of the year, but we think any time of the year is a good time to discuss how we can be working toward gender parity, diversity and inclusion.
Statistically, about 50% of architecture students are female, but only 17% of licensed architects are women. This fact, simply put, bums us out. Diversity is critical in every part of our society, but we know for a fact that diversity and inclusion has an incredibly important and positive impact on design. If the people designing spaces don’t reflect the communities in which those spaces will exist, that design will never represent or work for the community itself. The wider and more varied our perspective as a firm can be, the better we can serve our clients and our communities, which is what we believe architecture should do.
While the onus of closing the gender gap is certainly not on women, we did want to hear from the women of Design Develop, who themselves have an incredibly diverse background, about this issue. We asked them if they had advice for women entering the field, but we also asked them what the industry can be doing better to reach gender parity. Although the answer to gender inequity in the workplace is larger than we can tackle in this one article, their responses were incredibly insightful and apply to women in any professional field.
First off, meet the women of Design Develop:
Does architecture still feel like a male-dominated field to you, or do you see more gender equity now? Do you think it's moving in the right direction?
Cathering Henebery (CH): Architecture has definitely been a male-dominated field for a long time, but I think that it is slowly moving in the right direction. In both my education and limited professional experience, I have seen schools and firms make a deliberate effort to promote gender equality. However, I also think that it is still an ongoing effort and it will be for a long time. There is still a lot of work to be done to help the industry move forward.
Aishwarya Mathukumilli (MK): Architecture used to be a male dominant profession, but not as much as it used to be. From my experience, there are many females during the education phase but fewer active professionals- this could be because of many reasons from discrimination based on social, race, gender, ethnicity or even sexual orientation- which are hard to tackle or “fix.” I also think the representation of women in the field is low though it has been steadily increasing over the past few years. In that sense, it is moving in the right direction and is making steady and slow progress.
Victoria Eckhardt (VE): This is a tough question to answer, but generally yes- there is a strong and unequivocal female presence in the industry. But I don’t think the biggest problem we’ve had is a lack of women in architecture. It’s more about how the architectural discourse, historically conceived by and for society’s idea of masculinity, often disregards or forgets women’s contributions, making talented female architects seem like a rarity, and thus perpetuating a well-intentioned but dangerous distinction between “women architects” and “architects” that we still see being made today. But, this is slowly changing thanks to the many women who have taken ownership of their work and introduced themselves in the discourse.
Did you face any particular challenges either in academia or previous work experience in the industry as a female architect? Are there any resources, groups, or activities you can recommend for other women in the industry that helped you out along the way?
CH: While in school at UVA, I was lucky enough to have a few different female professors who made conscious efforts to mentor female students and help set us up for success. The relationships I formed with these professors were incredibly valuable and their support helped me succeed in my academic career and prepare me for the professional field. I think a lack of female mentors is currently one of the biggest challenges that the field faces - mentors who can help young women entering the field develop professionally. However, this is an issue that will hopefully be largely resolved as the field moves towards gender equality. I believe it is incredibly important for firms to understand this and help their female employees become leaders.
AM: Since I was fresh from college, I didn’t face any discrimination regarding getting a job. But I’ve known people, newly married women or mothers, who’ve taken breaks and have been rejected. At my previous workplace, I (and the rest of the female staff) weren’t required to stay overtime (not that there was any overtime pay for anyone). It could be that the bosses were worried about our safety or thought that women needed to be home to take care of other responsibilities. Sometimes I felt like I missed opportunities to contribute to a project I was working on from its conceptual stage. We weren’t the first to be picked for site visits unless we made a successful and convincing case with the boss. .
A few resources and groups that could help other female architects are NOMA (National Organization of Minority Architects) - it doesn’t represent women specifically but supports all under-represented minorities in the profession. They offer mentorship programs and professional development opportunities. So does AWA + D (Association for Women in Architecture and Design), WiA (Women in Architecture), ArchiteXX and AIA’s Women’s Leadership Summit (annual event).
What’s your advice for women who want to pursue a career in the architecture industry? On the other hand, do you have any ideas about how the industry can do better at obtaining, licensing and retaining women?
CH: Some of the best advice I've received is to really prioritize getting my license. Although licensure isn't as big a barrier to entry as it once was in the field, it is still an important aspect of growing professionally, and it can easily be overlooked while you're in school. Bob and the rest of the leadership at Design Develop have outlined how important it is for me and my peers to prioritize the licensure process - making sure we remember to record our hours promptly so we don't lose any but also making sure we get the experience we need in every category. I think this is especially important for women because I believe it becomes harder for women to get their license as they get older - especially if they decide to have children.
AM: For women, I think it could help to reach out to the mentorship programs and look at events or groups that support women in architecture. I think it’s also important to advocate for yourself and your work and build relationships and a network in the field, as it may be challenging to speak up or share our ideas, but it’s important to break from that. With social media and virtual connectivity, it is easier to attend workshops and conferences where we can seek out opportunities.
The industry could include mentorship programs, workshops and leadership training specifically for women. They could also offer flexible work arrangements and healthy work-life policies (like DD does!). These policies would support all women with caregiving responsibilities- and others who want time to do their own thing.
VE: Embrace and leverage your identity to get where you want to be.
IC: I think it is important to advocate for diverse backgrounds and perspectives in architecture, especially women. Although there has been a shift in the industry, it can still sometimes feel like a boys club, both in academia and the professional environment. There is a lot of room in the profession for people with different backgrounds, interests and it only makes us stronger as a profession to include diversity of thought and experience. I think keeping this in mind, it is important to make your voice heard and ask, not wait for a perfect moment or assume someone will lay it out for you.
Reading and learning more about the pioneering women in the industry (that we don’t hear enough of) would be a great place to start to look for guidance and inspiration. The industry is changing and it is exciting for women to be a part of setting the stage for others to follow as well.
A huge thank you to these incredibly smart and talented women for their honesty and insight. Our firm and our work is undeniably better because of them.