The fourth biennial AIA Women’s Leadership Summit (WLS) brought together many voices and experiences to discuss the intersection of gender, age, and ethnicity in the architecture profession. The summit’s sold-out attendance of 325 included, by my count, seven male participants. The theme, “Celebrating Women Leaders: Creating Cultural Change,” set the framework for discussions on increasing diversity and equity in the architecture practice, and provided many takeaways—several of which follow.
Equity in Architecture is Stuck in the Past
In the opening keynote, pointedly titled “You Can’t Just Add Women and Stir,” 2006 AIA president Kate Schwennsen, FAIA, reviewed the minimal progress made in gender equity in architecture since the first AIA WLS, in 2009. The number of women in leadership roles in many of the leading firms in the U.S. has remained flat, she noted, although the number of design awards granted to women is up slightly. The lackluster numbers highlighted the work ahead for AIA WLS attendees.
What Women Don’t Want: Preferential Treatment
Challenging the misguided belief that female supporters of equity in architecture are angling for special treatment, Allison Williams, FAIA, a vice president and design director at AECOM, said, “We’re [in the profession] because we’re architects and passionate—not because we are women.” She urged attendees to stay true to themselves, do what they love doing, and do it without being apologetic.
Her message underscored the recently passed AIA resolution 15-1, “Equity in Architecture,” which calls for a committee of architects and industry experts to determine best practices for increasing diversity in the profession. The mandate’s objectives touch on salary equity, work-life balance, employee retention, and workplace flexibility for primary caregivers, who are statistically more likely to be women—or “archimoms,” as presenter and Equity by Design founder Rosa Sheng, AIA, put it.
But Fair, Timely Recognition Would be Nice
In 2014, Julia Morgan famously became the first woman to win the AIA Gold Medal—57 years after her death. The award may not have been granted to Morgan at all were it not for Julia Donoho, AIA, who served on the AIA National Board of Directors from 2013 to 2014 and pushed hard to get Morgan on the ticket. In her presentation, Donoho shared the story of how Thom Mayne, FAIA, the 2013 AIA Gold Medal recipient, pointed out the previous award recipients to date and advised Donoho to “just wait.” Rather than waiting, Donoho said, she took matters into her own hands, gathering the research and letters of recommendation necessary to make the nomination—which Mayne later supported.
Beverly Willis, FAIA, founder of the Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation, in New York, described how she hopes to raise awareness on the impact of women in architecture and design with the Dynamic National Archive, an open-source database to which anyone can add to the growing number of entries on renowned female designers and their work.
Women Can’t Lead If They Leave
In the AIA WLS keynote on Sept. 19, Courtney Martin, an author, weekly columnist for On Being, and a TED speaker, describes the tendency of architects to view overworking as a badge of honor. That sentiment and the general lack of schedule flexibility in the practice create a double whammy for women: The longer hours are often expected at the stage of one’s career that aligns with the potential for motherhood, resulting in many women leaving the profession and often permanently.
While Martin is not an architect, her collaborator and husband, John Cary, counts himself as an ally of the equity in architecture movement. Cary and other male allies, Martin said, have made commitments to salary transparency and refused to sit on all-male panels at conferences, instead suggesting women who would be better candidates and provide diversity in perspective. If more designers help identify and subsequently remove active barriers, as well as increase mentorship opportunities, Martin believes more women will stay in the profession for the long term.
Resources Do Exist
Justine Clark, founder of the Australian design-equity website Parlour, discussed the organization’s online guide for navigating the complex issues of equity in the profession: Parlour Guides to Equitable Practice. In her presentation, Clark noted that the three-year research study by Naomi Stead, titled “Equity and Diversity in the Australian Architecture Profession: Women, Work and Leadership," found that the only area of parity in Australia is in design seminars, in which women comprise half the number of lecturers. The Parlour Guides are based on outcomes of this research. Another option is the Women in Architecture Toolkit, which is published by the AIA as part of the Diversity and Inclusion Resource Center of Excellence.
Say Yes to Opportunities
Women can take alternative paths to leadership positions if a firm’s structure is not conducive to increasing equity. Margaret Montgomery, FAIA, global sustainability leader for NBBJ (where I work as digital practice leader), gave the example of the U.S. Green Building Council's Architecture & Design Sustainable Design Leaders committee, which she chairs. Half of the representatives on the committee are women. By identifying a gap in the industry and volunteering to take on new challenges, these women attained highly influential positions in their own firms and in the design profession to reshape their firms and the built environment.
Similarly, Carole Wedge, FAIA, president of Boston-based Shepley Bulfinch—founded in 1874 by an all-white, all-male cast—told participants to “say ‘yes’ when presented with an opportunity and then figure out how to get it done.” Wedge began her career at the stalwart firm in the mailroom, reading letters and directing correspondence, which gave her significant business insights that helped her become the company’s first female managing partner, transform the firm’s culture, and grow the practice. Since 2013, Shepley Bulfinch has been a majority women–owned business.
If You Want Something, Ask
On the topic of taking initiative, one preliminary result of the forthcoming 2014 AIA Diversity in the Profession of Architecture survey, which had 7,500 respondents, revealed that women tend to negotiate more frequently than men for promotions and salary. As one attendee commented, “They negotiate because they must.”
Martin shared two tips for sharpening negotiation skills: First, before walking into the room, practice “power posing” (Martin then proceeded to lead the packed Benaroya Hall in a series of poses); and second, read Ask For It: How Women Can Use the Power of Negotiation to Get What They Really Want (2008, Bantam) by Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever. Martin also described the need for mentors, who don’t necessarily have to be older than the mentee.
If You Measure Something, You Can Change It
The AIA WLS attendees discussed and voted on several calls to actions to help advance equity. These ideas included: advocating for a “family-friendly” category to the AIA Firm Survey Report; adding equity and inclusion clauses into the AIA Code of Ethics; further streamlining the licensure process (NCARB's recent Integrated Path Initiative may help); and enlisting 500 male allies as attendees for the 2017 AIA WLS Summit, which will be held in Washington, D.C.
And, Finally, a Tribute
On the summit’s last day, the Boston Society of Architects (BSA) debuted a short tribute to the late Sho-Ping Chin, who passed away this summer. Chin, who was a principal at local firm Payette, founded the BSA’s Women Principals Group, which ultimately outgrew Greater Boston and paved the way for AIA WLS.
Note: This article has been updated since first publication.