Recently, design writer Allison Arieff gained attention — both positive and negative — for a piece she published in The New York Times opinion section. The piece, “Where Are All the Female Architects?” questioned why architecture remains a male-dominated industry, despite a relatively high amount of female graduates. In light of this article’s traction, Madame Architect founder Julia Gamolina published a response in The Architect’s Newspaper. Titled, “Stop asking where all the female architects are; we’re right here,” Gamolina’s piece rebutted Arieff’s argument, positing that that there are, in fact, many female architects — society just overlooks them.
Cuningham Group architects Amy Kalar and Catherine Britt respond to both articles, offering their perspectives:
We believe both articles have value – however, it is important to note that they are intended for very different audiences. For example, The Architect’s Newspaper defines itself as “the most authoritative voice on architecture and design in the United States” and, as such, is tailored to the architectural “in-crowd.” The New York Times speaks to a broader audience — one which includes readers with potentially little understanding of our industry. That is why it is important that we not dismiss Arieff’s piece and others like it; they start new, vital conversations that would not otherwise occur outside of the industry.
Within the industry, however, the narrative around gender diversity has become more familiar, and awareness around the lack of female architects in the profession has begun to increase. To advance from awareness into action, let us focus our energy on celebration and empowerment. As Gamolina writes in her rebuttal: “[Female architects] are not missing and we will no longer be hidden.”
We agree with Gamolina and the many others like her.
We agree that successful women in architecture are often overlooked, that accomplishments often go unnoticed or worse, ignored.
We agree that the metrics of success need to be redefined, and not just for women, but for everybody.
So how do we recognize the many women who are working hard, redefining gender norms, and making an impact in the architecture and design field? Changing the nature of an entire industry is difficult. Even more difficult is changing the public’s perception of said industry. While this work can sometimes feel like turning a large cruise ship — slow and largely imperceptible to those onboard – progress is being made in the form of meaningful efforts, including the development of the AIA’s “Guides for Equitable Practice,” and the work being done by Equity by Design (EQxD), to name a few.
To further the conversation, we have isolated and outlined three basic facets of the architectural profession whose common understandings deserve serious reconsideration.
First, we must realize that our definition of “architect” is far too narrow. The industry has changed so much over the past few decades that to maintain the same understanding of what an “architect” is would be to ignore the ever-increasing number of ways in which a degree in architecture can be applied. Even architects who fit into the more traditional role of practice are not the isolated “starchitects” that popular media make them out to be. No single individual designs a skyscraper. Nor does an individual have all of the answers, the richness of all potential ideas, or even the capacity to deliver all on one’s own. Architecture is, in many ways, the ultimate team sport. And it’s on this team where gender equity is truly important. So, instead of asking where are all of the female architects, ask: what are they doing? Because the answer may surprise you.
As discussed, the fallacy that there are relatively few highly-successful female architects is often perpetuated by the media. In reality, our successes remain unknown because they are simply not talked about. As Gamolina argues, why don’t we begin to redefine success by “…writing about the myriad women who are doing exceptional, sensitive and important work while simultaneously running businesses, acting as caregivers, and making time to mentor?” A big first step here is basic awareness.
Beyond that, however, we need to more closely scrutinize the popular statistics associated with the topic. For example, the common claim that the lack of women in architecture today is due to a pipeline issue is not accurate. The data shows females earning professional degrees in architecture at or above 43 percent nationwide over the past decade. And while it is often noted that women comprise only about 20 percent of licensed architects and 17 percent of principals/partners, this ignores the myriad ways one can practice architecture without being officially licensed. Or, the various ways one can be a leader without being a firm principal. This leads us to another important concept we believe is in need of a redefinition.
A common misstep by industry thought leaders is to fuse one’s leadership status or ability with one’s formal standing within a firm. But, is it really that simple? Which specific job titles qualify as leadership roles? Systems for titling and advancement vary widely across architecture firms, making it nearly impossible to compare them across the industry. Where do you draw the line? How can such an intangible thing be quantified in such tangible terms, and is this being captured effectively? The metrics we use to measure “leadership” are outdated and in need of redefinition. There is still progress to be made. But to claim that women are largely absent from leadership roles within the architecture industry is to gloss over and undermine that vast amount of progress that we have already made. The great contributions, achievements and leadership of women in the architecture profession tend go unrecognized through these outdated formal systems of titling, advancement and recognition. And, it is important to note that these systems are the way that we currently communicate status to our allied professions, clients and the general public. Therefore, it stands to reason that people assume women are largely missing in leadership.
These redefinitions may seem pedantic at first. What real change, you may ask, can re-contextualizing a few words make on one of the world’s oldest professions? A lot, we would argue. Over the long term, small shifts can have a great effect. An architecture professor once said, “when you’re an astronaut headed for the moon you don’t just aim and blast off expecting to get there. You make small corrections along the way to keep you on track.” So an inch here on Earth can mean miles at the moon. That is why it is so important for us to address the small things that we can change and take these issues seriously. At the end of the day, we aren’t simply fighting for equity within our profession, we are fighting for our industry’s future.
About the authors
Amy Kalar is a registered architect at Cuningham Group with over 15 years of experience in the field. Amy is a member and co-founder of the American Institute of Architecture (AIA) Minnesota’s Women in Architecture Committee. The Women in Architecture committee was founded in 2014 with the purpose of promoting “a strong future for the architecture profession by advocating for women in architecture through recognition, networking, professional development, and mentorship.” Today, Amy continues to advocate for women in Architecture and sheds light on the daily issues that women face within the profession.
Catherine Britt is a registered architect with 14 years of experience. In 2018, Catherine was selected to participate in American Institute of Architecture (AIA) Minnesota’s Leadership Forum, formed to “foster and develop leadership for AIA Minnesota member architects during mid-career.” Additionally, Catherine is a member of AIA Minnesota’s Women in Architecture Committee and Cultural Change Resource Team, and is Co-Chair of the Conference Continuing Education Committee. She teaches Architectural Theory in the Architecture program at Dunwoody College of Technology.