“So deep is the environmental crisis; so urgent is the demand for change, that architecture must become not only a profession … but a form of public service.”
That’s first lady Claudia “Lady Bird” Johnson, addressing the 1968 AIA convention. Although she wasn’t an architect, Johnson’s legacy as an environmentalist and champion of the built environment is second to none.
I wish I could say the crisis is less urgent now, but we know that’s not the case. We also know another sad fact: The barriers Johnson faced as a woman working for change remain all too familiar to women today.
As first lady, she set out to make the nation’s capital, and the nation, more sustainable and equitable.
Starting locally in Washington, D.C., Johnson convened a group of public officials, architects, business leaders, and philanthropists in 1965 to kick off her “Committee for a More Beautiful Capital.” She planted trees and flowers; installed park benches, fountains, and playground equipment; and took barren stretches of ground in D.C.’s traffic circles and medians and made them beautiful and welcoming. She took the same approach nationwide through the 1965 Highway Beautification Act.
Lady Bird did truly groundbreaking, transformative work—only to be dismissed as inconsequential.
When critics said what she was up to was no more than “beautification,” it bothered her. But she didn’t back down. In fact, she doubled down—pointedly stating her work wasn’t “merely cosmetic.” She would say, “If I can get people to care about the beauty of flowers, maybe I can get them to care about the earth through which they grow.”
Today, we might call Johnson’s experience “prove-it-again bias”—a dynamic under which women and people of color are stereotyped as less competent, so they are forced to prove themselves more to get the same respect and recognition as white men from elite backgrounds.
According to “The Elephant in the (Well-Designed) Room,” a joint study conducted by AIA and the University of California, Hastings College of the Law, 50% of white women in the architecture field have experienced prove-it-again bias. And the number is even higher for women of color: 56.3% compared to 25.4% for white men.
Another sobering statistic: 70.9% of white women and 61.2% of women of color reported experiencing sexism in their workplaces.
This is obviously unacceptable, and the study confirms we have work to do. It asks hard questions, and we don’t have all the answers. But I’d like to highlight a few of the steps AIA is taking to get us headed in the right direction.
In 2021, we launched a new program called Next to Lead. Aimed at removing barriers to AIA leadership positions for women from ethnically diverse backgrounds, the two-year program just kicked off, and 17 talented women are participating—gaining leadership skills and networking opportunities. One of the best ways to describe this initiative is that it not only helps participants identify pathways to leadership; it is a pathway to leadership.
Additionally, our AIA Women’s Leadership Summit is the largest professional gathering of women architects and designers in the country, and it offers a variety of opportunities and events focused on women architects moving into leadership roles at architecture firms and beyond.
To support firms in their own diversity progress, I’m proud of AIA’s Guides for Equitable Practice. The guides are a series of research-based, but practically oriented, resources for firms and organizations. We updated them in 2020, and more updates are coming this year.
As Lady Bird said, “Where flowers bloom, so does hope.” By asking tough questions and taking action, we’re planting the seeds for a profession that is more fair, more equitable, and—ultimately—more effective.