New Report Shines Light on Gender Gaps in Architecture

Moving From Anecdotes to Solid Data

A total of 14,360 respondents representing architecture industry groups, architecture school alumni and firms of all sizes participated in the 2018 survey, making it the largest survey ever conducted on the topic of equity in architecture in the U.S. and a valuable resource to spark important conversations about the state of the industry.

The survey is the third that Equity by Design has conducted since 2014 (when the group was called The Missing 32% in reference to the gap between the number of female architecture graduates and the number of licensed female practitioners and senior leaders in the profession). Equity by Design founding chair Rosa T. Sheng says the results of all three surveys have amplified the existence of problems many already suspected.

“The highlighted inequities that we were talking about anecdotally are now more apparent and obvious and proof-ready to anybody having that situation in a firm,” says Sheng, principal and director of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion at San Francisco design firm SmithGroup. “They thought they were alone, but then they could point to the statistics and they could say, ‘See, women are being paid less, less women are becoming principals and advancing,’ etc.”

The surveys have also revealed some less obvious pain points that may be contributing to inequity throughout the industry. The most recent survey, for instance, examined the toll that student debt can take on an aspiring architect’s career path and the challenges that caretakers in the industry face that those who aren’t caretakers may not.

Significant Gender Gaps Remain

While nearly half of U.S. architecture school graduates are women, women make up less than a quarter of licensed architects in the field and 17 percent of partners or principals in architecture firms, according to the AIA.

“All of my bosses have always been men, every single one of them,” Kendra Rosenberg of KNR Design Studio in California says. “I’ve never even had a female vice principal that I have worked for. Every single vice principal that I have worked for has been male. And I’ve worked at large firms and I’ve worked at small firms.”

Exploring the factors that contribute to that glaring gap and others is one of the survey’s major focus areas. 

“What we started to find in the 2016 report was the correlation of topics, so burnout versus engagement, what are the factors that cause somebody to want to stay versus likely to leave? And then compare it to race and gender and see what’s happened there,” Sheng says. 

Rosenberg, who started KNR two years ago and has completed the required national exams but has yet to obtain her California architecture license, cites her transition into motherhood as the reason for the delay and one of the reasons she established her own firm. The study echoes similar experiences among respondents. Male respondents were more likely than females to report being parents at every stage of their careers, and women working in firms were least likely to be mothers. Women heading up their own practices (and therefore presumably setting their own schedules) were most likely to have kids.


Jeanne Gang, who advocated for equal pay in architecture in a recent Fast Company article, heads Studio Gang, which designed this Aqua Parkhomes model unit in Chicago.

Other notable findings included white men being most likely to be principals and partners at every point in their career, women being far more likely to report their physical or emotional health having suffered as a result of a work-life conflict, and a gender-based pay gap in every project role, particularly among senior team members. “A man working as a design principal makes roughly 20K more per year on average than the average female respondent working in the same position,” the report says.

Read more about the legacy of trailblazing female architect Zaha Hadid
A project by Kathryn Rogers’ Sogno Design Group

Widening the Lens to Look at Other Groups

Beyond examining gender-based challenges within the community, Equity by Design has expanded its focus in the years since its founding to include inequities faced by other groups as well. Architecture has long been criticized for its lack of diversity, and the homogeneity persists. 

AIA data suggests the 78 percent of survey respondents who identified as white or Caucasian, for instance, is fairly representative of the level of racial and ethnic diversity that exists within the field as a whole. Like gender-based gaps, race-based pay gaps also exist at every level of experience in the industry. And while the reported leadership gap between white men and white women has narrowed since the first survey was released in 2014, the gap between white men and men and women of color has actually widened since 2016’s survey. 

More diversity in leadership roles, on classroom syllabuses and throughout the field in general could go a long way in introducing different perspectives and encouraging more diversity at all levels for the next generation of pros. Without seeing themselves represented in leadership roles, aspiring architects, whether women, minorities or both, may face a number of disadvantages — from implicit bias to a lack of relatable mentors — that could lead to their avoiding or leaving the profession, the report suggests.

“Everybody sees things through their own filter, so I think you would get a lot more creativity [with more architects from diverse backgrounds]. There wouldn’t be one way to solve a problem,” founder and principal architect Kathryn Rogers of Sogno Design Groupin California says. 

“Even just being somebody who was working while raising their children, I’m going to be sensitive to families in a different way, I will understand things in a different way, just my own life experience and being female. Coming from an immigrant family or something like that, you might be able to relate to people better, you might be sensitive to certain things. I just think there needs to be so much more diversity to be able to serve a diverse population.”


Signs of Progress 

Multifaceted issues like these need multifaceted solutions, Sheng says. Architecture’s narrowing gap between white men and white women leaders may just signify firms reflexively hiring more women to increase their diversity, she says, when more in-depth analysis is still needed to make meaningful change in the industry.

“More people were saying, ‘Oh, you just hire more people of diverse backgrounds!’ and that was an interesting conversation point because that’s a temporary solution versus a long-term solution,” Sheng says. “Yes, you need to do that as well, but if you only do that and you don’t really go and dig deep into how your culture is perpetuating injustice or inequitable advancement potential or pay equity, then you can never get to true equity.”

Sheng and her team, along with the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture, which partnered with Equity by Design on the 2018 survey, plan to continue digging deeper through workshops, presentations, interactive videos and a more in-depth final survey report, which Sheng says is to be released sometime in the late summer or early fall of this year. 

Bright spots from the survey suggest that younger respondents are far more diverse than older ones, which could mean an opportunity for change in the future, provided the new generation is given the support it needs to thrive. More women in leadership roles, for instance, could be beneficial for both the industry and the built environment itself, Rosenberg says. 

“I think there’s going to be a little bit of disruption and I think that disruption is exactly what this field needs, because it’s been done for one way for so long that I feel like we’ve gotten a little lost along the way as to why we’re building buildings in the first place,” she says. “You build it for the people inside.” 

Data are essential in raising these issues and getting people talking about them is important progress, Sheng says. SmithGroup and other firms have committed to updating their HR handbooks, reevaluated their interview questions and started mentorship programs after studying the surveys’ findings, she says.

“[The response to the surveys has] been a groundswell and it’s been really great to see, so I think we hope that there’s just a continuation of that,” she says. “Everybody has a part to play in this and it’s not just, ‘Oh, that’s for women or that’s for people of color.’ It’s for everybody. When we focus on what the problems are for those people, because it’s amplified we’re actually solving for a greater issue to make architecture more approachable as a profession for everyone, but namely we’re also building our value system as architects to serve not only the clients that pay us the transactional money but the user groups and the outcomes of anybody that engages with what we do and trying to make it better.”

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