There was reason to celebrate diversity in architecture last month. The AIA awarded the Gold Medal to the wife-husband team of Angela Brooks and Larry Scarpa, founders of the Los Angeles firm Brooks + Scarpa, known for their design and advocacy work for affordable housing. They are the second couple to win the AIA’s highest prize (Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown were first, in 2016), and Brooks is only the third woman honored in the medal’s 115-year history (Julia Morgan was the other, awarded posthumously in 2014).
A day later, the AIA (with the ACSA) announced that its Topaz Medallion for Excellence in Architectural Education would go to Deborah Berke, dean of the Yale School of Architecture since 2016, who also runs a successful New York practice. (Berke was similarly honored in October by RECORD with a Women in Architecture Design Leadership award.)
Are we finally hearing the glass shatter in the ceiling—or at least the sound of a good crack?
Well, not so fast. The same week the AIA was busy handing out its annual honors, the organization also released a long-awaited report on bias in the profession—and the 192-page document paints a picture that is shocking but, unfortunately, not surprising.
Led by legal scholar Joan C. Williams, from the University of California’s Hastings College of the Law, the AIA-commissioned study was based on surveys of 1,346 architects, in firms of every size, examining racial bias as well as gender. “I don’t do gender without racial bias,” says Williams, who has studied the workplace in seven professions, including engineering and law, through the Center For WorkLife Law she founded at Hastings. “It doesn’t make sense,” she adds, “because in this and every other study, white men’s experience emerges as different from every other group, and the experience of women of color is the most divergent from that of white men.”
The architecture study looked at a range of demographic groups, including Native American professionals and those who identified as having lower socioeconomic status. The most significant finding was that Black and multiracial women reported the worst experiences in a variety of work situations.
Just a few takeaways from the study:
- Two-thirds of Black architecture professionals, both men and women, said they had experienced racism in their workplaces.
- 70 percent of white women and 61 percent of women of color reported experiencing sexism in their workplace, compared with less than a quarter of white men and men of color.
- Over 50 percent of Black women reported being left out of information-sharing networks in their workplaces.
- Over 40 percent of Black architecture professionals reported being unable to see a long-term future in their current workplaces, compared to only 20 percent of white men.
- More than half of women of color and white women, along with 30 percent of men of color, reported having questions addressed to someone else when they were the expert; nearly 65 percent of Black women reported that experience.
People working at large firms—50 or more people—reported more bias than those in smaller offices. In addition, Williams says, people who worked at the relatively few firms where “good design” is considered the product of a “solitary genius”—rather than a team—reported much higher levels of bias and sexual harassment, though those statistics were not broken out in the report.
Across the board, “the data on access to design work is truly disheartening,” says Williams. One stunning statistic: 88 percent of men said they were allowed to develop design ideas but only 61 percent of women of color said so: “Multiracial women, Native American, Alaska Native, Indigenous, and other underrepresented architectural professionals were the least likely to report being able to develop and present design ideas.”
What Williams calls “the Maternal Wall bias” is often cited as the reason women leave the profession— women who have children cannot deal with the demands of the work—but she believes thwarted ambitions to be designers could be a factor too. “They’re making tremendous sacrifices for work that isn’t very fulfilling,” she notes.
Among the few positive observations in this damning document: “Racism and sexism in the profession were so open that we found a pattern of white men noting it with distaste, something we found in no other industry.”
It is those white men who have the power to bring about real change to the inequitable workplace they have perpetuated. Gentlemen, if you’re disgusted, please do something about it—and then do more.