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Equity x Design: What’s keeping so many women from becoming principal architects?

Why equity in architecture was one of 2017’s hottest topics at AIA

This is part four in a continuing series on equity in design. Click to read part three.

When Michelle Obama took the stage at the American Institute of Architects (AIA) conference, marking her first public appearance since leaving the White House, she acknowledged how much her life had changed over the past 100 days. However, she said her dedication to championing equal rights for women and minorities remained unwavering.

A few hours after the AIA keynote by Michelle Obama, Architect Magazine hosted a livestreamed talk with an Equity by Design committee moderated by Saskia Dennis-van Dijl, principal consultant at Cameron MacAllistar Group and executive director of Global Design Alliance. One panelist remarked that, as Michelle Obama had earlier noted, it is hard to imagine being a female leader without having any female leaders in architecture to serve as role models.

Panelists including architects, designers and researchers at Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture, WRNS Studio and Shepley Bulfinch elaborated on their three-pronged approach to assessing issues of equity in the architectural space.

First, the Equity in Design group gathers metrics to determine how many women and minorities are detoured off a path toward becoming principal architects, assessing what hurdles they’re facing and how life events and setbacks are playing a role. After that, the group dissects metrics into “meanings,” interpreting the data with statistical analysis to probe, for example, why there’s a “stigma” towards those who care for children and use flexibility benefits. The final step they take is to develop “matrices” that can address the issues they’ve identified, “making connections between people and organizations to find solutions.”

The Equity by Design group found that women and people of color “were less likely to be firm leaders at every level of experience,” with the widest gap among those with 11 to 13 years of experience. Among those with this experience level, 60% of white men were likely to hold a titled leadership role, while that figure dropped to 38% for non-white men, 43% for white women and 42% for non-white women.

To help develop a more diverse group of principal architects, the group identified mentorship as one of the most promising solutions. They found that women who got career guidance from senior leaders of their firm were more optimistic and more likely to stay on.

Statistically, they said men are more likely to want to be a principal. They partially attributed this to the pre-conceived notion that being ambitious “isn’t very ladylike.” To that effect, one of the speakers, Carole Wedge, told an anecdote about how, decades ago, she fought tooth-and-nail to negotiate a 50 cent raise at the firm Shepley Bulfinch because it was important to her and a symbol of fairness.

“You thought I was just a bossy girl from New Jersey,” she joked, revealing that she is now president at the firm.

An Equity by Design panel discussed how to advance women and minorities in architecture

An Equity by Design panel explained a three-pronged approach to assessing issues of equity in the architectural space. (Getty)

The AIA’s Equity in Architecture Commission Report was released in January, publishing 14 months of research and presenting recommendations for improving equity, diversity and inclusion in architecture. You can read it in full by clicking here. The priority recommendations for action written by AIA are listed below:

  1. Make equity, diversity, and inclusion a core value for the Board of Directors
The AIA Board of Directors and Strategic Council should consider equity, diversity, and inclusion among the evaluation criteria for future actions. Those actions include resolutions, business items, and member-led initiatives that make the AIA an even more relevant and socially-conscious organization. By consistently considering EDI, the Board and Council will ensure that future efforts are evaluated for their societal impact and ability to bring people together.

  1. Measure and report how EDI permeates the AIA
As well as embracing EDI as a core value, the Institute must measure and report how that value is influencing demographics, behavior, attitudes, awareness, retention, recruitment, culture, and engagement within the AIA. The Commission urges that compilation of the data start with AIA staff, volunteers, and elected and appointed leaders on national, regional, local, and component levels.

  1. Launch EDI training for AIA volunteers and components
In order to elevate awareness of the societal and business case for greater equity, diversity, and inclusion in the profession of architecture, the Commission recommends that the Institute create customized EDI training for AIA volunteers and leadership. This could be a combination of in-person sessions at large AIA events such as the AIA Conference on Architecture, Grassroots Leadership Conference, and Knowledge Leadership Assembly; materials and guides for interested groups to facilitate local sessions; and on-demand learning that can be used for components.

  1. Create guides for equitable, diverse, and inclusive practice
The Commission recommends that the Institute create and provide members and their firms with guides on best practices in observance of equity, diversity, and inclusion principles, and how those principles can be a part of any architectural practice. The guides would address such issues as career progression, work culture, leadership development, talent recruitment and more. The guides could be accessible on-demand publications.

  1. Create a position paper on EDI and the profession
The Institute now has extensive data on demographic trends within the profession. But it can’t always answer the question of why those trends occur. There’s a need for more specific understanding of the issues and implications in the quest for full equity, diversity, and inclusion. The Commission recommends that the AIA commission an academic study to document and research the impact of EDI in architecture. This study would rigorously analyze and interpret available data and provide qualitative evidence to support a broader knowledge base.

  1. Develop a firm self-assessment tool
It is the responsibility of the AIA to provide members and their firms with the means to measure their engagement with EDI principles. The Commission recommends development of a firm self-assessment tool on EDI issues. Examples of criteria to assess include EEO policies, internal and external diversity issues, scope of diversity initiatives, family-friendly benefits, and overall firm commitment. Further, it’s recommended that the data be collected nationally and included in the biannual AIA Firm Survey.

  1. Require EDI data as part of AIA awards submissions
Based on studies within other industries, the more the profession of architecture reflects the society we serve, the better the product of our work will be. It will incorporate greater sensitivity to and empathy for cultural, societal, and environmental concerns. What’s needed is more proof—a data set that illustrates the connection between equity, diversity, inclusion, and architecture excellence. The Commission recommends the collection of demographic data on teams submitting for AIA awards.

  1. Advocate for a more accessible path to higher education
It’s been determined that creating an accessible route for architecture students enrolled in two- and four-year programs to move to NAAB-accredited programs is a successful strategy for increasing the number of under-represented individuals. The Commission recommends that the AIA advocate strongly for support of existing bridge programs, and the creation of new ones. Suggested tactics include sharing of articulation agreements among institutions, and raising awareness of bridge opportunities within under-represented communities. The Commission also recommends the Institute make an annual fundraising commitment to the Diversity Advancement Scholarship Program administered by the AIA Foundation.

  1. Engage children with K-12 architecture programs
Building a more equitable, diverse, and inclusive architecture workforce needs to start early. We must engage children and their families with more exposure to the profession through K–12 programs within all demographic communities. The Commission endorses the work of the AIA 2016 K–12 Task Force, and recommends that it includes EDI considerations in developing new curricula, and in its plan to enlist architects to volunteer in communities.

  1. Tell our stories
Increasingly, the face of our profession reflects a cross-section of America. But more needs to be done to communicate that expanding profile. The Commission recognizes the good work being done through the I Look Up campaign and urges the AIA to continue developing messaging that highlights the equity, diversity and inclusion within the profession. Those communications also serve to humanize and personalize architects as a welcoming community, and one sensitive to the built environment.

  1. Ensure that AIA publications reflect EDI
The Commission recognizes public comments indicating that visual images in AIA publications reflect limited multicultural and gender representation. It recommends that the AIA ensure that it makes broader depictions in its media of the full range of communities represented in the ranks of architects. It should also urge component publication editors to do the same—and those efforts can be celebrated through the Institute’s national channels.

The conversation doesn’t stop there. This is part four in a five-part series of Hunter Douglas Architectural’s coverage of Michelle Obama’s message at AIA and those of other speakers and thought leaders who are also working to crack the code behind equity in design. Join the discussion with @FluentinDesign.

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