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Gender Disparity in Architecture

Gender Disparity in the Business of Architecture: Why Do Women Leave?

November 19th, 2015 by

Toward the end of 2009, when the economy wasn’t showing any signs of recovery, especially within the building industry, I began investigating the Woman Business Enterprise programs. Initially I didn’t think it would be possible for such a long established firm as ours to become WBE-certified, but with our new ownership and new smaller size, Marks Thomas became a certified woman-owned small business enterprise in the state, city, and federal programs.

Faith and Magda

Throughout our careers, my partner, Magda Westerhout, and I felt as though we did not experience gender discrimination in any significant way. Admittedly, there were the comments on construction sites — “Pardon my French, little lady,” and, “You’re the secretary, so you take notes” — but those comments came from the field, not from male co-workers and clients in the office. And in our architecture school experiences, although we were the minority by 80 percent, we did not sense a difference in teaching, including the scathing critiques from the faculty.

Today, half of all architecture school students are women, but in the workplace those numbers dwindle significantly. In the U.S. there are 105,847 licensed architects and only 17,994 of them — about one-sixth — are women. Women leave the profession. In 2012, an American Institute of Architects survey indicated that 49 percent of architecture school students and 39 percent of architecture interns were female, but only 17 percent were partners or principals in firms.

Chase Brexton

According to a New York Times article entitled, “Fewer Women Run Big Companies Than Men Named John,” the exceedingly low percentage of women in CEO positions is a sure indicator that the glass ceiling remains firmly in place. Denise Scott Brown, wife of architect Robert Venturi and successful architect in her own right, described in her 1989 essay, “Room at the Top?,” a discouraging spiral that still rings true today. Difficulties arise as women advance, she writes, “when firms and clients shy away from entrusting high-level responsibility to women. On seeing their male colleagues draw out in front of them, women who lack a feminist awareness are likely to feel that their failure to achieve is their own fault.”

But there may be other reasons, beyond a lack of feminist awareness. The business of architecture discourages the female participant. In this area, our profession could learn a lesson from other fields that have successfully expanded their employee pool. In an effort to encourage more diversity in their engineering programs, for example, MIT developed a program for technologies that help improve the lives of people living in poverty. The rate of female student participation in this program was more than 50 percent. At the University of California, Berkeley, the biomedical department has seen a similar uptick in female enrollment in their programs focused on low-income communities. If the class content focuses on societal issues, women will enroll. With that in mind, it makes sense that our firm, a WBE, has expertise and an extensive portfolio in low-income, multi-family housing and a firm commitment to projects that benefit low-income communities.

Faith and Magda

Further reinforcing the glass ceiling may be the real estate profession overall. Both architecture and real estate development lag behind law, medicine, and accounting in the number of women each profession employs, according to research by Catalyst, a nonprofit that promotes women in business — yet another reason why Woman Business Enterprise programs have an important role in the real estate industry. The prevalence of male developers may have an impact on the selection of female architects but the WBE requirements for government funded projects have given Marks Thomas the opportunity to work on large-scale, low-income projects. The clients who sought us out for our WBE status now realize we’re experienced, capable, and have a strong interest in improving our broader community — so they’re coming back for more.

To learn more about Marks Thomas and our commitment to projects that benefit local communities, visit our website.