First, the good news: The number of black women licensed to practice architecture in the United States has quadrupled over the past 15 years.

The bad news? That number is still only 196.

“I am not ready to celebrate,” says Kathryn Tyler Prigmore, 51, who was among the first 20 black women to be licensed. “Ten years ago, I think everyone thought the number of minorities and women in the profession would be significantly higher than it is now.”

Black women represent only 0.2 percent of a total population of approximately 91,000 licensed architects. In law, black women account for close to 2 percent of the profession; in medicine, the figure is 4 percent.

Credit: Elena Dorfman

None of the major architectural organizations tracks the number of black architects, or black women architects, gaining licensure. But since 1991, architecture professors Bradford Grant and Dennis Mann have maintained their own comprehensive database, the Directory of African American Architects (accessible online at blackarch.uc.edu). The first directory listed 44 women; last month, Grant and Mann added Adrienne M. Horton of New Mexico and LeAnn Elder Branzell of Florida.

“It's depressing in the 21st century, in a time when we speak so freely of diversity, that [the profession] is still obviously exclusive,” says Kelly Powell, 33, whom Grant and Mann added to the directory in January. Powell is a senior architect/project manager with Davis Brody Bond Aedas in New York.

Forecasters predict that the number of black women in architecture will continue to climb steeply. More black women are enrolling in architecture schools; they represent as much as 4 percent of the graduating population, according to the National Architectural Accrediting Board.

Yet an uptick in black women studying architecture doesn't necessarily translate to architectural practice. In a field where graduates regularly strike out on unexpected paths, women and minorities seem more likely than most to forego licensure and choose alternate careers.

There aren't hard numbers on the rate of attrition, given a scarcity of demographic data (although several architectural groups are now working together to gather information, says Theodore Landsmark, president of the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture). But anecdotal evidence suggests that the high cost of architectural education, a lack of role models, and an inflexible model of success—which rewards long hours and ignores community-based design—are all factors in keeping American architecture less than fully diverse.

Different Priorities

Why has diversification stalled? It may have to do with women architects having different priorities. “One theory is that [women] choose paths that are not traditional practitioner paths,” says Allison Williams, 55, a principal in the San Francisco office of Perkins+Will who became licensed in 1980.

This theory is bolstered by the results of a study in Australia, where women make up 43 percent of architecture students but less than 1 percent of firm directors. In 2005, the Royal Australian Institute of Architects surveyed 550 female members and concluded that they had different goals than their male counterparts. For example, women tend to reject the scale of a project, practice size, awards, and journal coverage as measures of their personal success. For women, the most meaningful measures of career progression often are client satisfaction and personal satisfaction—in the form of taking on new challenges and finding a balance in their lives.

In keeping with the results of the Australian study, many American black women architects say they find satisfaction in socially responsible design. Renetta Moss, 50, a county government architect in Houston who was added to the directory this January, says simply, “I don't aspire to be a great architect. I aspire to use my architectural knowledge and skills to do great things for society.”

Another reason that women architects—of all races—diverge from the traditional career path is because of the profession's imbalance between life and work. “In a culture of all-nighters, where does a mother fit in?” asks Raye McDavid, 36, who became licensed and gave birth to her son in the same month last year. “We are still, obviously, at a disadvantage because we can't put in the types of hours our male colleagues can,” she says, suggesting that digital technology should allow for more flexibility.

McDavid says she sometimes feels that she needs to work harder to get the same recognition that male colleagues do. “I make a statement and get no reaction,” she says. “My colleague says the same thing, and it's a revelation.” McDavid is currently setting up her own practice, RAM Architecture.

Add together the quality-of-life costs with the dollars-and-cents expense of schooling and interning, and what an architect earns cannot match the paycheck of an attorney or physician—a drawback for all prospective architects, and especially those coming from low-income backgrounds.

Yamani Hernandez, 29, graduated last spring with a master's degree in architecture from the University of Washington. She complains about the low rewards of the profession on her blog.strangebungalow.blogspot.com. “The education, internship and licensure process in general is long as hell,” she writes. “And the resulting salaries are crazy low compared to the other professions.” For many people of color, she says, choosing a career path doesn't allow “the privilege of doing something you love.”

Hernandez decries what she calls “the atrocious under-representation of people of color in the profession.” She now works for Chicago Public Schools, managing architecture and construction programs for high school students.