Diversity: Not a ‘women-only problem’

Business Case for Women in Architecture

The four women who presented on the business case for women in architecture: (left to right) Amy Kalar, AIA; Kate Schwennsen, FAIA; Emily Grandstaff-Rice, FAIA; and Carole Wedge, FAIA.

At the 2016 AIA Convention, four architects emphasized that enhancing diversity will benefit everyone

"Women thrive when men are engaged and see gender diversity as a win-win."

This was the message delivered throughout Establishing the Business Case for Women in Architecture, a panel discussion at the 2016 AIA Convention that stated the need for, and benefit of, thriving females architects.

The panel—moderated by Amy Kalar, AIA—featured distinguished architects Emily Grandstaff-Rice, FAIA; Carole Wedge, FAIA; and Kate Schwennsen, FAIA, and made the case that upping the amount of women in the profession would be beneficial for firm productivity, their bottom line, and the strength of architecture as a whole.

Citing data from the National Architectural Accrediting Board, the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, and the AIA itself, Schwennsen provided their gathered breakdown of female participation throughout the licensing and practicing process:

  • 45 percent of architecture graduates are women
  • 39 percent of aspiring architects are women
  • 35 percent of Assoc. AIA members are women
  • 25.3 percent in the profession are women
  • 18 percent of AIA members are women
  • 17 percent of principals and partners in AIA firms are women

While their data was promising in a historical context—in 1973, women made up 1 percent of all licensed architects—it's clear that women are being lost at numerous points in the journey to the top of the profession.

As seen in this series of graphs from the panel, women are graduating from architecture school at decent numbers but not finding their way to either AIA member or principal status.

Schwennsen also noted that the percentages of females earning architecture degrees and getting involved in the profession have been relatively stagnant over the last decade, meaning the long-term data gains aren't carrying over to present day.

Dissecting valuable behaviors

But this panel wasn't organized solely to offer up problems; Kalar and her team were there to show the benefits of a more inclusive world. Citing a McKinsey & Company report called Women Matter, Wedge shared a series of leadership behaviors—traditionally exhibited by women—that would provide distinct value to any architecture firm.

While men excel at individualistic decision-making and coordination/control, women are strong in people development, setting both expectations and rewards, achieving leadership/role model status, and participative decision-making. Wedge was quick to remind the audience that not all members of each sex share these respective traits, but certain genders do exude certain behaviors.

The positive outcomes of female leadership were noted as well: Organizations with three or more women on their Board of Directors outperformed others in both return on investment capital and return on equity.

"It's the snowball effect," Wedge said. "Being the only one of anything is an awkward situation, just in terms of comfort and having a relatable peer group. But once there starts to be three or more, a different level of performance emerges. You're more comfortable, able to contribute more effectively, and leadership behaviors and skills emerge."

Breaking through barriers

So how do we get to this place of equality? Kalar shared details of a blind study where the exact same resume with two different names, John and Jennifer, was submitted for numerous lab manager positions. The John resume was rated higher in both competence and ability and John was offered 14 percent more in salary, solely because his name was John. Until that becomes a thing of the past, total equality remains out of reach.

"Our generation was a little afraid of the conversation," Wedge said. "And getting through that barrier of being nervous and afraid is a big step."

At the same time, she added, "if you can't discuss these issues within your organization you probably can't change it."

Some people are able to overcome the odds despite resistance—when asked how she shined when other women didn't, Schwennsen replied, "Confidence, curiosity, and ambition"—but a true breakthrough won't come until men and women, firm principals and emerging professionals, leaders and aspiring role models, properly nurture the spark inside potential architects of all shapes, sizes, creeds, and genders.

"We need to get away from this idea that it's a women-only problem," Grandstaff-Rice said. "It's frankly all of our problems. And that goes one step further in terms of ethnic diversity, all types of diversity; everyone needs to be onboard for this to succeed."

Steve Cimino is the digital content manager at the AIA.

Image credits

Business Case for Women in Architecture

Steve Cimino

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