For several months now, we've been reaching out to architects to talk about the status of women in the profession. Even before the Architects' Journal published its scathing survey of how women in architecture are treated in the U.K.—and well before two students at Harvard's Graduate School of Design launched their petition to pressure the Pritzker Prize committee to recognize architect and planner Denise Scott Brown, who was excluded from the 1991 award bestowed on her partner, Robert Venturi—we had begun to report on the inequities that persist in the field. What was striking was that many women didn't want to talk on the record about their concerns. They just want their work acknowledged—and please, they said, we're “architects,” not “women architects.”
That's an entirely understandable position. But as Gloria Steinem put it, “Whoever has power takes over the noun—and the norm—while the less powerful get an adjective.” There are architects—who are overwhelmingly white men—and there are women architects, at least in the minds of many.
In her bestseller, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook, talks about this. It's hard to overestimate the book's impact in restarting a national conversation about women's equality—even if many of us can't believe we're still having this conversation in 2013.
But in architecture, as in other professions, it's essential to keep talking. Here's why: though women now make up over 40 percent of the architecture students in the U.S., they account for only 23 percent of those working in architecture. Only 17 percent of partners and principals of firms are women. Worst of all, in the 35-44 age group, the sweet spot of career building, women architects leave the profession in droves. The critic Sarah Williams Goldhagen explores these facts in a sobering and provocative essay in this issue.
The good news is that there's a growing contingent of women designers whose architecture is having a profound impact on the built environment. We've been pleased to publish projects by many of them in the past, and in this issue we feature work by Annabelle Selldorf, Billie Tsien, Anne Fougeron, Lisa Iwamoto, and Merrill Elam, among others. But take note: almost all the high-profile women practicing today either run their own offices or are in partnerships, often with their spouse. The bigger firms, of more than 50 people—where 37 percent of those in architecture work, and where there are billions of dollars worth of construction projects to design—have very few women in leadership roles.
When we asked women what was one thing they would most like to change in the profession, every one'without exception'said the inadequate pay scale. Male architects would likely agree, even if they tend to make more money than their female counterparts.
And men as well as women would benefit from changes in the culture of architecture—not just in the nature of the workplace but in how work is perceived and credited. The publicity around the Scott Brown controversy has put a new focus on the Pritzker Prize and its perpetuation of the idea of the solo genius as author of a work of architecture. This view of how architecture is made is—with a few exceptions—largely outmoded in a world of complex technology and construction. It's also out of sync with the practice of many designers, who favor a research-based, collaborative approach, working across disciplines.
And the emergence of new values in architecture—sustainability; a concern for cities and the public realm; and the application of design thinking to solve a range of human problems—only reinforces the notion of teams, not soloists, who pool knowledge and share credit.
Architecture is a political and social act. As architects engage increasingly in some of the most serious issues of our day, the field requires practitioners who reflect the needs and wishes of people across a wide economic and cultural spectrum. Deborah Berke, the first winner of the Berkeley-Rupp Prize, awarded for helping the advancement of women in architecture, puts it this way: “All aspects of our diverse society and culture are underrepresented in architecture. It's shortsighted and does a disservice to make the issue solely about women.”
Let's push the leaders of architecture today to open more doors to the talents of women and others who are underrepresented. And then we can all stop talking about it.