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How Equal Is Architecture?

Data shows that architecture is unequal, but not everyone agrees.

Jack Balderrama Morley Jack Balderrama Morley

Back in March, Bjarke Ingels posted a picture on Instagram of himself with the partners of his firm Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG). He captioned it “BIG BOYS&GIRL,” referencing the fact that 11 of the 12 partners were men and only one, Sheela Maini Søgaard, a woman. Comments flew in, many taking issue with how they perceived Ingels to be glib about the gender imbalance at the top of his firm. Keiruuhhh wrote: “It’s not cute, nothing to be proud of. Either their unconscious biases prevent them from hiring qualified women, or there isn’t really a pipeline of women in design.”

Ingels responded by changing the caption of his post to read:

This is a photo of me and my dear friends and partners who I love, admire and respect, and who I have collaborated with to create our company over the last 16 years. To my surprise this photo has turned out to be deeply offensive to a lot of people who appear to believe that we have chosen each other based on factors as utterly indifferent as gender and race, rather than our shared passion, talent, skill, intelligence, heart and soul. Seriously?

While Ingels is outraged that many have accused him of discrimination, other architects, notably David Adjaye, have called for more attention to gender equality. In a recent interview on Dezeen, Adjaye was asked, “Do you think the architecture and design industry is leading the way in terms of gender equality,” and he responded:

I don’t think we’re leading it at all. In our office, we push for gender parity and we still have to make sure that it’s really clear.

We have leaders that come through who are women, they have some of the highest positions in the office. And we push for the numbers to be equitable. It’s something we keep an eye on. When we notice a drop, we get alarmed …

I find it exhausting that women are still fighting for gender parity. I find it embarrassing to be really honest. We’re in the 21st century. This is such an old story, we should be way past this. I’m embarrassed, as a male.

Data from a 2016 NCARB study that found that only 18 percent of licensed American architects are women (column on the far right), but there are more female architects with a lower professional status; image via NCARB.

The most recent available data from the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB) supports Adjaye’s assertion that architecture is not leading the way to gender parity, as only 18 percent of licensed American architects are women. That puts architecture well behind medicine and law, where women make up about 35 percent of accredited professionals.

Data from a 2016 NCARB study that found that licensed American architects are disproportionately white (column on the far right), but there are more nonwhite architects with a lower professional status; image via NCARB.

Racial demographics are even more skewed, with 91 percent of licensed architects identifying as non-Latino white even though only 62.6 percent of the country does the same. Only 2 percent are black even though 12.3 percent of the U.S. population is black, and even though 17 percent of the country identifies as Latino, the proportion of Latino architects is below 1 percent. Again, law and medicine also do not reflect the general population but are closer than architecture.Racial and ethnic diversity is higher but still low, among new NCARB record-holders who are presumably recent graduates, and it steadily drops off among designers further along in the licensure process.

Data from a 2015 AIA survey showing how men and women perceive gender representation in architecture; image via Architectural Record

Despite these statistics, many architects, both male and female, do not agree that architecture is an unequal profession or that this may be a problem. An AIA survey from 2015 showed that 69 percent of female architects say that women are underrepresented in architecture, while only 48 percent of men say the same. The two genders disagree about what could be causing this disparity, with many more women saying that unequal pay and promotion bias are keeping women back.

Data from a 2015 AIA survey showing how men and women, both white and of color, perceive representation in architecture; image via Architectural Record

Women, both white and of color, tend to say more than men that people of color are “very underrepresented” in architecture. According to the study, white male architects are the least likely to believe that women and people of color are treated unfavorably in the workplace.

Architects have decried racial and gender disparities for decades. From civil rights leader Whitney M. Young Jr. at the 1968 AIA conference denouncing the group’s “thunderous silence” on diversity to the protest over the lack of female keynote speakers at the 2017 AIA event, architects have criticized the seemingly retrograde position of the profession. A recent series on Curbed had women and people of color tell their experiences, and Jing Liu of SO–IL said:

I have had clients suggest that maybe we should have a white male on staff to represent our projects, for example, because their boss might feel like a white male would take it more seriously, which is obviously a ridiculous idea — that Asian women can’t take a project seriously.

Others have suggested that the lack of diversity is hindering architecture’s ability to engage with a wider public. In a 2003 New York Times interview, Max Bond Jr. said:

I’m not saying people of color are wiser. But women, people of color, gays, immigrants have all had to look at themselves. They have experienced the underside of society in a much more profound way.

Architecture inevitably involves all the larger issues of society.

An interview in Redshift highlighted a McKinsey & Company reportthat found that “U.S. public companies with diverse executive boards have a 95 percent higher return on equity than those without.” The same article quoted Gabrielle Bullock, director of Global Diversity at Perkins+Will Architects, saying, “A firm will be more financially successful if it has more women and people of color as part of its workforce.”

Groups like The National Organization of Minority Architects (NOMA) and Equity by Design (EQxD) have developed mentorship programs and support networks for young architects, but the profession overall has been slow to implement effective solutions partially because so many architects do not recognize inequality as a problem or priority. Architect German Barnes, as quoted in Curbed, disagrees:

If you’re a person of color, it’s part of your duty to be able to be there and be that ear for someone whether you want to or not. We can’t increase the numbers unless we all do our part. I can’t say it’s a white male profession and then not try to help recruit. It’s counterintuitive. At the same time, it shouldn’t solely be my responsibility as a person of color; it should be something that holistically the profession tries to address.

Header image of BIG partners via The Danish Pioneer


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