What happens to women in architecture to cause them to leave the profession, and why are so few women in leadership roles? These are some of the questions at the heart of The Missing 32% Project (TM32PP), a committee formed within AIA San Francisco in 2011. According to the National Architectural Accrediting Board, 42 percent of architecture graduates are female, but the number of licensed female practitioners and senior leaders in the profession hovers between only 15 and 18 percent.


Today in San Francisco, TM32PP released the early results of its Equity in Architecture Survey in conjunction with its third annual sold-out symposium, Equity by Design: Knowledge, Discussion, and Action! The grassroots survey, conducted earlier this year, sought to illuminate the challenges for all architecture practitioners. The 2,289 respondents from around the world—66 percent female and 34 percent male—answered questions in three main categories: Hiring and Retention; Growth and Development; and Meaning and Influence.

Atelier Cho Thompson / Courtesy The Missing 32% Project

Demographics of survey respondents
Atelier Cho Thompson / Courtesy The Missing 32% Project Demographics of survey respondents


Atelier Cho Thompson / Courtesy The Missing 32% Project

Hiring and Retention
TM32PP chairperson Rosa Sheng, AIA, says that one survey takeaway is the identification of “pinch points,” or specific moments along a career trajectory where people leave the architectural profession. After overcoming the first such hurdle of getting hired in the first place, budding architects of both genders hit their second within the first three years of practice. “We call it paying your dues,” Sheng says. “It is where long hours, low pay, and a lack of engagement in the work that you do can cause people to leave. That’s the most critical time to try and retain people or provide incentives.” The third career pinch point is mid-career licensure. In response to the survey's “What are the intangible benefits of getting licensed?” question, many respondents simply said none. “There’s a lack of a [clear] value proposition to get licensed beyond the fact that you have to do it,” Sheng says.

Growth and Development
After about seven years in the profession, designers hit the pinch point of licensure. Of the unlicensed survey respondents, 65 percent of females said they are pursuing licensure as opposed to 73 percent of the men surveyed. Licensed architects are more likely to remain in the field. “When we compared men to women, women didn’t find it necessary to get licensed, and that ultimately hinders women moving forward,” Sheng says. “That’s a big hurdle for women: achieving licensure quickly enough to be retained.”

In terms of firm leadership, the survey identified a critical moment around the 15-year mark of practice. Initially, you find more women than men in leadership roles, but those numbers start to even out between years 10 and 12. Then, after year 15, men clearly have the upper hand. At this point, and not coincidentally, we’re talking about the senior design and management positions in firms. “Women have that sharp early trajectory knowing that there are going to be other life events coming up, so they try to advance as quickly as they can in their early career,” Sheng says. “And then it flips, theoretically for childbirth and caregiving.”

Atelier Cho Thompson / Courtesy The Missing 32% Project

The leadership gap between men and women is particularly notable in the breakdown of respondents holding the title of principal. Sheng says this difference may be due to an implicit bias, one that challenges every profession and not just architecture: “Do we consider women leaders? That’s the existential question.” She notes a recent New York Times article about Google, a company where men make up 70 percent of the staff and hold 79 percent of management positions. Google is now attempting to make employees—both men and women—aware of hidden cultural biases against women being strong leaders.

Atelier Cho Thompson / Courtesy The Missing 32% Project


Meaning and Influence
A lack of women in leadership positions subsequently results in a deficit of female role models. When respondents who had indicated that they had left the profession were asked about their reasons, 32 percent of females cited a lack of role models; 26 percent of males gave the same answer. Another noteworthy finding: Men and women alike report a culture of bullying in the profession as a reason for leaving. Sheng says outing controversial topics like bullying is invaluable. “I think everyone knows that bullying exists, but calling it out in a survey format makes it easier than admitting to being bullied or finger pointing,” she says.

Atelier Cho Thompson / Courtesy The Missing 32% Project

The dearth of female leadership begins as early as architecture school. The Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture (ACSA) recently released the results of the research report “Where Are the Women? Measuring Progress on Gender in Architecture.” The organization found that fewer than one in five deans at U.S. architecture schools are women. Add to that the fact that only one in four guest lecturers in architecture schools is female and you can start to see a problem: How can female architecture students and practitioners envision themselves at the top if that path isn’t visible during their formal education or later at a firm?

The survey also found that a majority of women in architecture do take a leave of absence—most frequently around the childbearing and child-rearing years—but that men do not. “There’s a big stigma for leaving architecture,” Sheng says. “Once you leave, it’s like falling out of the pearly gates of heaven: You can never get back in.”

Atelier Cho Thompson / Courtesy The Missing 32% Project

When it parsed the real consequences of taking a leave of absence versus the perceived consequences, the survey found something striking: People who have never taken a leave of absence report a much higher fear of taking leave than those who actually did. “This tells us two things,” Sheng says. “First, people are afraid to take leave and second, because they don’t take leave, they don't have empathy for the people who do.”

Atelier Cho Thompson / Courtesy The Missing 32% Project

When it comes to defining success in the profession, as disclosed in TM32PP’s result preview, survey respondents listed working on projects of personal significance, along with work-life flexibility, and working with talented people. Men report being more satisfied overall with the work that they are assigned, which tend to be the more plum design lead and firm management roles. Meanwhile, women report wanting these design and management positions, but are actually tasked with more production work, such as construction documentation, than men.

Atelier Cho Thompson / Courtesy The Missing 32% Project

Atelier Cho Thompson / Courtesy The Missing 32% Project


Salary and Promotions
As in most professions, men make more money than women in architecture. What’s striking, perhaps, is that the survey found this difference starts immediately with new hires: Women receive $4,000 less than men from the get-go even though everyone ostensibly has the same experience. Among those who have less than one year of experience, the difference is even more palpable: women on average make $9,000 less than men.

Atelier Cho Thompson / Courtesy The Missing 32% Project

Both men and women listed a lack of advancement opportunities as another reason for leaving the profession, but those who report seeing a clear path to firm leadership reported higher overall job satisfaction. This suggests that transparent firm policies about growth and promotion make a difference.

Atelier Cho Thompson / Courtesy The Missing 32% Project

With more men in senior leadership positions in the profession, it may come as no surprise that men reap most of profession’s accolades. According to ACSA, between 2010 and 2014, men received 82 percent of the industry’s top awards, including the AIA Gold Medal, the AIA/ACSA Topaz Medal, and the Pritzker Prize.

Equity by Design: Next Steps
Break-out sessions at today’s Equity by Design symposium corresponded with the topics discussed in the three survey categories. The goal, Sheng says, is to take the stats uncovered from the survey and transform them into actionable change. “We have this short moment in time where there is a confluence of everybody coming together, men and women, and being ready and open to change in architecture,” Sheng says. “The charge for today is: What are we going to do about it?” Stay tuned.

Read our follow-up on the symposium here.

See all of the early survey findings released on The Missing 32% Project site.

Note: This article has been updated since first publication to indicate that the early—not the completeresults of The Missing 32% Project survey were released at the symposium, and to add the geographical breakdown of survey respondents.