At the country’s best architecture schools, the number of women among the student body is steadily rising—-and in more than one case, they outnumber men.

Let‘s go back a couple of decades and return to the halcyon days of the women’s movement. While the Equal Rights Amendment may have stalled, the momentum behind it changed a lot on American campuses and opened a lot of doors to professions that historically were men’s clubs.

In 1971, only 9 percent of law school students were women. Over the next decade, that figure grew a remarkable 26 percent, to the point that one out of three students was a woman. And in medicine, the increase in the number of female physicians from 1970 to 1990 more than doubled. Today, a quarter of the American Medical Association’s membership is female.


Which brings us to architecture, where the latest AIA figures say that only 13 percent of their licensed membership represents women.

At the country’s best architecture schools, however, the number of women among the student body is steadily rising—and in more than one case, they outnumber men. Another heartening development in the last few years is that Smith College became the first women’s college to institute a stand-alone school of engineering. They expect their first graduating class next year. Also significant is the Ford Motor Company’s continuing support of Smith’s efforts, including a $10 million gift in 2001.

Still, the perception that the profession is run by white males persists. And it appears that despite a growing wave of female students, their professors remain largely male. According to 2000-01 NAAB figures, only 16 percent of architecture faculty are women.

Ellen Dunham-Jones, director of the architecture program at the Georgia Institute of Technology is co-chairing the annual Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture meeting next month. Her professional history includes teaching at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which received a lot of press recently for the disparity between the more than 40 percent female students, compared to 16 percent representation on the faculty. Dunham-Jones said increasing diversity in academia is important if the profession wants to become more diverse.

“Because the perception of the field is still that it is dominated by white men, it is important for students to see successful women and minorities in the profession and in school and learn from their experiences and points of view—which often are different from those in the majority,” she said. “However, the point is certainly not to assume that female students can only have female professors as role models. The real point of diversity education is learning to admire and learn from people independent of their ethnicity or gender.”

Nor does she believe that the studio environment is driving women away.

“For all of the macho competition that gets attributed to studios as a turn-off to women, there is also a tremendous amount of one-on-one support and attention that makes for a nurturing environment—for men and women,” she said. “However, it’s worth pointing out that I see a lot of competitive women and nurturing men and am always wary of such stereotyping.”

A significant problem (one that the Royal Institute of British Architects is currently trying to address) is the drop-out rate that occurs once women receive licensure. While 37 percent of the U.K.’s students are women, only 13 percent of them are in practice. The RIBA commissioned a study on this issue in December, and expects to publish the results this spring.

Dunham-Jones says she’d be interested in seeing a study tracking whether women with architecture degrees return to the profession after raising families.
“What I haven’t seen data on—but would like to—is whether women who take time out for child rearing are less likely to return to architecture than to law, business, or medicine,” she said. “I suspect so.

“Many of the women I know who chose not to return to architecture, chose other forms of work because of more flexible hours, or set up their own more entrepreneurial businesses. I think the time away allows reflection on the profession and many see better opportunities to use their skills in other ways.” Dunham-Jones said architecture also needs to do a better job of making it seem a viable, desirable pursuit for young women.

“Attracting more females and minorities to the profession has to start much earlier—in junior high or high school,” she said. “There are still guidance counselors who discourage women in particular from considering architecture. More visibility of successful women and minority architects to the general public is absolutely needed to help make this happen.”

And once women graduate, keeping them in practice “would be greatly helped by more family-friendly work policies and more recognition of their skills and needs for advancement,” Dunham-Jones said.

“Unfortunately, there are still well-meaning project managers who won’t let women interns conduct site visits because they don’t want to subject them to harassment by contractors. Patronizing (and generally untrue) attitudes like that remains a real problem at some firms.”

But Dunham-Jones said her former employer has made strides in recognizing and addressing a gender problem that affects more than MIT.

“I was proud of the school’s willingness to air its dirty laundry and commit to improvement,” she said. “The college of science found that tenure-track women faculty felt well-supported and encouraged, but that discrimination was rampant in terms of the lab space, grad assistants, teaching loads and committee loads etc., expected of the few tenured women faculty. The charge was that the school was doing the required thing in terms of attracting women but was still ultimately treating them like tokens expected to do the bulk of the service while limiting their opportunities for research.

“I think the sad reality is that we still live in a society that views wives as helpers of husbands more than vice versa. Women at many schools typically have much higher committee loads both because they do the jobs well and because they may put their obligations to others ahead of their obligations to themselves. Women are also that much more likely to be asked to teach the big, intro survey classes or intro design studios—perhaps because they are seen as more nurturing and so more appropriate to encourage freshmen.

“However, such attitudes also serve to deny women the chance to work with more advanced students who can also better further their research. MIT has taken the lead in really examining these and a host of other issues,” she said.

Author and educator Kathryn Anthony notes “in our profession, ages 25-37 encompass the transition from architectural internship to registration to advancement in a firm. And when women architects choose to take time off to care for young children, it is often very difficult for them to get back on track when they return.“

Tough economic times can be hard on diversity, as well, Anthony says.
“Our economy is changing, and underrepresented architects are often the untold victims of it,” she said. “Our society continues to operate under unconscious rules that disadvantage women. No matter what technology has in store for us in the future, it is still highly likely that women will continue to be the only ones able to bear children—and the profession must change to accommodate that.”

—Lisa Ashmore

For Further Reading:

Designing for Diversity: Gender, Race and Ethnicity in the Architecture Profession (University of Illinois Press, 2001)
Kathryn Anthony

Women at the Institute—Where Do They Stand? Erika Jonietz, Technology Review (MIT)