Architectural history includes many early examples of women practicing architecture. “Early” is a relative term: the first female professional architect in America, Louise Blanchard Bethune, achieved that distinction in 1881. Bethune and other women in the field remained a rarity for many decades hence. A hundred years later, roughly one in four architecture students was a woman; today it’s closer to one in two.

This gradual but massive demographic shift will ultimately yield a more balanced pool of leaders across the industry— at least in theory. The profession as a whole, however, is still male-dominated, particularly at the leadership levels. The imbalance shifts precipitously with each milestone. Comprehensive research in recent years underscores the common issues many female architects have experienced firsthand. Inflexible schedules and the 24/7 studio culture celebrated in architecture schools are not conducive to work/life balance, and the deadline-driven work makes navigating family responsibilities difficult. A substantial wage gap, coupled with implicit bias which has historically favored male designers and leaders, can make it difficult for women to advance, even with the same level of experience as their male counterparts. Further, lingering issues of discrimination against women which should have faded along with their bygone eras continue to surface in pockets of the A/E/C industry, creating frustrating work environments and widening gaps at each level of advancement.

Though two out of every five architects are women, nationwide women make up only 17 percent of firm principals. Further, the wage gap between males and females expands with every career milestone and is most significant at the principal level. We have much work to do to rectify this ongoing disparity and promote diversity at all levels of the field for every minority group. Fortunately, though a snapshot of current statistics is frustrating, the pipeline of talent has never been stronger. Large-scale efforts are underway to cultivate diversity within the A/E/C industry, and real change is happening at firms of all sizes worldwide. What is driving this change? The steadily growing number of women entering the profession means that the industry will continue to add new voices and valuable perspectives to the conversation, and these voices will advocate for equity in ever greater numbers.

Equity by Design (EQxD), the organization whose research and advocacy grew from the 2012 Missing 32% symposium, continues to shine a light on the gulf between the roughly 50 percent of women in the general population and the roughly eighteen percent of women who are licensed architects, AIA members and senior leaders in their firms. The AIA itself has embraced equity and human rights as one of its seven core values and is an active participant in, and advocate for, meaningful change. Although this change across the profession may at times appear glacially slow, efforts toward gender equity are visibly gaining momentum as a new generation of emerging professionals enters the industry.

Celebrating and Embracing Change: One Firm’s Principles in Practice
LS3P, an architecture, interiors and planning firm operating from eight offices across the Southeast, has been in business for more than 55 years. Since the firm opened its doors in 1963, the firm’s culture has constantly evolved with the times. Male-dominated in the early days like most architecture firms of the era, LS3P now boasts an impressive roster of female talent at every level of practice. Sixty-five percent of LS3P’s entry-level staff are now women, and 51 percent of the experienced staff. While women still make up a smaller number of licensed architects (28 percent), principals (18 percent), and senior leadership (12 percent), LS3P’s Executive Vice President of Practice Katherine N. Peele, FAIA, is optimistic about the future. “When I look at our incredibly deep bench of talented women entering the profession, I see a valuable pipeline,” she explains. “As these women gain experience and continue to grow into leadership positions, we will continue to see greater representation at all experience levels with each passing year.”

Peele has, herself, lived through the common “pinch points” in an architecture career which create challenges, particularly in juggling the demands of family and work in deadline-driven studio culture. She believes the best way to address these challenges is to support and encourage women at every stage of their careers, and that process starts with open, honest discussion. Peele, along with LS3P’s Human Resources Leader Heather Pierce and a rotating panel of the firm’s female senior leaders, recently initiated a Supporting Women in Leadership (SWiL) cocktail hour called “Sip and SWiL” to share research on equity (both national trends and the firm’s internal data), talk about the firm’s goals, and create a supportive venue for telling stories and talking about challenges. Discussions are co-ed and consist of a brief overview of research, statistics, and goals followed by a panel discussion with open-ended Q & A.

“LS3P believes in creating a flexible, supportive work environment with benefits to support employees at every stage,” Pierce explains. “We absolutely want our policies to support women, but our policies also support parents of all genders, or people caring for aging parents, or anyone looking for a better work/life balance and a healthier lifestyle.” In creating an ongoing dialogue about the challenges and opportunities inherent in navigating the field of architecture, the firm has created a welcome transparency for all employees in the process.

From these initial SWiL discussions held at each of the firm’s offices, common threads emerged. Leaders not only want to support women at every career stage, but also find authentic ways to put this support into practice. Colleagues talked about the challenges women have in promoting themselves, and the importance of cultivating an empowering support network. The firm shared concrete steps already underway, such as regular ongoing internal pay and recognition audits to ensure equity in both salary and career advancement in relation to years of experience. Many team members talked about a desire to promote greater representation of all minority groups in the profession, citing the significant benefits of inviting multiple perspectives to the table.

Building a Scaffold: Girls Leadership Academy of Wilmington
As we make authentic headway in increasing diversity in the profession, not just for women but for all minorities, we are collectively learning powerful lessons about the power of representation and about reaching people early enough to support them along the path from education to architectural practice. When our children and youth see people who look like them in the A/E/C profession, they begin to internalize and envision possibilities for their own career paths.

The Girls Leadership Academy of Wilmington (GLOW) believes in encouraging its students to dream big. As the first single-gender charter school in North Carolina, GLOW Academy is dedicated to preparing each of its middle and high school students, many of whom will be first-generation college graduates, for “successful college admission, college graduation and citizenship through life.” GLOW Academy’s mission extends far beyond academics to focus on the whole student, with core values of high academic expectations, social and emotional development, leadership development and college preparation. The school is serious about closing opportunity and achievement gaps and currently has 300 students in grades 6-8. The school will continue to welcome another incoming class of 100 sixth graders each year until the school reaches a capacity of 700 students in grades 6-12. Principal Laura Hunter sees this deliberate growth as a huge asset. “At the very heart of what we do it’s all about knowing our kids, knowing their families, and knowing each other,” she believes. “Nobody falls through the cracks, nobody is invisible, everybody knows your name, and everybody knows where you come from. We are a family.”

To accommodate this growth in a short amount of time, GLOW Academy turned to LS3P for help designing a new facility. LS3P not only eagerly accepted the design challenge, but also seized the unique opportunity to show the all-female students what an all-female design team can do. The project team included architects, an interior designer, and a construction administrator from LS3P; landscape architect Christine Hilt from CLH Design, PA; structural engineering intern Jenn Tepper from Woods Engineering, PA; mechanical designer Kay Lynch from Cheatham and Associates, PA; and preconstruction assistant Cameron Scibal, site project coordinator Ashlin Ivey, and site superintendent Taylor LaRosa from Monteith Construction Co. The team was passionate about coming together to showcase the power of collaboration and bring their best to the design, and the students were excited to see women in the A/E/C industry in action. GLOW Academy founder Judy Girard appreciated both the commitment of the team and the caliber of the design. “The design team came into our school, got to know our girls, listened to our faculty and created an inspired learning environment.”

The team worked closely with the stakeholders and students at every stage of the process, making sure that the work was both visible and inclusive. Designers did a “deep-dive” into the school’s mission and culture, meeting with Girard and President/CEO Tod Godbey as well as the students and teachers for design inspiration. GLOW Academy challenged the team to create an inspiring, economical design to accommodate flexible project-based learning and integrated technology and allow for planned growth as grade levels are added. The solution blends pre-engineered structures arranged around a central courtyard and a unique aesthetic that is strong and feminine without being “girly,” an important distinction for the students. Every space within the campus is designed as a learning opportunity, from the outdoor classroom near the raingarden to learn about ecology to the exposed building structure to see real-world applications of physics and geometry.

LS3P Associate Daniela Ayers, Assoc. AIA, is passionate about the school’s mission as well as the opportunity to integrate the best of what architecture can do for the people who will inhabit it. “We are so excited to create an environment that will help students who really need and deserve this new learning space develop into leaders,” she explains. “To reflect the strength and positive energy of these young women, we designed the space with graceful and elegant lines in powerful materials such as steel, and we customized the layout with interesting interior angles and high-impact, inspirational graphics.” The five-building, 14-acre campus is scheduled to open in time for the start of the 2019/20 school year.

One Step Closer to the Future
Ultimately, the GLOW Academy project has yielded powerful lessons for the designers as well as for the students, their families and the community. While Ayers was thrilled to show the students what a team of women could accomplish when together, she was overwhelmed by how much support she received in the process. “Sitting around a table at our design meetings was incredibly fulfilling,” she remembers. “The way that our team of women worked together to expand on each other’s ideas, celebrate successes and build each other up has been such an amazing experience. The result is not only an excellent design for the client and the students who will learn in these buildings, but also genuine empowerment for all of us who participated in the process.”

Reaching diverse voices in architecture is a multifaceted endeavor. The substantial pipeline of talented women in the field did not develop accidentally; it took decades of steady progress. Team by team, project by project, firm by firm, however, the industry is steadily moving the needle toward a long overdue balance.

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Laura Miller is vice president | principal | studio leader at LS3P.
Katherine Ball is associate | creative writer | researcher for LS3P.

This article is excerpted from DesignIntelligence Quarterly 4Q 2018, where you can read more.