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Last October, two reports quantified the state of women in architecture. The Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture’s “Where are the Women: Measuring Progress on Gender” found that the percentage of women in the profession plummets as careers progress. The Missing 32% Project’s “Equity in Architecture” survey identified the choke points forcing women out, including getting licensed and attaining leadership roles. This data points to an anecdotal truth that most already know: There’s a leaky pipeline in architecture

A steady loss of women over time means that the number of licensed female practitioners and senior leaders hovers between just 15 and 18 percent. So, how can we close the gender gap?

Make the Imbalance Visible

Julia Murphy

In 2008, when associate Julia Murphy, AIA, joined Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM), the firm had no female partners and only a handful of female directors. “I don’t want to say that it was demoralizing, exactly, but women need to see role models in order to see their future,” Murphy says. “It’s also a business problem if you’re losing a high percentage of your most valuable employees.”

In 2010, she relaunched the Women’s Initiative, an SOM group that had been active from 2002 to 2004, to mentor younger associates, offer internships for female students, conduct research, and raise visibility on issues that female practitioners face. Each year, the committee focuses on one overarching problem. This year it is mid-career choke points. “We wondered: Are women leaving to have children? Is it inevitable?” asks Murphy, the mother of a 2-year-old. “We found that most women who go on maternity leave at SOM do come back. The women we spoke to were leaving for better opportunities. They were not asking for less. Here, women want more opportunity.” The needle is starting to move at SOM, she says. (Today, women comprise 13 percent of partners, 14 percent of directors firm-wide.)

The Women’s Initiative is working with SOM’s human resources and the Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation, which aims to change the culture of the building industry in support of women, to get questions into existing surveys about the profession. This year, the AIA Compensation Survey is requesting information about gender within firms, in addition to other diversity indicators.

Be Your Best Advocate

Kelley Howell, AIA, LEED AP BD+C,
Principal, PIVOT Architecture
Kelley Howell

In 2014, after eight years at Pivot Architecture in Eugene, Ore., Kelley Howell, AIA, was named partner. Reflecting on her trajectory, Howell says that she moved through the ranks by always advocating for herself. Early in her career, when a firm wasn’t offering her projects about which she was passionate, she found a firm that would. When she had questions about project management, she sought mentors.

Howell advises young architects to seek a mentor—”someone you can look up to, who can offer a guide, and who will share things that you don’t necessarily want to hear about yourself” and a confidante ”with whom you can share both struggles and ideas.” In addition, she says, don’t hesitate to ask questions. “If you’re struggling or you want to know something, don’t be afraid to ask,” Howell says. “Remain curious and open and find the resources that will help you grow.”

Janet Tam - Noll & Tam.
Courtesy of Gary Wagner Janet Tam

Make It Personal

The hardest mid-career choke point for Janet Tam, AIA, principal and founding partner of Berkeley, Calif.–based Noll and Tam, was struggling with a work–life balance when she had children. She decided to branch out on her own and now aims to give her 30 employees a place where professional satisfaction can thrive by “creating a culture that can accept flexibility and the ups and downs of life,” she says.

Another important component, Tam says, is ensuring that employees feel like they have a clear path for advancement. As principal, she structures annual reviews to reflect individual needs. “We ask: What is important to you in your next year, and what do you feel like you need to do? Where are you burned out?”