For a profession with such a long history, architecture has evolved very slowly in one critical way. Although women and men now enroll in architecture school in roughly equal numbers, it’s still a vastly male-dominated profession, with women representing only about one in five licensed practitioners.

According to a 2015 AIA survey about diversity in the profession, 69 percent of women respondents felt that women were “somewhat underrepresented” or “very underrepresented” in the profession.

Data points from the AIA’s most recent firm survey report, The Business of Architecture 2018, indicate progress toward more equal representation. According to the report, women comprised over a third of all architecture staff in 2017. Most of them, however, are unlicensed—some on the path to licensure, some serving in non-architect capacities. Keeping young professionals on the licensure track and providing career fulfillment so women don’t seek opportunities elsewhere is imperative for today’s architecture firms. The 2015 survey found that women leave the profession for a variety of reasons, including inequitable pay, lack of advancement opportunities, inflexible schedules, and long hours that might be incompatible with raising a family or maintaining a work-life balance. Not only does this “brain drain” deprive the profession of smart designers who help represent the diversity of the clients the profession serves, it also hurts the profession’s reputation at a time when architects are still fighting to be understood and valued in the marketplace.

The opportunity for women to lead is the best path forward for representation, career fulfillment, and a secure future for firms. The 2018 survey report shows that the share of women in principal or partnership roles at architecture firms has increased by 18 percentage points in the last 10 years, with a 10 point gain in just the last two years. Women in firms across the country are staking a claim for themselves, and firms are rapidly supporting them.

To understand what can be done to retain women and promote them as leaders, while benefiting firms in the process, we talked to four architects about barriers they have encountered and what they and others are doing to help women stay in architecture. Whether it was starting a firm, pursuing unique specialties, developing mentorship programs for emerging professionals or building volunteer networks, these women are making strides to advance the field.

Rosa Sheng, FAIA, is a principal and the director of equity, diversity, and inclusion for SmithGroup and member of the AIA’s national Equity and the Future of Architecture Committee. She is also the president of AIA San Francisco and a founder of Equity by Design (EQxD), an AIASF Committee aimed at conducting research, creating workshops, and sponsoring initiatives that advocate for equitable practice and culture change in architecture.

“No one comes out of school thinking that there will be barriers to advancement, because you’re isolated in an academic environment where you’re told you can do anything. I was fortunate that, early in my career, I didn’t observe the impact of these challenges. In EQxD we do research on the topic of talent retention. We refer to ‘pinch points,’ to describe areas of challenge that one could face throughout one’s career from graduation all the way through retirement. After I got married and started having children, I noticed that things were different for women at these pinch points. In that period in my life, there was a questioning of whether I wanted to continue my career as an architect. It was during the recession, around 2009 or 2010, and the outlook for projects and advancement was pretty bleak. With all the other challenges of parenthood, it just didn’t seem worth it.

“At that point, I went to a symposium that was about understanding why there was a lack of licensed architects who are women. Shortly thereafter, we started a committee within AIA San Francisco to do research into why women were leaving the profession. We called it “The Missing 32 Percent,” which eventually became known as Equity by Design. That has created a groundswell movement. It’s not enough to just say it isn’t fair how women are treated. We’re generating a larger thesis that it’s not just about representation and talent retention; it’s tied into the quality and impact of the work we do, and it’s about reinforcing our value to the clients.

“People need to understand that bias doesn’t go away, but with a constant intentionality, it can be managed. You can’t get to diversity and inclusion without the acknowledgment of sources of inequity and the importance of reducing barriers. Part of our effort is to redefine design excellence to include equity, dignity, and respect. When you drill down into it, what are some of the things we do and the attitudes we have that create disrespect? And how does that affect the design?

“We often encounter firms that say, ‘We’re not the worst—we have some diversity or equity measures in place, so we’re not that bad, and that’s good enough.’ Or they say they’re going to implement a program, but they just don’t have an infrastructure. We’ve learned that without intentional structure and the authority and agency to implement the change, it’s difficult. It’s a culture change. It’s often taking a company in a different direction. We can’t remove barriers entirely, but we can do our best to level the playing field.”

Andrea Love, AIA, is a principal and director of building science at Payette. After working as a licensed architect and discovering a passion for sustainability and performance, she pursued a graduate degree in building technology that set her on a path towards leadership at a firm she praises for its investment in employees.

“I graduated architecture school in 2002, when people were just starting to get interested in sustainability. There was a void in the profession of people who had that experience and interest, so I was able to step into that role at a number of architecture firms. Then I felt with just an architecture degree, personally, I lacked some of the technical knowledge to push building [design] as much as I wanted to. I was already licensed and working as an architect, but I decided I needed to go to grad school eight years after I finished school. I went to MIT and the building technology program to get that technical background so I could leverage that building science side to really push design. I didn’t want to become an engineer, but I wanted to understand that engineering is a way to influence and inform design. When I left MIT is when I joined Payette.

“They were interested in creating a building science group. At that point, it wasn’t viewed as a leadership role, but more as a specialty role within the firm to help advance the practice. I do think having a specialty role allowed me to stand out a little more than someone else. In a firm of 160 people, it’s a little easier to get lost amongst the project teams, and so by having a specialty role, I was able to always have my own voice in the projects and within the firm. That helped me in my path towards leadership.

“For the most part, because I was creating my own path, I didn’t face the same challenges other people did. There were perceptions or biases people had around me, for example, when I was pregnant—about what I could or could not do or what I would be able to do when I came back. I had to be pretty vocal. It wasn’t because they didn’t think I could do something, but they were overly cautious. There was more of that sort of thing than there were explicit hurdles for me. But because I had a unique position and it was a role that hadn’t existed in the firm, I was able to forge my own path.

“One of the things I really like about Payette is that there’s an interest in longevity. It’s not just a place that people come to work for a year or two years, get burnt out, and go somewhere else. It really is about trying to create work-life balance; it’s a place you stay for your career. There’s an interest and emphasis in trying to help develop people. The other thing from a firm culture side that appeals to me is the ability to change. It’s not to say that we’re perfect by any means, but the interest and willingness to continue to evolve is important, and something that not all firms possess.”

Sharon Davis, Assoc. AIA, is founder and principal of Sharon Davis Design in New York City. After spending years in another field, she earned her M.Arch. from Columbia University and founded her firm in 2007. Her work includes the design of the Women’s Opportunity Center in Kayonza, Rwanda.

“I feel that women need flexibility, whether it’s in education, in licensing, or in the first five to 10 years of work.

“I was an unconventional student in that I was older, married, and had children. I was surprised by the lack of flexibility in the curriculum and hadn’t understood the importance of being in the studio working—as opposed to working from home.

“My youngest child was 3 when I started the program, and although my husband was very supportive, my being in the studio constantly was rough for the whole family.

“My second year, I dropped a class and made it up during the summer. I chose to spend the summer breaks with my family, so I didn’t get the work experience that other students had, which was a disadvantage when I graduated.

“In terms of mentoring, I continue to be incredibly thankful to Louise Braverman, FAIA. She is a single practitioner and has given me helpful advice about managing my business. We met while we were both working on projects in Africa.”

Jess Garnitz, AIA, is a designer with Stantec and a co-founder of the MidCareer Mentorship Program run through the Boston Society of Architects. The program connects women at the midpoint of their careers with women principals for ongoing discussions about career trajectories and professional opportunities.

“After I got my undergraduate degree, I got a job working at ARC/Architectural Resources Cambridge. I was working in their design studio and touching a lot of projects. It was a lot of fast-paced work. I had a great mentor there, and he taught me a lot about the professional aspects of architecture. He was always conscious to explain what he was doing and why. I eventually got a master’s at Syracuse and went to work for ADD Inc., which was later acquired by Stantec.

“I had been a co-chair of the Emerging Professionals Network with the Boston Society of Architects [BSA]. After a few years, when I felt like I had emerged, I was looking for something similar that would provide support and programming for new issues I was facing as I entered my mid-career, but I couldn’t really find anything. I was talking with Caroline Fitzgerald of the BSA’s Women Principals Group, and she was saying that she’d also heard from others that there wasn’t enough support for mid-career women. She introduced me to other women thinking along these same lines, and we decided to start BSA’s Mid-Career Mentorship Program as one of a few new initiatives that targeted mid-career women.

“It’s a self-sustaining program. We put a lot of time and effort into matching people— women principals and mid-career design professionals. Participants have talked about salary negotiations, career transitions, future employment, how to handle a challenging boss, and long-term career planning. Another popular topic is self-promotion: How to speak up for yourself without being off-putting. I plan to apply to the program myself.

“Principals get a lot out of it, too. They say that they enjoy giving back to the community. They get to meet others who could be potential leaders and know that they are helping to shape the design future of the Boston area.”