Rosa Sheng, AIA, chairperson of the Missing 32% Project
John Lee Rosa Sheng, AIA, chairperson of the Missing 32% Project

It’s no secret that men outnumber women in the design profession, and even more so in senior leadership roles. But where did the women architecture students go? This winter, The Missing 32% Project, an organization with roots in AIA San Francisco, asked why architecture firms are largely headed by men and what firms can do to promote equity. Nearly 2,300 people—60 percent women, 40 percent men—responded to the online survey. Results are due out this summer. Chairperson Rosa Sheng, AIA, a senior associate in Bohlin Cywinski Jackson’s San Francisco office, spoke with ARCHITECT on the challenges women face in the profession.

Explain the name The Missing 32%.
Based on information from AIA National a few years ago, in the United States, women represent about 50 percent of students enrolled in architecture programs, but only 18 percent of licensed architects. Since that original statistic, the actual number is a moving target, so the number 32 itself is less of a significant factor, [but more a representation of] the large percentage of women who are not getting licensed, being supported, or advancing into leadership positions in traditional firm structures.

We chose the name The Missing 32% as a jarring [reminder] that the number should be closer to 50/50. It also serves as an activist-oriented call to action for both women and men who mutually believe that equitable practice is critical to advancing architecture as a profession.

What are the survey’s goals?
The survey is trying to figure out where choke points occur in the progression of one’s career path as an architect—mainly for women, but for men as well. One of them is licensure, which I think is kind of a non-factor … but when you couple that with the biological clock, and people begin having families, [it’s easy to get] distracted. Many firms require that you get licensed in order to advance, which makes sense for liability reasons.

What are other choke points?
Once you do get licensed, there’s a certain expectation [that you will steadily advance] to a titled position, such as a director, associate, or project manager. There’s potential for disenchantment if you see your male cohorts being supported and promoted more. Naturally, there are more men in the field, and men gravitate towards men as far as mentorship, [whereas] there are fewer women role models to begin with.

While women will seek men to be mentors, it’s a more formal process. And, sadly, when there are fewer women in those positions, we have seen this queen bee syndrome where they’re looking out for themselves, and they believe only one woman can be a leader. In starting The Missing 32% Project, we’re trying to create an altruistic mentorship approach where we’re giving back.

What other challenges do women in architecture face?
Women in architecture are expected to convey confidence and command respect, in an assertive way. However, if you’re perceived as too nice or eager to please everyone, you’re viewed as incompetent. But if you’re too aggressive in trying to get your point across, you’re seen as difficult to work with. Through the years, I’ve had to learn the political dance of knowing when and how to say the things that you want to get done. When you focus on the goals that support the common good, it’s easier to rally people than if you appear like you are speaking just for yourself.

And then there is the whole complexity with childbirth and caregiving, which affects women and men, but women more as they are usually the default primary caregivers. There are several research papers about the motherhood penalty and the maternal wall, but [it can be particularly challenging] in architecture, where a lot of collaboration in the design process demands face-time in the office.

Do your male peers put the same pressure on themselves?
It depends. Everybody that works at our firm works really hard, but when push comes to shove, it’s the whole primary caregiver question. It’s usually the mother [who has to leave to take care of the kids]. In architecture, there is a stereotype that you have to stay late and work really hard. We’re basically underselling ourselves when we’re giving our services away for free by working those late hours.

Where do women end up if they do stay in the profession for 20, 30 years, if they don't have these title roles?
Well, they do make it to the title role of project manager. Women are good at prioritizing and balancing, so the role seems to be a natural fit. But the last hurdle is the design [leadership] role. Ultimately it takes time. Design isn’t something that happens overnight. It takes a lot of thinking, living, breathing, and eating the project. So if you have an idea, but you have other obligations, and other people have more time to think about design, [your idea] doesn’t always come off as powerful when you’re saying it because somebody else has already detailed or sketched it out.

How can women assert themselves in their careers?
In addition to acquiring the key technical skills required for licensure, women should develop the complementary skills of negotiation, presentation, networking, marketing, and business development. Have a plan for your career goals and a timeline for achieving them. Also, women should have the courage to speak up for what they want and not undersell themselves. Part of it is confidence, which they gain by keeping themselves in the game. The more time that you spend out of the career path, if you do off-ramp, the harder it is to get back in. But there are also people that leave [the profession] because they want to pursue other career interests, and that’s another part of The Missing 32%.

What is the gender pay gap in architecture?
We don’t know yet, but we will be investigating this during our survey analysis.

Should coworkers discuss their pay?
Equity in pay and the Paycheck Fairness Act is one way to go about equity in compensation. Firms can support pay equity by providing transparent criteria for determining raises and promotions. Women can acquire negotiation skills, be clear and assertive about their expectations for compensation, and complement it with research about a comparable salary for a person in the same position, performing similar tasks.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. A shortened version of this article appeared in the May 2014 issue of ARCHITECT. This article has also been edited since its first publication online.