Chicago Architecture Biennial: The Breakthrough
Sound the alarm: the women are missing!
Equity By Design (originally named The Missing 32%) is an advocacy group for women architects in the United States. It started, perhaps inevitably, in San Francisco; architects like Dr. Ila Berman, Cathy Simon, Anne M. Torney, EB Min, and others had begun puzzling over the numbers of women in architecture. It’s a well-known fact that in architecture school programs, the number of women and men is essentially even (and in graduate school, women often have the slight balance); another well-established fact is that only around 18% of licensed architects are female. Which led this group to wonder…where is that missing 32%?
The Chicago Architecture Biennial is providing a surprising clue.
The inaugural biennial boasts participants from every major world region. The call for submissions and jury went on for months; over a hundred architects, artists, urbanists, critics, and thinkers were chosen. Of these, woman-owned/woman-led practices constitute 49%.
…did the Biennial just single-handedly find 31 of the 32%?
Before taking a stab at answering that question, let’s take a closer look at the numbers before taking a stab at answering that question.
First, the winners and the worst offenders.
(I defined woman-owned/woman-led as practices whose owner or managing principal is a woman; practices whose work falls in multiple locations were counted in the region they listed first.)
Middle East 100%
North America 51%
South America 33%
Europe and South America seem to be clear losers in the gender equity conversation, but I’m going to put aside both for now for the same reason. Of the two continents, no country is represented by more than four practices, making the sample size just too small to draw any meaningful conclusions. However, it’s worth noting the imbalance, especially when it doesn’t seem to be reflected anywhere else. This could stem from a wide variety of kinds of factors: the kinds of practices self-selecting into applying for an international architecture event; the type of work a Biennial jury is looking for from international applicants; an inherent imbalance in the home countries/world regions, with the applicant pool reflecting that imbalance. It would be a valuable lesson for the next Biennial to examine what these examples mean.
Back to North America. While the proportion of women-owned/-led practices (51%) seems in line, it is worth closer examination. U.S. participants constitute 39% of the entire Biennial, and as such are finally a sample size worth considering; it is even more significant, then, that gender parity is exactly equal. But why is this number so different from the one the AIA is coming up with?
The answer lies less in sexism in the industry, as some think, and more in the process of licensure.
The landscape for women in architecture, licensed or not, is a complex one. Zaha Hadid, 2016 recipient of the Royal Institute of British Architects’ coveted Gold Medal (and the first solo female to achieve that honor), recently addressed this issue in a recently infamous BBC Programme interview. The interview was instantly notorious because of the lightning rod topics of deaths on one project and government pullout of another; almost entirely overlooked, however, were the quiet first few moments of the conversation. The interviewer began by focusing on Dame Hadid’s award with a relatively softball question about what it’s like to be a woman in architecture. The gist of the question seemed to be fishing for a tirade on how women are treated; Ms. Hadid’s almost bored response is a delightful statement on the enormous progress towards of gender parity.
Contrast this, then, to U.S. architect Marilyn Moedinger’s rallying cry against sexism in the profession: “[A]s a result of our stiflingly patriarchal culture, it’s my responsibility to think of all these things and react to them to effortlessly bear the expectations of others, to breezily mold myself into a ‘culturally accepted female’ – all while having a likable disposition, perfect hair, and a great sense of humor. And oh yeah, almost forgot – to design and bring multimillion dollar, multi-year jobs in on time and under budget.” Or, as psychologist Brené Brown summarizes the challenge of any (American) woman: “Do it all – do it perfectly – and never let them see you sweat.”
So…is it harder for women architects, or isn’t it? Perhaps that’s the wrong question. Comedian Cameron Esposito issued a tiny rant on Twitter that may suggest a more effective approach:
The point: it is clear that the problem lies in the path to licensure. 50% of women are in schools; 50% of the practices participating in the Architecture Biennial are woman-owned or -led. We are not MISSING; we are not LICENSED. The AIA Women Leadership Summit focuses on female architects; groups like EqxD are focusing on the path to getting there; this is not enough. Focus needs to be on, not just how does the profession need to change in order to accommodate the unique needs of women, but also on marketing licensure specifically to women. The AIA has been struggling for relevance to its members; this is an opportunity to differentiate itself in an extraordinary way, and also set a superior example to other professional organizations.
The AIA could start by identifying the kinds of women who are least likely to obtain licensure, if that data does not already exist, and targeting an awareness campaign to them, raising awareness of the benefits of licensure and educating on resources to help them get there. Are they women with a specific kind of degree (under/graduate)? Those working in a particular field (commercial, residential)? Those working in firms, or cities, of a particular size? Those hailing from or living in specific geographic regions? Which means – this may be not be a direct call for action, but rather one for better data and data analysis. What kind of tracking is the AIA doing of people in the licensure pipeline and those outside of it? Knowing who isn’t participating is just as vital as knowing who is. For example, online they identify three career stages: students, recent graduates, and newly-licensed. Have they identified have sub-stages for students and recent graduates? Do they know what the weak spots of each sub-stage is? Zeroing in on that cross section of vulnerable candidates and vulnerable places in the licensure process would give the AIA a powerful tool by which to identify and support women from the first day of class to the last day of IDP.
Organizers of the Chicago Architecture Biennial: thanks for shining a glaring spotlight on what’s working for women in architecture.
AIA: your move.