Tackling the design profession’s gender equity problem

Search Google for “famous architects,” and only one woman — Zaha Hadid, who passed away last year — turns up in the top results.

It’s all too easy to find examples of gender imbalance in design. But reliable information about how this affects people and practices, not to mention viable ideas for eliminating it, is harder to come across.

This is starting to change. In the last few years, several new organizations have been conducting research, facilitating conversations, and promoting best practices in both architecture and engineering.

Equity by Design

Much of this work has been led out of San Francisco. In 2011, that city’s American Institute of Architects (AIA) chapter held an event exploring what it termed “the missing 32%” — the gap between the percentage of female architecture school graduates and the percentage of female industry leaders. This event sparked conversations about the profession’s gender dynamics across the globe.

To continue this work, AIA San Francisco formed a committee called Equity by Design (EQxD). The group sees equity as vital across several fronts. While retaining talent is perhaps the most obvious, it also believes that addressing the issue will help advance the profession as a whole and help the public at large understand architecture’s value and impact.

To date, EQxD has conducted two national surveys and reached out to the professional community through symposiums, hackathons, presentations, and publications.

An engineering response

Inspired by this example, in 2016 the Structural Engineers Association of Northern California formed its own committee, Structural Engineering Engagement and Equity (SE3). The group’s remit is twofold: understanding the degree to which structural engineers as a whole are satisfied with their profession (the “engagement” in the title) and determining how fairly the benefits of working in the profession are distributed.

For Nick Sherrow-Groves, SE3’s cochair and a structural engineer at Arup, working toward a healthier gender balance is a matter of right and wrong. “One of the reasons I’m here is that I see the moral inequities in our profession and I want to help correct them,” he said.

Defining the problem

Last year, both organizations launched major research projects. EQxD’s Equity in Architecture Survey gleaned insights from 8,664 architecture professionals around the country and beyond, roughly half of them women. SE3’s survey reached over 2,100 US-based structural engineers, approximately a third of whom are female.

Both efforts detected a significant pay gap between men and women, even when controlling for factors like location, position, and firm size. SE3 found that while female engineers earn approximately the same as men early in their careers, the gap widens over time. In fact, some male principals and firm owners earn up to $52,000 more than their female counterparts.

Implicit bias

While the industry clearly needs to take a hard look at its compensation practices, paying women more won’t necessarily fix the root of the problem: implicit bias. “No one would say they would consciously pay a man more than a woman for the same job. Then why are women paid less?” said SE3 cochair Angie Sommer, an associate at ZFA Structural Engineers.

To truly shatter the glass ceiling, the profession needs to conduct a more thorough self-examination. “Equity is about creating just opportunities for everyone and evaluating the structures that deter from that,” said Rosa Sheng, EQxD’s founding chairperson, an architect at Bohlin Cywinski Jackson and president-elect of AIA San Francisco.

Paying women more won’t necessarily fix the root of the problem: implicit bias.

EQxD has developed a number of tools to help designers understand and address implicit bias. In February, Sheng hosted a workshop called #EQxDisruptBias that helped participants examine their own “bias blind spots.” A recently launched weekly email describes simple actions that all designers can take — actively promoting women’s voices in meetings, for example.

Firm-wide equitable practices

Although individuals need to tackle their own biases, many issues are best addressed at the firm level.

“If we’re going to make one recommendation, it’s that no one recommendation will fit all companies,” Sherrow-Groves said. One obvious takeaway from the survey, however: companies should review their compensation practices, preferably on an annual basis. “To me, the pay audit seems most important — in other words, determining what your employees are being paid and associating that with their demographics: age, gender, experience, etc.,” he said. “It’s really hard to ignore once you have the data.”

SE3 also recommends that firms take steps like providing business management training to leadership, aligning daily tasks with career goals, and halting the practice of asking for prospective employees’ salary histories.

EQxD concluded that mentorship, meaningful work, work/life flexibility, and transparency around the promotion process were particularly important for long-term success and retention.

Next steps

Sheng is currently helping the national AIA develop a new committee entitled Equity and the Future of Architecture, which will help determine what steps the organization takes in the short and medium term.

Sherrow-Groves said the SE3 team is spreading its message by presenting the survey findings nationally and encouraging other structural engineers to start similar groups.


Questions or comments for Rebecca Bratburd or Nick Sherrow-Groves? Contact rebeccabratburd@gmail.com or nick.sherrow-groves@arup.com. Follow Rosa Sheng on Twitter at @RosaSheng and @EquityxDesign.

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