Sunday, August 28, 2011

Women in the Profession

In back-to-back meetings, I heard an institution talk about its admirable efforts to increase opportunities for women-owned businesses and then a female architect discuss her decision to leave the firm that she worked for because of the long hours required, often working for that same institution, making it difficult for her to have enough time to raise her two children.

As John Cary, an insightful critic of the architecture profession’s poor treatment of young people and under-represented groups, wrote in the Christian Science Monitor ( “an estimated 10-12 percent of the 105,000 registered architects in the United States are women,” even though women in architecture schools represent about 40 percent of all students. Also, as many educators will tell you, women in the schools often play leadership roles. The problem occurs after graduation, when women who have excelled in school for various reasons do not make it through the internship process or decide not to get licensed. What happens during that post-graduate period and what can be done about it?

There is no lack of opportunity for women. Many public-sector and even a number of private-sector clients give preference to hiring women- as well as minority owned businesses as part of their design teams, in an effort to encourage such under-represented groups. Many architecture and design firms also actively seek a diverse work force and make concerted efforts to recruit women to their offices. At the same time, women continue to make major contributions to the design world, producing a lot of the very best work.

The problem lies elsewhere: in a profession that is perennially underpaid and overworked in relation to the value it creates and the liability it assumes. And therein lies an irony, highlighted by the conversations mentioned above. The very institutions trying to create opportunities for under-represented groups may also be creating the very conditions that lead women and minorities to leave the profession because of the relatively low pay and the long hours required to do the work. In that sense, the lack of women as licensed architects serves as a warning and a symptom of a larger dilemma that many in the field seem unwilling to talk about, maybe not wanting to antagonize their clients.

If the architecture profession wants to attract and keep those who seek a more balanced life – regardless of their gender or ethnicity – it needs to do a better job of aligning its compensation and work hours with the value it creates. This may seem particularly hard to do in one of the worst recessions to hit the profession since the 1930s. In times like these, with so a lot of firms chasing a little work, demanding higher fees may seem foolhardy at best. Many firms are glad to have work of any sort, just to keep their staff busy. The issues of diversity may seem less important and less pressing when a firm’s survival seems at stake.

However, there is also no better time than this to deal with the imbalance – the ridiculously long hours and ruthless fee cutting – that many think is just part of being an architect. With so few "traditional" jobs available in a depressed construction industry, the architecture profession has an opportunity to reassess the value of what it does – which goes way beyond the design of buildings – and to see that what it has to offer is particularly relevant in bad economic times: the knowledge of how to achieve the most with the least. Doing so may be the most effective way to improve the profession’s gender and ethnic balance.

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