The Challenge of Women in
Leadership Roles // Tamra Collins
“We Can Do It!” by J. Howard Miller
“For a woman to go out alone in architecture is still very, very hard. It’s still a man’s world.”
-Zaha Hadid (1)
The subject of women in architecture has gained popularity over the last few years. The traditional models and assumptions of leadership in architecture are now constantly being questioned and the conservative field is slow to meet the demand for change. Across the board, it has taken decades for women to gain any recognition in their respected profession. Many women have struggled to gain ground and have laid the first stones on the path to success for their peers. However, there are those who argue, men and women alike, that “women aren’t oppressed anymore, so does this issue even matter now?” This is a naive question. Of course this issue matters. It matters now as much as it mattered when it was first arising. No, women are not oppressed. However, women are still seeking equality in pay, acknowledgement, and respect, and they face many obstacles: assumptions, relevancy, glass ceilings and contentious attitudes. The road to leadership is not easy for women.
Don’t Make Assumptions.
“Every single day I have to remind someone that I am, in fact, an architect. And sometimes not just an architect, but the architect,” states Yen Ha in response to an online
questionnaire from The New York Times.(2) This is not an uncommon issue, as many women supplied similar responses. HJ Kim provides additional feedback on industry assumptions of women, “subcontractors, who have [fewer] opportunities to work with women architects and designers, seem to think that we do not even know how to change a lightbulb and that our only role is just to decorate interiors.”(3) These assumptions are insulting to a professional that has spent countless hours on a master's degree, internship development and registration exams. However, when women treat the contractors with respect, ask questions, show interest, and even provide solutions, the premise is discarded. “Sometimes you just have to shake off an incorrect assumption as everyone is just trying to understand each person’s role without the benefit of introductions,” states Grace Philipp a Project Designer of El Dorado Inc.(4)
When a few of members of the Design+Make team met with the structural engineer to red line, I was the only female. At first, I could tell I was regarded as being there to take notes and markup drawings to transfer into revit, mostly because anytime a specific part was referenced, the guys asked me if I had gotten the name. But I took the opportunity to ask questions and respected the structural engineer’s expertise. I’ve learned more from him by showing interest and collaborating about solutions based on my knowledge of design excellence the Design+Make team is striving for.
Gaining recognition shouldn’t be a battle. Men and Women need work together to move forward. (5)
Relevancy in Professions.
In today’s culture, women’s relevancy is palpable. Women are entering fields previously perceived as unfit for them and are increasingly being represented in many professions by becoming CEOs, investors and business owners. This means there are women in leadership roles that are going to want something built, and it may be difficult for them to feel comfortable expressing their needs and concerns if they are working with a male dominated industry such as architecture. Women clients should reach out to firms that have women in leadership roles so the gender barrier is not an issue during communication. Rachel El Assad of BNIM in Kansas City, MO, shares how clients who are women can elevate women in the profession. “I have had a couple strong women clients and project managers that have been advocates for me and other young women – to the point that they demand other women on their teams. Coming from a client, this shows a company that their female employees are valued. We can demand respect by lifting each other up and making a way for other women to rise up alongside us.”(6) Similarly, El Assad assures that there are men that want to see women succeed. “I have also been lucky to be pushed and encouraged by several male leaders – it is important to realize there are, in fact, men that view women as equally valuable leaders.”(7)
It is their collaborative skills that make women relevant in today’s culture. According to Helen Fisher, Ph.D, an expert in human evolution studies, women outshine the ‘status-matters’ men with social skills that allow them to effectively network, collaborate, empathize, be inclusive and share power. However, Fisher is not suggesting that women will rule the world but is recommending a relationship between men and women where both are needed to get ahead. Promoting women into leadership roles actually helps advance the firm, but most firms fall short of women representatives. “I personally try to counteract the inequality by getting involved with younger generations,” El Assad expresses, “– showing them that women and men have a place alongside each other and everyone has the right to follow their passion, use their talent, and kick ass in their own way.”(10)
The Design+Make studio is definitely male dominated in numbers, but the female leaders give new perspectives to the concepts and the clientele. Two members of the team, Sevrin Scarcelli and Brianna Reece, presented their initial concepts based on human senses which struck a chord with the Camp Wood YMCA team and laid the foundation for the final design. Plus, Camp Wood brought a strong female lead to the table. Geneva Benton, the camp’s director of events and education, always took everything into consideration and expressed quality feedback that could advance the project. Without these strong roles, the project would have been very different.
Atelier Cho Thompson, The Missing 32% Project. (11)
The career ladder and percentage of women at each achievement.(12)
The Famous Glass Ceiling.
Equity by Design published a report about the gender makeup in architecture schools and in the profession, stating that women make up 42 percent of graduates from accredited programs.(13) However, the statistics for licensed women architects is 26 percent and only 17 percent of principals and partners are women.(14) The percentage of women winnings awards is also low at 18 percent.(15) Architect magazine wrote in an article related to the Missing 32% project, stating that there are more women in leadership roles during the early part of their careers, then it evens out after 10 to 12 years. It is around 15 years into the career that men dominate.(16) This results in a lack of female role models in key positions such as firm management and senior design. The higher on the architecture ladder the less you see women, making the top a lonely place for women.
During a survey issued by the American Institute of Architects, women responded with some of the challenges they face with advancement in firms. At least 50 percent of women felt they were getting equal pay as a man in a comparable position and felt that women were less
likely to be promoted into senior positions over men.(17) Many women leave the profession because they are not happy with their organization or the work they were doing. The myth that most women leave architecture to start a family only applies to 25 percent, while most women are insulted that they are accused of being uninterested in architecture because they want to care for loved ones. They want both, and if firms could increase flexibility in work hours and the work-home life dynamic then this would become a mute issue.
After gaining insight from a few women in the field, it became clear that balancing family life and work life is a challenging obstacle for women and men. However, while both take advantage flexibility offered in the workplace, women are perceived as more likely to give up their career to provide child-care. While it can be difficult to have two working parents it seems unfortunate that women are the first to decide to stay home. El Assad agrees that the career/family dilemma is a real fear for women. “Unfortunately, women are often terrified of sharing news of becoming a mother at work,” she states, “while a man can happily announce that he will soon be a parent because he won’t have to worry about people immediately dismissing his career goals.”(18)
Philipp also points out that in some firms women can commonly be directed towards tasks which fall within feminine stereotypes, such as interior design or color selection, “It sometimes seemed in past experiences as though activities, such as lunches with interior reps, which were extracurricular to project tasks, were distributed based on gender bias and not due to a discussion of individual’s career goals or expressed interests. It’s nice to be invited to learn more about a subject matter, but strange when the invitation is exclusively extended to female colleagues and sometimes in place of other opportunities within the larger practice of architecture." Through observation and conversations over the last few years, there has been an increasing awareness that lots of business can happen during events outside of work, from deals being struck to gaining respect. Architecture is surprisingly as much about the social realm as it is about the professional realm. Women need to be a put in front of clients and consultants as representatives, professionally and socially.
Fortune collected reviews from 28 companies. (19)
Attitude is Everything.
Men and women are described differently in reviews. Women generally receive negative feedback compared to their male counterparts constructive feedback, hurting their chances to advance into leadership positions.(20) According to Fortune, negative criticism shows up in 71 of the 94 critical reviews for women, but only 2 of 83 of reviews for men.(21) Confidence and passion in women comes across as bitchy, abrasive, bossy, irrational and difficult. Using standardized performance reviews that show quantitative data could level playing field leading to more women into leadership positions.
The dispute of negative criticism seems to be less of an issue among the women that I received feedback from. Philip found the statistics surprising and El Assad cannot recall being directly called out as such.(22) However, El Assad recalls how her peers have reacted differently to a frustrated man as opposed to a frustrated woman. “The frustrated man inspired mutual frustration and a desire to take action. The frustrated woman instead inspired retreat and comments such as, ‘Yikes. Maybe we should address this when she’s not so moody.’ “(23)
During the schematic design phase in the Design+Make studio, many leaders emerged among the small teams. This has proven to be difficult in a studio where everyone is trying to assert themselves as leaders and there are some strong personalities. My team was always frustrated with how bossy I was. In fact, one teammate half joking, warned the rest of the class that they should be prepared when we all started working together because I am “particular.” In a setting where pay in not a factor, this can be empowering, because yes, I am very particular. I have expectations and a quality that I know my team can achieve. However, in the workplace, I can only imagine that this feedback could be seen as negative and affecting my advancement at a firm.
Women can be Leaders.
Despite the overwhelming obstacles that they face in the profession, women are working hard to gain recognition and respect. If professionals can drop the assumptions that they have about women the road will become a little less rocky. Then, women can be supported during collaboration to overcome major issues that women leaders face like glass ceilings and unfair performance reviews. The climb to the top is hard, but the more women that can be advanced into leadership positions the less that the gender gap is an issue and the more role models there are for young female architects. We need more women leaders.
I will leave you with the strong advice of Philipp and El Assad.
“Don’t assume that discrimination will happen in the workplace. Expect the best, but be prepared to speak up in an appropriate and professional way if you see a pattern occurring. And if the pattern persists don’t be afraid to make a change. If you don’t feel that you are receiving the opportunities you need to grow over a long period of time, seek them out where you can and sometimes that means moving to another firm.” – Grace Philipp, El Dorado Inc.(24)
“Just be yourself! If you are ‘emotional’ or passionate, don’t feel like you can’t express yourself – there are many clients that appreciate your empathy and it may actually open doors for you. Sometimes it is difficult to put up with ignorant or disrespectful comments – know when to ignore them and know when to report them or call someone out on them. In the end, you shouldn’t take any of them to heart.” – Rachel El Assad, BNIM (25)
(1) Pogrebin, Robin. "I Am Not the Decorator: Female Architects Speak Out." The New York Times. April 12, 2016. Accessed April
(4) Philipp, Grace. E-mail message to author. May 4, 2016.
(5) "Are Women Better Than Men." InfoBarrel. Accessed April 21, 2016. Image.
(6) El Assad, Rachel. E-mail message to author. May 4, 2016.
(7) El Assad.
(8) Coughlin, Linda, Ellen Wingard, and Keith Hollihan. Enlightened Power: How Women Are Transforming the Practice of Leadership.
San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2005.
(10) El Assad.
(11) Dickinson, Elizabeth Evitts. "The Missing 32% Project Survey Results Reveal Gender Inequity in Architecture. Now What?"
Architect. October 18, 2014. Accessed April 11, 2016.
(12) Chang, Lian Chikako. "Where Are the Women? Measuring Progress on Gender in Architecture." Association of Collegiate
Schools of Architecture. October 2014. Accessed April 12, 2016.
(13) Lau, Wanda. "Equity by Design: The Missing 32% Project Releases Complete Findings on Women in Architecture." Architect.
May 18, 2015. Accessed April 12, 2016.
(17) Diversity in the Profession of Architecture. PDF. Washington, DC: The American Institute of Architects, January 2016.
(18) El Assad.
(19) Snyder, Kieran. "The Abrasiveness Trap: High-achieving Men and Women Are Described Differently in Reviews." Fortune.
August 25, 2014. Accessed April 11, 2016.
(23) El Assad.
(25) El Assad.
Written by Tamra Collins
Chang, Lian Chikako. "Where Are the Women? Measuring Progress on Gender in Architecture." Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture.
October 2014. Accessed April 12, 2016.
Coughlin, Linda, Ellen Wingard, and Keith Hollihan. Enlightened Power: How Women Are Transforming the Practice of Leadership. San Francisco:
Dickinson, Elizabeth Evitts. "The Missing 32% Project Survey Results Reveal Gender Inequity in Architecture. Now What?" Architect. October 18,
2014. Accessed April 11, 2016.
Diversity in the Profession of Architecture. PDF. Washington, DC: The American Institute of Architects, January 2016.
El Assad, Rachel. E-mail message to author. May 4, 2016.
Lau, Wanda. "Equity by Design: The Missing 32% Project Releases Complete Findings on Women in Architecture." Architect. May 18, 2015.
Accessed April 12, 2016.
Philipp, Grace. E-mail message to author. May 4, 2016.
Pogrebin, Robin. "I Am Not the Decorator: Female Architects Speak Out." The New York Times. April 12, 2016. Accessed April 12, 2016.
Snyder, Kieran. "The Abrasiveness Trap: High-achieving Men and Women Are Described Differently in Reviews." Fortune. August 25, 2014.
Accessed April 11, 2016.