What’s that saying—the first step to solving a problem is recognizing that you have one? Last month, the American Institute of Architects (AIA) released the results of its 2015 Diversity in the Profession of Architecture survey and the numbers tell a grim—and unsurprising—story: the profession doesn’t look at all like the society it serves.
If there is a silver lining, it’s that in the last few years, the lack of racial and ethnic diversity and the underrepresentation of women in American architectural practice—as well as the challenges they face—are no longer only for back-room conversation. “We are witnessing a real transition to a mainstream discourse that will benefit the profession at all levels,” says Rosa Sheng, a senior associate at Bohlin Cywinski Jackson and founding chair of Equity by Design, a call to action and committee, formed by the AIA San Francisco chapter in 2011.
Of the 7,522 AIA survey respondents (most with degrees in architecture and jobs in the field), almost 70 percent of women believe that they are not represented equally in the profession, while men are split: nearly 50 percent believe women are well represented. Most of the women surveyed said that they believe they are not likely to receive the same pay as their male colleagues for comparable positions. Along with people of color, women also believe they are less likely to be promoted to senior positions. Women (white and of color) think that they are underrepresented because long hours make it difficult to start a family; there is lack of flexibility in working hours; and work-life balance is, well, unbalanced. (For what it’s worth, only half of survey respondents reported a high level of satisfaction with their jobs.)
Less than 2 percent of AIA members are African American, and a majority of the people of color responded that they believe the factors are rooted in childhood: people of color have little knowledge of architecture as a career option, don’t have role models, have difficulty affording architecture school (especially if they are from inner cities), and are likely to pursue higher-paying careers that can help support their families if they are first- or second-generation college students.
The first such AIA survey was conducted in 2005; since then, demographic growth has been steady but moderate. According to 2014 statistics, women represented nearly 22 percent of AIA membership, up from 17 percent. African American membership went from 1.57 percent to 1.89 percent. This is an improvement, but “certainly not enough,” said Emily Grandstaff-Rice, the 2015–16 chair of the AIA Equity in Architecture Commission and a senior associate at Boston’s Arrowstreet Inc.
“This is a complex issue, and, for many, this is a personal issue,” she said in an e-mail. “There are no easy answers or quick fixes. It is imperative that we foster a more inclusive workforce across the profession.” The Equity in Architecture Commission is planning to base recommendations on the survey and present them to the AIA’s board of directors by the end of the year.
Firms have also been trying individually to address the inequalities. Gabrielle Bullock, director of global diversity at Perkins + Will, says the company has reshaped its recruitment teams to represent a cross-section of genders, ages, and races in order to attract the candidates it wants. In a telephone interview, Bullock said she had just left a meeting with leaders from historically black colleges and universities to address how they can place their students in large firms. In addition, “we’ve created a progress tracker around recruitment, retention, cultural advocacy within offices, learning and development, outreach to K–12 and to universities,” says Bullock. “We’re serious about what we’re after.”
She laments the low African-American numbers in the profession and says that the AIA survey confirmed what Perkins + Will has seen to be true. “I tell people that I’m one of the 0.3 percent of licensed African-American women architects in this country,” she says. “I’m usually the only one in the room.” Meanwhile, Equity by Design closes its own second Equity in Architecture survey on April 1. As of mid-March, Sheng said the survey had received 4,500 responses and she was hopeful that they would ultimately get 8,000. “While some of the questions are similar [to the 2014 survey] (i.e., job satisfaction, compensation, leadership or ownership positions, defining success, negotiation tendencies), we also have many new questions that address employee engagement vs. burnout, race/ethnic identification, and deeper nuances of work-life flexibility affecting career advancement opportunities,” said Sheng in an e-mail. She participated in the work group for the AIA’s survey, and, while the AIA’s and Equity’s vary in research methodology and results, they reach essentially the same conclusions.
“I get asked a lot for metrics and results that [prove that] the numbers have changed,” says Sheng. But, what is more important, she thinks the profession as a whole has to treat the source of the problems, and it’s going to take time. She sees progress in the number of firms that are addressing the challenges of talent retention and women returning to the profession after a long hiatus. “Diversity drives innovation,” maintains Bullock. “The success of our profession relies on us being a more diverse one. The work will only be better.”