Architecture: No Girls Allowed

Growing Rose's from Seed

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Grow where you’re planted. It’s an old saying that could really help a lot of female architects. The numbers are staggering: while architecture schools contain a balanced 50/50 male to female ratio, the percentage of female registered architects hovers near single digits at a mere 12%. Family life presents difficult choices (according to many male architects) which can thwart a woman’s plans of licensure or postpone it indefinitely. The ‘female temperament’ – less aggressive than a male counterpart – is sometimes blamed for the reason women don’t succeed in obtaining a license. Other times, it is proposed that women simply don’t have the same drive and desire to earn a license as men.

While it is good to bring the issue of disproportionate licensure to the forefront, it seems we dance around the problem while failing to come up with positive solutions and recognize ways to really work with what we do have. It seems very similar to the problem of architect titles: we moan and groan about the way things are but never seek out a way to make things better. Instead of just standing around commenting on the problem, what if we found a solution? A group of ladies started a scholarship fund called Women in Architecture to do just that. What if more women (and men) in architecture started acting positively to enable women rather than sitting in the bleachers?

Kazuyo Sejima

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While architecture has long been a ‘boy’s club’, there are plenty of well known female architects. The attention on starchitects such as Zaha Hadid, Kazuyo Sejima, and Jeanne Gang help to shine the spotlight on women in architecture. Attention brings awareness, but this is only one aspect of women becoming leaders in architecture and completing the path of registration. There is a niche field in which I believe female architects have an acute advantage over their male counterparts. However, it often goes unrecognized and uncultivated. That niche is residential design and remodeling.

Research shows that residential design and remodeling is a field that is ripe for female architects. Now, the numbers have little to do with how women are designing a higher percentage of residences than men. The research doesn’t point to statistics that indicate any advantage for the female designer. However, the research does indicate that women are the primary decision makers in home purchases and home improvement projects, including major renovations. Now let’s put our analytical skills to use. If a female designer is likely to be the primary decision maker within her own home purchase and improvement projects, wouldn’t it stand to reason that she would also be a prime candidate for helping another woman achieve a design vision? Women have a distinct advantage over men in this regard: they are the ones who usually make the decisions about their home, so they can leverage that to make design decisions about their client’s home.

Residential Green Design

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Designing within the residential arena can become as simple as a woman asking herself: how would I design it for myself? The intuition and understanding of how women live, move and work in their homes becomes the reason behind new designs. As a woman, I can predict how another woman will most likely utilize a space I create for her. I understand the challenges of keeping a house clean while wanting to spend time with my family. I feel the pressure when my kitchen just isn’t designed properly for the size of my dinner party. I connect with another woman when she says she wants an entertaining room that feels inviting and comfortable. I can balance the desires for luxury and practicality because I’ve been there. I’ve had to scrub out wine stains from the couch before I went to slip covers. I’ve often weighed the option of knocking out a wall or two in order to be connected to my house guests. As a woman, I get it. Now, how many female architects use this to their advantage? Probably very few.

Part of the solution of making women leaders in architecture is to recognize that they are different than men. As such, we women need to market ourselves differently. Instead of saying ‘I can do what a man does’, why not try ‘I can do different things than a man can do’ and add value in the process? For example, women are often more in touch with emotions, and can identify with the needs of others. Why not use that as an asset during planning meetings? A woman may understand the reasons behind a program requirement, which gives her the ability to interpret the requirement in multiple ways beyond face value. As women, we tend to share information more freely and desire to connect to others. Why not use that as an advantage and focus on being a team leader that disperses project information? Alternatively, women could help bridge the gap between verbal explanations and visual designs. Since women are more likely to utilize a verbal response than men, they can help pitch a project in concise terms. Even better, as creative and talented architects, they can add visual sketches of spatial solutions to the conversation as they sell it. If more women were utilized in ways that showcased their differences as talents, perhaps more would be inclined to pursue their license. I would argue that the biggest obstacle for women obtaining their license is the fact that it doesn’t add a clear advantage for them; if they are currently under paid, under utilized and under valued, what would a license really add? Perhaps the reason more women don’t rise through the ranks in architecture is because their true innate talents aren’t fully utilized.  It is time to change that perception by recognizing women first as women: positively different from men and able to add value through those differences. Perhaps if women felt valued they would pursue a license within their profession. A man’s definition of value and success is probably quite different from that of a woman’s. It is time we learn the differences and work with them in a way that encourages and enables women to be leaders in architecture.

As I progress through designs for a kitchen and house remodel, I am able to connect with the female head of the household in ways that give me a unique advantage. I really understand what it is that this client wants, not solely based on my design training, but because I’m a woman. It is one way to even the playing field, regardless of registration. I plan to use that to positively impact my designs. I’m going to grow where I’m planted.

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  • Great post ! I like what you say about marketing – we need to market ourselves differently. We might never be considered capable of doing the same things that men do, but they also have the advantage of being able to do only one thing. Marketing our perceptiveness and ability to be flexible and multitask to our advantage is a great way to call attention to our innate skills. After all, if you are a woman, life ultimately gets in the way and alters your plans !

    • Thanks for reading! I think women often see themselves as trying to fit into a ‘man’s profession’, but we need to remember that we are created differently than men and can offer those differences as advantages in the workplace. Once we recognize this, our value as professionals can be fully realized. Men and women can play different, but equally important roles within a design firm. Best of luck as you decide how to best market yourself within the profession!

  • Nadia Lauterbach

    Brinn, great and eagerly awaited post!!! I completely agree with you on all accounts, but particularly when you talk about celebrating differences; that is an idea that I have wholly embraced as I move forward in my career. from the look of my business cards, to my portfolio, the way canvas tote in which I carry drawings and tools to client meetings, and of course the way I dress: everything says woman. That’s not too say I’m not able to design for a man (and one my current residential projects is actually just that), because I do believe like you said that we tend to be better listeners and more in touch with emotions. Architecture (public or private) is an emotional field, whether it is a couple or a board of trustees; the architect has the delicate job of reaching into people’s minds/dreams and turning them into reality in an ordered, logical, practical, and beautiful way. Along the way you have to nurture your client, counsel them, reassure them, “hold their” hand, educate them in the ways of good taste in the most diplomatic of ways; persuade them out of bad ideas and into good ones…and who better to do that than a woman?On the issue of life getting in the way; I find architecture to be one of those flexible professions in which if your boss is not cool with you taking off for soccer or ballet practice, then you should become your own boss; of course having one’s own practice is never easy but it’s either that or giving up on the profession altogether, and we are already underpaid, so what is the difference? that is one way to eat your cake and eat too. I’m setting up the crib next to drafting table!

    • I love that your business cards are feminine – very different, indeed! I agree that architecture (and most design) is an emotional process. So much of our being – how we identify ourselves – is wrapped up in the buildings we inhabit. A good architect (male or female) should be able to relate to the client’s inner most desires and draw them out through good design. I also think you’re onto something with how women handle family life within architecture. Who says we have to choose between a family and a career?

  • Nadia Lauterbach

    Meant to say, obviously “have your cake…”. iPhone typing is the worst!

  • interesting! i started university majoring in architecture, it was very clear that as a female i wasn’t welcomed & the most (not all) professors treated me differently, graded me harder, isolated me from the rest of the male classmates. i switched to interior design, i don’t love architecture enough to fight to be in the boys club. although i’ll stand behind & support any woman that does.

    • Sorry to hear about your experience. While I never experienced any outright hostility, it was sometimes a challenge to be the only woman in a group project. Most professors and students didn’t pay attention to the gender gap, but I often was aware that there were 3-4 guys for every girl in a class. By the time I reached graduate school, that evened out a bit. I wonder if the gender inequalities are more apparent during school or in the workplace?

  • La Femme Architecte

    I thought this was an interesting post and POV. I don’t necessarily agree with it all. I know many female architects who have gotten their licenses. Some have families but only after they received their license because it was a goal they set out to do early in their career. I think this is true for anybody in the field of architecture, or any other professional practice where you have to obtain a license (law and medical). 

    I don’t agree with the idea that females architects are pigeon-holed to doing residential and home renovation projects because females have a supposed innate ability to identify the needs of a family, the home, and can relate easier with the Mrs. of the household. Somebody pays the bills and sometimes it is the man of the house who brings home the bacon. And if that is the case, he will have a say and the architect (whether female or male) will have to contend with him, too.

    The solutions you suggested for making women leaders in architecture are no different than what is expected of an architect regardless of your sex, and whether you have your license.

    Yes, biologically and psychologically speaking, females and males differ from each other, which may lead to different ways of connecting with your client and producing a different design product. But the methods in which we arrive at the final outcome does not necessarily celebrate the “differences” in the sexes as you have suggested. I don’t think that female architects are more likely to do “this” or “that” more often than compared with male architects. If anything, each can offer their perspective based on their sex. Similarly, one can also offer other perspectives based on race and social-economic backgrounds.

    I think it’s great you are encouraging more women to pursue their license and make their mark in the male dominated architectural profession. I just don’t think creating and marketing “differences” is a way to go about it because I don’t think we need that divide in the profession. Women should not be afraid to compete with men. How are we ever to enter the playing field if we don’t compete for the same jobs? If anything, we should think about how we are better than our male counterparts. How, as females, are we an asset to an architectural employer or practice?

    With anything in life, you have to want it in order to achieve it. In my opinion, there really isn’t anything stopping or preventing women from obtaining their license except their desire to do so, or perhaps they lack confidence? But if a woman wants to be an architect, they will become an architect. It’s not different than seeing many women as doctors and lawyers.

    • Thanks for the thoughtful reply. You may have misread my thoughts on the residential and remodeling niche market, however. I never meant to imply that women should only pursue that niche, but rather that we as women have an ‘innate advantage’ of being able to relate to female heads of households in a way that, perhaps, men may have to work harder at. That advantage, if recognized and used appropriately, could help women who pursue a residential focus to better market their abilities within that niche. There is no reason that women can’t use those same innate qualities in other architectural disciplines.

      I think what you said about solutions for making women leaders being the same solutions that make men leaders is correct. What I am hinting towards is more about the underlying motivations and values that drive a woman to obtaining a license versus the desires and motivations of a man. Perhaps they are the same for some women, but given that we are biologically different, it may be possible that our reasons for pursuit of success are different from men. If we can discover these differences in motivation and values, maybe we can enable more women (through proper encouragement and support) to obtain their license. Like you, I often question why it is that so many women forego their license. Is it, like you suggest, a lack of confidence? A lack of desire? A struggle between family goals and career goals? Perhaps the answer to all of those questions is to root out the underlying values of a woman.

      Regardless of the reason a woman chooses to pursue a license, the desire has to be there, hands down. Hopefully with intelligent dialogue like this we can help raise expectations and encourage that desire.

      Thanks for commenting!

  • CnB

    I get your point, really. But I have to agree with La Femme Architecte. Implying that we have some innate abillities about the household – that are clearly “injected” in us since an early age as a way to keep us at home –  is not going to help. I don’t mean to grow where I was planted – in a society where man can do anything and woman are supposed to “fill in the blanks”.

  • Ing Samantha

    Interesting article! However, saying that ‘but because I’m a woman’ you would better understand what a female would want in a kitchen or design is an in interesting approach in an article that pre-ports to take on sexism. 
    I wonder though, if a male designer or architect said that he could design a better building for a male client just ‘because he is a guy’ how that position would be taken by the author.

    • Thanks for your comment! The key point to recognize is that women have an advantage – this can be leveraged, or left dormant. It does not imply that a woman’s designs will be inherently ‘better’, but rather that a female designer will have a means of connecting with their female client in a way that a male designer may not. Whether the designer chooses to leverage that (and whether they are naturally talented) are different matters.

      Think if a male client requested a ‘man cave’. He would probably identify well with another man who shared his interests and would most likely gravitate to a design that reflected those shared values.

      This article is more about finding common ground with clients, leveraging it, and recognizing gender differences as having positive value. It doesn’t seek to take a stand on whether women or men are better at designing residences (or other building types).

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  • Heba Nimer

    Really nice article!!! I’m actually starting architecture this fall! I’m not backing down from my decision because I dont care if its a “boys club” I’m in it to win it.