American statistics on women’s participation in architecture are very similar to those in Australia. Carla Corroto’s recent interviews with American women who have left the profession challenge some of the assumptions about how to increase participation. Here she presents an overview of her preliminary findings.
I am a sociologist investigating why women do not persist in the profession of architecture. In the United States, women earn architecture degrees at roughly the same rate as men, but many eventually opt-out of practice. Today, only 20% of practising architects are women. In terms of inclusion, architecture is lagging behind other US professions such as law (42% women) and medicine (39% women).
In response to the disparity, the American Institute of Architects (AIA) is determined to increase the number of women in architecture’s ‘pipeline’. They are encouraging girls to take up science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) – together with art classes – while in grade (primary) school. The AIA also helped wage a campaign to convince a corporate toy maker to produce Architect Barbie, an edition of their fashion doll intended to represent a rather stylish professional accessorised with high heels and blueprints. Apparently they believe girls who are not enticed by STEM and art classes will find playing with the voluptuous Architect Barbie an enticement to the profession. The AIA’s response to this lacuna is the ideological position that, eventually, many women choose family over architecture’s time-intensive demands. This means that increasing the number of women practising architecture depends upon attracting a greater number of women to the profession.
Women exiting architecture and the AIA’s response is playing out in an interesting social and economic context in the United States. Some journalists have called the phenomena where high-achieving women return home to raise families a ‘post-feminist response’. Others suggest that women today are ‘new-traditionalists’ who embrace stereotypical gender expectations as mothers and wives, and that their careers leave them unfulfilled.
My qualitative research on women in and then out of architecture addresses these issues. I am looking at why architecture has remained homogenous and if recent policies, practices, and initiatives intended to encourage inclusion are effective.
To date, I have conducted interviews with more than 50 women who earned professional degrees in the United States, practised architecture, and then opted-out. Several patterns emerged from their responses to the following questions:
- What are you doing now?
- Most of us have many reasons for changing jobs and careers, what are some of yours?
- Do you feel more pushed from architecture or pulled away by something else?
- What changes in architecture would have to occur for you to persist in the field?
The first important finding is that the women I spoke with did not exit architecture to become full-time homemakers. Those who left the field immediately entered another career path. They went back to college and earned additional degrees in engineering, health policy, law, nursing, midwifery, or teaching, to name a few. Several ran for political office (and won). Many opened small retail businesses focused on arts and crafts. Others founded marketing, advertising, and financial consulting firms.
This is in contrast to the trend identified by some journalists, which sees women opting-out of other elite careers for home.
Though their reasons for leaving architecture varied, most respondents expressed disillusionment. They did not leave architecture for lack of success or passion for design – they liked the work – they left because they didn’t like the job or culture of architecture. Most said they felt pushed out. They spoke unanimously when offering suggestions about the importance of changing the professional culture, and no one believed an Architect Barbie would help.
Enamored With Place says:
Feb 24, 2013
Very interesting research Carla,
Barbie sure gets good press, and now we have Goldie Blox games for promising women engineers which women here seem to be more interested in buying for their daughters. However focusing on dolls and games for women is looking in the wrong direction. Maybe there needs to be an AIA Ken doll. Just joking. I don’t think that would help the profession. It is sad that these smart women are leaving, but hey you can’t blame them. Sure glad you got to the real reasons. Good on you.
Brenda Lynn Edgar says:
Sep 19, 2017
Very interesting article Carla and I trust your research has advanced some way since 2012. As a woman architect who “left” practice, I would also insist on adjacent reasons which exacerbate the problem of sexism: the poor professional training and lack of organizational and interpersonal skills imparted on architecture students and professionals. It’s the sheer ambiguity about what architects actually do that complicates matters. Many other professions such as law and medicine are also highly demanding on women and men alike, however, these professions have more objective criteria for professional evaluation than architecture. If a lawyer successfully defends a client, she is a “good lawyer”, if a doctor cures her patients, she is a good doctor, etc. But how are architects evaluated? Mostly on outdated and pretentious notions of “original design”. Additionnaly, if an architect has to work overtime it is because he or she hasn’t received the proper skills and training to do their job. If you’ve never had to choose between carpet samples or calculate light fixtures, steel sections etc. before your first time in an office, it will indeed take some overtime to master these skills. As a freshman in architecture at Sysracuse University a prominent faculty member, who will remain anonymous,unofficially advised us to “drop all other subjects” and focus on our design studios. Never mind writing and history classes, etc., concentrate on drawing that perfect curvy roofline. So where are your communication skills when you graduate? Where are your critical thinking skills? Where is that wealthy store of artistic references and general culture that, amongst other advantages, enables you to successfully exchange with the socioeconomic elite who are to be your clients?
There is also a culture of inefficiency and overtime in architecture that is totally counter productive. When I visit my architect friends in New York, it is not unusual for one of them to make a slight detour during a Sunday outing to “pop into the office” in order to see who is working and, more importantly, show their face. Even if it is just to pull out that electricity plan and change one or two layers in Autocad. It is obviously easier for men to strive in such environments which promote physical resistance and encourage their overblown male egos to create highly “original” designs like Frank Gehry, or even Zaha Hadid, who denied being a woman, insisting instead that she was a “Zaha”. A great part of the problem is architecture school itself, where deep reforms are truly needed, for men and women alike.