by Alexis Gregory
Look around you. How many women do you see in your architecture office? It seemed as if there were a lot of women working to become architects when you were a student, didn’t it? But where have all the women gone?
Have we forgotten those who toiled along with us late into the night during architecture school? Why have they disappeared? Women in architecture are facing a narrowing field in the progression from school to licensure and beyond, similar to women in other professions like business, law, and medicine. Women join the architectural world upon enrollment in schools, yet, once they receive their degrees, these women leave academia headed for pursuits other than the profession of architecture.
Data reported in May by the National Architectural Accrediting Board (NAAB) show that 41 percent of graduates of architecture programs are women. Hard numbers are difficult to set on women who become licensed. However, the number reported in an AIA National Associates Committee Report published in 2004 show that the percentage of licensed female architects in the U.S. was 20 percent. A 2003 AIA Women in Architecture study found that women accounted for 27 percent of staff in U.S. architecture firms, including architecture graduates and licensed architects. Similarly, in the 2009 NAAB report, the percentage of female faculty at accredited schools of architecture stands at 26 percent. When factored with an independent study sponsored by the AIA in 2005 that showed that 73 percent of male architecture graduates in architecture firms were licensed as opposed to 45 percent of female graduates, we can conclude that there is a clear disparity between women and men who graduate and those who become licensed practitioners.
Anecdotally, when one looks at the under-representation of women in leadership positions, such as firm principals/partners, AIA Fellows, and AIA elected leadership, the declining percentage of women who reach higher levels of their profession certainly seems apparent enough to warrant further investigation.
But why the disparity?
Throughout society, women face common challenges that confront them no matter what their lifestyles or professions. Women deal with both personal and professional issues, and often those are contradictory. This leads to a complex set of issues facing women in the workplace.
Nevertheless, female architects have advanced over the past 20 years, especially in South Carolina. As part of my undergraduate research, I pulled some data on trends in South Carolina. The following paragraphs will use some of those data to illustrate a few points.
According to data from the AIA in 1985, 5.9 percent of AIA members were women, while in 2008 that number climbed to 17 percent. Although the numbers are small, this shows an increase of more than triple over 23 years. In South Carolina, women made up 9 percent of AIA members in 2000, and that number increased to 17 percent in 2008. That is an amazing amount of growth in only eight years. Conversely, these numbers are troubling due to the low numbers of women in architecture in South Carolina in relation to national statistics. This is demonstrated through 2005 statistics from the South Carolina Board of Architectural Examiners, which show that out of 975 licensed architects practicing in the state, only 107 were women (11 percent). This percentage is lower than the national trend, which shows that in 2003, 20 percent of registered architects in the nation were women.
How do we remedy this situation?
First, we must look at the architecture schools. Statistics from Clemson University show that in 1988, 27 percent of applicants to the four-year program for the bachelor of arts in architecture were women, and, of those applicants, 31 percent of enrolled students were female. A marked increase is noticeable today in that 47 percent of applicants to the program in 2008 are women, and 56 percent became enrolled students.
So what happens to these women between enrollment and licensure? Although the four-year bachelor’s degree is an important step toward becoming an architect, the MArch is required if you do not have the five-year BArch required to begin the Internship Development Program and then take the Architect Registration Exam. (Data were unavailable on the number of women in the MArch program at Clemson.)
However, if we look at data on graduation rates of women from both the bachelor of arts program and MArch program at Clemson, we see interesting differences. In 1993, women graduates received 36 percent of undergraduate architecture degrees and 34 percent of MArch degrees. In 2007, women constituted 68 percent of students who received a bachelor of arts in architecture and 43 percent of students who received a MArch from Clemson. In other words, the women who were graduating, even with advanced degrees, are neither joining the profession nor getting their licenses.
Why are the increases in women in architecture schools not the same in the profession, and specifically licensed architects? Information obtained as part of my master of science research shows that specific obstacles to professional achievement for female architects in South Carolina do exist. These obstacles include gender, family responsibilities, and firm mentality. Women feel that these obstacles hinder their ability to advance professionally. This was such a large concern that several women in the study decided to become sole practitioners. Once the profession addresses these issues, women will be more able to bridge the gap from education to licensure—which will, in turn, increase the number of female architects in the nation and in South Carolina.
The next step
I am currently conducting research on a national level with my colleague, Dr. Margaret Woosnam of Texas A&M University, as to how these issues affect female architects nationwide. Additional topics we are investigating are mentorships for female interns with female architects; increasing exposure to the work of female architects for architecture students, the profession, and the public; and suggestions to the profession.
This lack of knowledge about women architects is another major obstacle we must overcome. The International Archive of Women in Architecture—run by members of the architecture department and university archives at Virginia Tech—is addressing this issue already by compiling the work of many female architects from many different generations. Perusing those archives shows that the number of females who have created great architecture is higher than one may have realized.
We must work to remedy this lack of awareness of female architects and get support from others in the profession, especially the AIA. With their support, we can promote mentoring and increase dialogue towards the professional development of females in architecture and provide an outlet for females in the profession to share experiences. We need to work together to keep our fellow female architects from dropping out of the profession. We cannot afford to forget anymore female architects.
Alexis Gregory is a registered architect and professor of architecture at the Savannah College of Art and Design. She earned a master of science in architecture with a concentration in women’s studies and history from Clemson University as well as a BArch from Virginia Tech. Her professional experience includes 10 years working in various architecture firms in Washington, D.C.