Ming Thompson
Alicia Cho Ming Thompson

Everyone should have an equal opportunity to become an architect and shape our built environment. The lack of racial and cultural diversity in the profession is a significant issue, but I want to focus here on one aspect of the equity problem: the women already missing from the ranks of the design profession and the potential of the novel coronavirus to diminish our standing further.

Across the nation, women and men graduate from architecture school in nearly equal numbers. However, only about 30% of total architecture staff are women and only 17% of licensed architects are women. The reasons that women leave the field are myriad: architecture’s culture of long hours and low pay, the slow pace of firms to adopt flexible hours or a progressive office culture, lack of opportunities for advancement, and difficulty finding mentorship opportunities and even meaning in our work.

AIA Connecticut’s Women in Architecture committee, which I co-chair, is trying to change this by encouraging more women to join the profession, advocating for their advancement, and supporting each other. On our monthly call in April, we began to think about what will happen to women in architecture in the COVID-19 era and thereafter. Voices from across the state piped up: Will this crisis push women out of the profession? Will we lose a generation of female architects? What happens now?

Our conclusion: This crisis will accelerate the rate at which women leave the profession by exacerbating several existing, unfavorable conditions.

Women shoulder more household responsibilities—especially when it comes to child care. In the American household, women perform a majority of household responsibilities, chief among them child care, laundry, cleaning, and cooking. Now, with most workplaces closed and more than 90% of the world’s children staying at home, the frequency and intensity of those tasks have ratcheted up. What used to be my living room has morphed into an office for two, an infant care center, and a preschool. More dishes accumulate, more mess piles up, and children only have their parents to provide the care they need around the clock. In AIA San Francisco’s Equity by Design committee’s 2018 Equity in Architecture Survey, only 5% of architect fathers reported being the primary caregiver while 44% of architect mothers identified as such. As an April 22 New York Times headline puts it: “Mom’s Zoom Meeting Is the One That Has to Wait.” A May 6 Times headline summed it up even more plainly: "Nearly Half of Men Say They Do Most of the Home Schooling. 3 Percent of Women Agree."

Women face a pay gap. In many households, someone assumes the role of primary caregiver, and economically, it makes sense for it to be the lower wage earner. In architecture, women consistently earn less than their male peers at all levels, from production staff to principals. This is a vicious circle: The second shift of work at home, particularly when related to child care, is a primary reason for the pay gap; this pay gap then leads families to delegate the lower-earning woman to more household tasks. Following the 2014 Ebola outbreak, men’s incomes returned to normal faster than women’s, Simon Fraser University health policy research associate Julia Smith told The New York Times. During this current crisis, women are providing more unpaid caregiving, and the impact to their long-term earnings will likely be more significant and disproportionate to that of men.

Women are penalized for stepping off the career path. When women take time off, our career progress takes a devastating hit. Ultimately, we are less likely to become managers and principals. Meanwhile, the career development of our male counterparts isn’t similarly derailed when they take leave. If shelter-in-place continues or recurs for months, the career trajectories of women will likely take a hit. A woman in her 50s once told me that she wanted to return to architecture after raising her three children. Why had she left the profession in the first place? Her answer was simple: sick days. One child with a cough here, another with a stomachache there, and before she knew it, she was missing too many days at work. Her family struggled with both parents working full-time, so she sacrificed her lower paying job as an architect. According to a Fortune story on the results of a survey by Syndio, the toll of juggling child care, home schooling, and a job during this pandemic has led 14% of women to consider leaving their jobs entirely.

Unemployment will be striking architecture. During the Great Recession, the number of architects dropped by 30%. An untold number of budding designers never even made it into the profession, decamping instead for tech, consulting, and construction. In the depths of 2009, when national unemployment was around 10%, the Boston Society of Architects estimated 30% to 50% of local architects were unemployed. Today, the national unemployment rate is around 20%. In several states, construction is halted on all but essential projects, and clients of all sizes and industries have paused or canceled their plans.

In a recession, women get hit the hardest. Following the Great Recession, the Royal Institute of British Architects found a disproportionate loss of employed women in the profession. In January 2009, 28% of surveyed architectural staff in were women; by December 2011, that number had dropped to 21%. Likewise, the current pandemic may unduly push women out of the architectural profession. But unlike the last recession, nearly every industry has been affected. Few are hiring. How, then, can we keep women in their chosen profession?

We can’t change the systemic forces that are shifting our economy. We can make an effort individually and collectively to retain women—whether they’re our staff, our partners, or ourselves—in architecture.

Mentor and sponsor. If you survived the Great Recession and the one before that, what tactics did you use to stay in the profession? Reach out to emerging architects in your firm and your community. Talk loudly and often about experiences that might help others. Go beyond mentorship and become a sponsor, an advocate who expends their own social and political capital to help younger architects advance. Pass along job postings, recommend women for opportunities, and provide support in any way you can.

Assemble your toolkit. Layoffs have already begun at many firms, and more will follow. I’ve finally realized that people don’t automatically recognize my hard work or achievements: You need to toot your own horn. Know the unique skills and value you bring to your workplace, and find ways to mention this to your manager. Think about where your company may be heading post-COVID-19, and try to learn skills and propose ideas to ease that transition. If layoffs do come, be prepared. Have your résumé ready and develop your professional network. Reach out to those that inspire you and find ways to keep learning and advancing even when you aren’t in an office.

Leverage this trial run of remote work. Architecture firms have been forced to transition to remote work. Certain aspects of office culture, particularly design ideation and sketching, suffer under this new paradigm, but we know now firms can adopt more flexible policies. Technology will only make this easier. My business partner and I founded our firm with remote and flexible work in mind: We rely on a cloud-based server and videoconferencing, and provide laptops for everyone. Our team meets daily, works the hours we can, and still has productive and collaborative design discussions and successful client meetings. If firms can return to the office with an open mind for flexible and remote work, we’ll create a better, more equitable workplace that can better support us as full human beings.

If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it. We will need real data on the impact of the imminent recession on women. Clear information on the gendered impacts of crises is hard to come by; during the Ebola health crisis, for example, fewer than 1% of peer-reviewed papers explored the gendered aspect of the crisis, despite the massive and long-term impact on women’s health. Projects like AIASF EQxD Equity in Architecture, the first-ever national survey on the topic, are filling in this gap. The American Institute of Architects can continue to improve its collection and sharing of data on the profession, first by updating its Diversity in the Profession of Architecture report more frequently; and second by offering that data, including the AIA Firm Survey Report, as a free resource to the profession.

Build equal partnerships. And, finally, my favorite piece of business advice actually addresses personal life: Choose the right life partner, someone who supports you and your career. My spouse and I built an equal partnership in our work, child care, and household. If you are doing more than your share, talk openly about this dynamic with your partner—and know that you’re not alone. Here are a few New York Times stories offering ideas for resolution: one, two, three.

In the last half-century, the profession has gained more women than ever and is finally promoting women to its highest echelons. The COVID-19 pandemic imperils this progress, but it also presents an opportunity to think differently about the way architects live, work, and practice. By bringing issues of equity to the forefront of our conversations, we may be able to create a better and more progressive vision of architecture in a brave new world.

This op-ed was adapted from a version previously published by the author on Medium. It was updated on May 7, 2020, to includes links to The New York Times article "Nearly Half of Men Say They Do Most of the Home Schooling. 3 Percent of Women Agree"; and the Fortune article "14% of women considered quitting their jobs because of the coronavirus pandemic."

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The views and conclusions from this author are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine or of The American Institute of Architects.

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