In honor of International Women’s Day celebrated on March 8, it’s important to reflect upon and acknowledge the progress that women across all design professions have made over the last several years. From more women being appointed to leadership roles in prominent academic institutions around the world, Jeanne Gang being named to Time 100’s Most Influential People in 2019, the all-female team of Counterspace being awarded the design of the Serpentine Pavilion in London, and the first female practice winning the prestigious Pritzker Prize only a few days ago, more women in architecture are gaining the recognition that they deserve in this traditionally male-dominated profession.
Along with celebrating these accomplishments, we, as a design community, should look forward and predict how this powerful movement might unite on its goals in three key areas that have been heavily discussed by practitioners and design institutes alike: transparency in compensation, recruitment and retention of female employees, and opportunities for professional development, all in order to further create a landscape of equality for women in design. Although none of these issues can be solved overnight, small steps forward in these areas will pave the way for female designers of the future to feel more represented and respected for their achievements.
In an essay written for Fast Company last year, Jeanne Gang, founder and Principal of Chicago-based Studio Gang, suggested that one of the critical steps in this movement towards equality should begin with something tangible: fixing the pay gap by paying men and women the same, and becoming transparent about salaries in the workplace in order to build respect among colleagues. Unlike other intangible measures of value, pay is a subjective number that can, and should, be leveled across genders. The AIA has launched several reports that have revealed startling statistics that support Gang’s proposal. The average salaries for men are higher than those of women at every year of experience, including entry-level salaries where the pay difference can range within a few thousand dollars. This only increases as experience is gained and can increase to as much as a 15% pay gap in more senior positions that women tend to hold less. This eventually leads to one of the reasons why women leave jobs in architecture, or leave architecture for a new profession altogether. Some firms, such as Studio Gang, have made great strides and closed their pay gap completely. Gang closes her essay by saying, “Taking the first step toward equality via pay empowers us to move forward, together, to address the more complex challenges that await. Comprehensive, math-based tools are available to assess the problem. Let’s put them to work. Follow the money (or lack thereof), and fix pay inequity now.”
When it comes to the actual number of women in the design profession, the answer seems like an obvious one- if you want more women to be architects, then teach more women to be architects. Other professions in the STEM field often cite a problem that comes from the lack of available talent, or the fact that young girls often don’t see women having technical careers who can mentor them. While this may attribute to some of the early recruitment problems, the AIA has found that nearly half of architecture school students are women. So why are so few staying in the industry after graduation? This question can be explored in two parts.
The first part is the idea that since this still is a male-dominated industry, men are the face of the profession. They are often the ones sitting on committees, making decisions, holding interviews, and creating a repeated system of not including women in positions of power.
The second part considers the idea that society still puts weight on the idea of a “starchitect”, which again, is a male-dominated field that historically, has included very few women. What about the women who don’t want to be the next Norman Foster or Frank Gehry? How we define success in this profession needs to become a more broad term with a range of acceptable definitions. There are female architects who want to focus on other aspects of architecture and forge their own paths, not the traditional means of practice or academia that have been taught as dogma by men over time. Women who remain in the practice also want to be afforded the same opportunities when it comes to promotions, raises, and the ability to participate in meaningful work. Women want to be known as great architects, not great female architects.
The battle for equality in design is far from over. If anything, it has just begun, and these next several years will be pivotal in defining the success of female equality in the workplace. Our profession should strive to reflect the world that we design and aim to make a better place- and this includes celebrating the successes and enabling equal opportunities for the women we work with in our day to day practices.