The Missing 32% Project held its third annual symposium in mid-October.
Jenny Guan The Missing 32% Project held its third annual symposium in mid-October.

“Equity is not just gender,” said Cathy Simon, FAIA, a design principal at Perkins+Will, to a capacity crowd of nearly 250 people at this year’s Equity by Design: Knowledge, Discussion, and Action! Symposium in San Francisco on Oct. 18. ARCHITECT reported on the early findings of the Equity in Architecture Survey, organized by The Missing 32% Project (TM32PP) and AIA San Francisco, which not only provided the structure for the symposium’s breakout sessions, but also is the largest grassroots survey on the state of equity and the architectural profession to date, according to TM32PP chairperson Rosa Sheng, AIA.

Through the survey, which generated 2,289 responses (60 percent from women, 40 percent from men), TM32PP hoped to identify some of the roadblocks in architecture.

While the symposium was born out of a desire to understand gender disparity in the profession, the broader goal of the event—and the survey itself—was to talk about equity as a whole. “Do not establish a wedge between the civil rights of all people and women,” Simon said.

TM32PP chairperson Rosa Sheng
Daniel Wang TM32PP chairperson Rosa Sheng

From the start of the event, the speakers emphasized that conversation was an important initial tool for fighting inequity in the workplace. A recurring theme was the recognition that bias—against both men and women—exists. Bias, Sheng said, “is not the black and white of the past. Today, it’s more nuanced. How do you deal with implicit bias?”

Keynote speaker Emily Grandstaff-Rice, AIA, an associate at Boston’s Cambridge Seven Associates, responded with: “If you see inequity, name it. If you observe privilege, talk about it. Our greatest power is our voice.”

Talking about inequity is paramount to the AEC profession, agreed Aiden Hughes, an engineer and the group leader of Arup’s San Francisco office and its North Americas Planning Practice. When asked during a session why equity across gender and race is important, he replied that it’s “a business imperative.”

“We’re global, we’re multidisciplinary, but we are not diverse,” Hughes said of his firm. “We pride ourselves on being multidisciplinary, but the big thing that’s missing is we’re not bringing the widest diversity of opinions and views to our work.” To generate awareness on this topic, Arup gives a set of cards with facts and data about equity and inclusion in the workplace to each staff member. “We use these cards as conversation starters,” Hughes said.

A culture of bullying and a desire to find a better work-life balance were issues that emerged in the survey as affecting both men and women. Symposium attendee Annette Jannotta, an interior designer with Flad Architects, saw these two challenges merge during a breakout panel about flexibility in practice. She said she was struck by a senior architect’s recounting of his lifelong struggle to keep a sensible workload. “He told us that he is perceived as a ‘sissy’ for trying to have a work-life balance,” Jannotta said.

Attendees gathered outside a symposium break.
Jen Tai Attendees gathered outside a symposium break.

John Westell, an associate designer in the San Francisco office of Gould Evans, was one of the few male attendees at the symposium. When asked what brought him to the event, Westell laughed. “That’s a popular question today.” The practice of architecture is changing, he said, and women will be the pioneers of that change. “The field of architecture has to evolve to meet the realities of a changing world,” he said, “and I don’t see events like this for men in the field—events that promote equity.”

To document the current state of the profession and how it might change in the future to support equity, the organizers invited attendees to post notes on the positive and negative aspects of practice on an oversized “relevancy board.” What emerged was a set of issues that span gender and race. In the “negative” quadrant, attendees listed opacity of firm process, unpaid internships, egoism, and long hours coupled with low pay as concerns. On the positive side, shared responsibility for project and client management, mentorship from day one, and collaboration were seen as important. One Post-it note read: “Embrace change not just tolerate it.”

Lian Chikako Chang

Getting to that place of change, Sheng said, will be a group effort. “Equity is everyone’s issue and we all have a part in it,” she said. She charged attendees to think about actionable ways to jumpstart equity within their practice. In the coming weeks, TM32PP will send a follow-up survey to attendees, asking them to indicate the three things that they will do in the next year to support equity on a personal level, at the firm level, and within the profession at large.

“We have people committed to sharing the survey and talking about the results in their firms,” Sheng said. “We’ll capture their stories and share them in the coming months.”

Many of the breakout sessions developed for the symposium— Collaborative Negotiation is Your Power Tool, Innovating Licensure, What's Flex Got to Do With It—will be offered in the San Francisco region and shared with other AIA chapters to implement.

Note: This article has been updated since first publication to correct the number of survey respondents to 2,289.