Women in Green (Ecotone Publishing, 2007)
Erin Gehle Women in Green (Ecotone Publishing, 2007)

Next month marks the 10th anniversary of the publication of our book, Women in Green: Voices of Sustainable Design (Ecotone Publishing, 2007). It was the first book in the design industry to study the relationships between diversity, innovation, and sustainability—a bit of a wild card topic back then. During our research, one person asked, “What the heck does being female have to do with sustainable design?” A lot, it turns out.

Since then, the dialogue on this subject has exploded. The annual Women in Green Power Breakfast has become a popular event at Greenbuild, and the annual Women in Green Forum bills itself as “the premier conference series highlighting women's impact.” In 2015, spurred by the efforts of the San Francisco chapter of the AIA Equity by Design (EQxD) committee, the national AIA established an Equity in Architecture Commission, which published its landmark “Diversity in the Profession of Architecture” report last year. All of this signals that women’s leadership is getting much-needed attention.

On the other hand, advancement has been slow. For starters, the gender pay gap remains dismal. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that in 2015 female architects earned 79.4 percent of what their male counterparts did—a proportion similar to that of other professions. According to the National Committee on Pay Equity, over the past decade the average pay for women among all professions rose by less than two points (to 79.6 cents on the dollar, compared to men). In the previous decade, it had risen by twice that much. Late last year, AIA San Francisco’s EQxD committee reported even lower numbers for female architects. That’s not progress.

The problem isn’t just a matter of pay equity. By not providing more opportunity for women, the design industry is missing significant opportunities to improve its impact. As we show in the book, research reveals that women are much more likely than men to support environmental causes—through their work, consumer choices, voting, and activism. The average carbon footprint of women also is considerably lower—by nearly 20 percent, according to a 2011 French report—while men are more skeptical about climate change, even though they understand the science less, according to a 2010 paper published in Population and Environment.

Our recent research backs this up. Lance recently surveyed nearly 550 architects and designers across the country to gauge their knowledge and interest in climate change and energy-efficient design. The responses show that men are 10 percent more likely to assess their own knowledge as “good” or “excellent,” but slightly less likely to identify correctly how much energy buildings consume. They also are 11 percent less likely to say that combatting climate change is important for architects. In other words, men tend to inflate their own abilities even though they are not on par with that of women, who were more unassuming but more knowledgeable about climate change and energy-efficient design, and more committed to action.

Similarly, the AIA Committee on the Environment’s recent study of high-performance firms, which Lance co-authored with Sandra Montalbo, Assoc. AIA, and reported on for ARCHITECT, revealed that design companies who frequently win COTE Top Ten Awards have far greater gender parity than the industry at large. Among the the high-performance firms (HPFs) studied closely in the report, staffs are nearly evenly split between women (46 percent) and men (54 percent); this proportion of women is 50 percent higher than within the profession at large (31 percent, according to the 2016 AIA Firm Survey). These firms also tend to have much higher numbers of women in leadership positions: 34 percent, compared to the industry average of 20 percent. Women-owned businesses account for 7 percent of the industry at large, but 20 percent of repeat COTE Top Ten Award winners studied.

American Institute of Architects
American Institute of Architects

These findings can give firms a significant advantage. Research consistently demonstrates that having more women in management positions results in improved employee engagement, greater company loyalty, higher confidence, lower turnover, stronger productivity, more environmental awareness, and a smaller ecological footprint. Gender-balanced companies—in a range of industries beyond design—are 15 percent more likely to outperform their competitors, according to research by McKinsey & Co.

Earlier this month, the AIA issued a bold statement asserting that “climate change clearly is one of the biggest global crises of the 21st century” and that “architects play a vital role” in combatting it. Women have known this for years, and they’ll continue to lead the charge. Will the rest of the profession catch up?

At the 2017 AIA Conference in Architecture, in Orlando, Kira Gould will lead the session “TH312: Women in Green and Why Diversity for Design Matters," on April 27, 4:30 p.m.–6 p.m.

The views and conclusions expressed in this article are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.