Jesse Zhang

Christina Cho, AIA, and her business partner Ming Thompson, AIA, are both mothers of children under the age of 6. Cho and Thompson run a bicoastal firm together, Atelier Cho Thompson, and Cho admits that even with live-in help from a family member, keeping up with work at her normal pace during the pandemic has been challenging. Thankfully, she says, the private nursery school where she sends her children recently returned to four days of in-person learning after months of being remote.

“I would be dead right now if that wasn’t the case,” she says. “I’m really lucky. But even with the four days in person, it’s a shortened day. Ming and I already were working 40-plus hours a week, so as a result, we’re having to do more late nights to make up for the lost time during the day.”

The post-COVID displacement of work hours (not just workers, as the Bureau of Labor Statistics measures) is difficult to measure but easy to understand, as the workplace has bled into the home and work hours have bled into every waking minute, corrupting time itself.

If child care is not an option for you and you are attempting it yourself while working, then you’re in good company. Awake before dawn, send a bunch of emails, rouse a kid, make a breakfast, clean a counter, dial in to a meeting, get the mail, drive to a carefully orchestrated play date, review a change order, jump into Rhino or Revit, take a call—and that’s just the first four hours of a day that repeats but never seems to resolve itself, week-in and week-out.

“In three months, women lost a decade’s worth of economic advancement,” reported the nonprofit digital newsroom the 19th News in August 2020. The question of how is just as important as why.

Child Care Is a Big Part of the Equation

In the workforce generally, including architecture and all other professions and vocations, labor economists have observed that the share of women over men has increased each year for five decades straight, peaking in 1999 at 60% (where it has largely remained since).

Kathryn Edwards, a labor economist at the RAND Corporation and a professor at the Pardee Rand Graduate School, says this is the most important aspect of a conversation about women in the workforce: They are the majority. “When you’re talking about women workers, you’re not talking about a minority of the workforce or a special case scenario,” she says. “You are talking about the majority of employees, at least heading into the recession."

For all their gains—thronging the job market, as one correspondent from the Atlantic wrote in the mid-1980s—women have been more vulnerable than men in the last 18 months of pandemic-induced upheaval. The Bureau of Labor Statistics recently published numbers showing that 2.2 million women left the labor force between October 2019 and October 2020. The most precipitous drop was among women with children, especially women with children between the ages of 2 and 6.

Within architecture, this scenario is all too familiar. For men and women, the hours can be long, deadlines can be inconvenient, workflows across multiple team members working on the same project can be tedious, and expectations can run high for even the most easy-going client. But, for women, it has been particularly punishing. According to a 2020 Gallup poll, in more than half of U.S. households, women are more likely than men to care for children on a daily basis. Laundry, cleaning, and preparing meals are also tasks that are more likely to be carried out by women.

In a recent op-ed for the Dallas Morning News, Edwards argues for better child care policies and more affordable child care offerings as the most effective strategy to retain women in the workforce—a solution that has gained considerable support among labor economists since the late-1990s, when the Clinton White House’s Council of Economic Advisors published a report correlating child care subsidies with an effective return to work.

Since then, the argument has been bolstered by successive administrations and economists in a range of affiliations on both sides of the aisle that if women workers are imperiled, so is our economy.

“The size of an economy is almost one for one determined by the number of workers in it,” says Edwards. “For every woman that leaves the workplace permanently, that's another hit to our potential GDP. And if we remained 3 million women smaller as workers, this is what we can expect for a per capita GDP.”

Within architecture, Cho and Thompson’s experiences are common refrains, as is the financial burden of childcare. Even for a profession with an average per capita income of $80,750 (nearly 52% more than the average per capita income among all workers), there isn’t a single place in the United States where the cost of childcare meets the federal definition of affordable, which is no more than 7% of annual household income. According to the Center for American Progress, the average cost to send one child to an above-board and licensed childcare center is $1,230 per month, or $14,760 per year. Double it if there are two children. According to the Economic Policy Institute’s survey of all 50 states, in Washington, D.C., the average annual cost of infant care for one child is $24,243—that’s $2,020 per month, or nearly 30% of a median family’s annual income. In Mississippi, reportedly the most affordable state with the lowest cost of living, the average annual cost of infant care is nearly 12 percent of a median family’s annual income, far above the federal ceiling.

In other words, life is expensive for everyone, even if the severity of the financial pinch varies from household to household. But child care isn’t the only thing eroding the gains women have made in the workforce. It’s the conditions of work and even the definition of work itself.

Inches and Miles

If women have made gains in sheer numbers within the workforce, the gender wage gap has persisted as a cause of workforce inequities for women. Several organizations have measured this gap and the figures vary from $0.79 to $0.81 earned by white women for every dollar earned by a white man. Asian women earn $0.90 against the dollar, Black women earn about $0.62, Native American women, $0.57, and Hispanic women, $0.54.

In her 2018 story for the New York Times, the architecture critic Allison Arieff argued that the pay gap was a symptom rather than a cause of inequities. The real culprit, she says, is a culture of assumptions that working women will inevitably quit to marry and have kids, anyway, that they cannot command authority on a construction site, and that they are inferior creatives. “Every woman I spoke to on this topic has a story...of men questioning their competency and qualifications,” she wrote, “of not believing they were actually in charge of a project.”

Within architecture, some observers place childcare in a broader constellation of solutions that could make the workplace more equitable and address the assumptions that drive those inequities. The AIA’s Guides for Equitable Practice include one on mentorship, which delineates allies, coaches, and sponsors as part of a network that, along with mentors, can offer the kind of long-term support to women workers. Atelier Cho Thompson’s Ming Thompson identifies mentorship and self-promotion as two ways to call inequities out, and as a way to restructure workplaces where perception about women’s value and contributions should meet reality, rather than drive it.

“In the last half-century, the profession has gained more women than ever and is finally promoting women to its highest echelons,” she wrote in an op-ed for Architect Magazine last May (adapted from a Medium piece the month before). “The COVID-19 pandemic imperils this progress, but it also presents an opportunity to think differently about the way architects live, work, and practice.”

If the pandemic takes away 2.2 million women from the workforce, what could it give back, so to speak?

A conversation that leads to real change among women inside the workforce, women who wish to rejoin the workforce, and women who are poised to join them in the coming years, fresh out of school.

“I encourage [upcoming generations] to say, ‘Work-life balance doesn't mean 50% of my time is for me, and 50% of my time is for working,’” says Sarah Whiting, Dean of the Graduate School of Architecture and Design at Harvard University. “It's saying you need to carve out time for thinking and advancing your own ideas about what's important in the world.”

Whiting encourages students to think about their contributions within two contexts: What she calls their intellectual project and their future selves.

“You should be thinking about what your own intellectual project is—what drives you in architecture? And when you’re thinking of your next phase, think about it in two years, five years, and 10 years,” she says. “You should be constantly saying, ‘Okay, in 10 years, where do I see myself?’”

For a student standing on the dais and on the precipice of an internship, a decade hence can seem like a lifetime. For RAND’s Kathryn Edwards, it is not so much about the promise of 10 years, but the career inches women need to guard, as well as the potential pitfalls women need to guard against.

“I'm more concerned about the doctor that takes the part-time job at a clinic instead of [the job as] the head of a hospital because she has to be the one to pick up the kids,” she says. “Those types of stories are endemic to any female professional association of women who skipped promotions, didn't go after opportunities, and really took those inches back from their career. The pandemic just made that inch 10 miles long [for some women] and a lot of them didn't have a choice. It was an exit.”

Kara Swanick almost became one of those women. Before the pandemic, she sometimes worked 50-hour weeks at a landscape architecture firm in Pennsylvania, one of two employees under the principal. When business slowed down, Swanick’s pay became hourly rather than salaried. As business dwindled even more, she told her employer that she would rather receive unemployment money than continue without billable hours—and so, she became unemployed.

“It felt like a weird ‘mutual’ breakup where you’re not sure what happened or where it all fell apart,” she says. Swanick was unemployed for about six months before taking what she calls a “huge risk” and moving to a town eight hours away for a new position.

“I feel beyond fortunate to have found a new job this year, especially doing work I find fulfilling and interesting,” she says. But not everyone will be as lucky.