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How Women Are Climbing Architecture's Career Ladder

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This week, Curbed National is examining what it's like to be a woman working in architecture. Today, writer Lamar Anderson kicks things off with an overview of the field. Check back tomorrow for the first of three profiles of talented, risk-taking female designers at different stages of their careers.

In 1980, when Marsha Maytum was a fledgling designer at the San Francisco architecture firm EHDD, the majority of women on construction sites were centerfolds. Maytum, now a partner at the San Francisco practice Leddy Maytum Stacy Architects, made that discovery during one of the first job-site visits of her career. "I remember walking into the trailer where the meeting was supposed to occur, and there were inappropriate pictures up," she says. "I had to ask them to take them down." We are both laughing, in part to get through the awkward silence, because it really wasn't funny at the time, when Maytum was 25 and the only woman in the room. "People's awareness of how that impacts situations—no one was even conscious of it," she says.

Nearly 35 years later, progress has been measurable but mixed. Women make up 25 percent of architecture staff in the U.S., though they now earn 42 percent of the architecture degrees. In 2004, Zaha Hadid became the first woman to win the Pritzker Prize, the profession's top honor, followed in 2010 by Kazuyo Sejima of SANAA, who won with her partner, Ryue Nishizawa. (Two years later, the jury regressed and honored Wang Shu without his wife and partner, Lu Wenyu, an echo of Denise Scott Brown's exclusion from the 1991 award to her partner and husband, Robert Venturi.) Also in 2010, Jeanne Gang's Aqua Tower in Chicago was arbitrarily heralded as the tallest building designed by a woman (as opposed to, say, a bald man or a Michigander). In 2011 Mattel released Architect Barbie, after previously vetoing the idea on the grounds that little girls cannot understand architecture. And this year the American Institute of Architects (AIA) will give its top award, the Gold Medal, to its first female honoree, the late great Julia Morgan—who, despite a staggering output of 700 designs, was not prolific enough to build the time machine that would allow her to claim this prize.

For the handful of women starchitects who are not ghosts, it's lonely at the top (and icier, now that tensions over the MoMA expansion have cooled the longtime friendship between Liz Diller and Billie Tsien). Enough of that! The mighty can look after themselves for a while. This week, in honor of Women's History Month, we're presenting a snapshot of the field as it's being lived now, by architects on successive rungs of the career ladder. Starting tomorrow, we'll bring you profiles of three supremely talented designers—a millennial, a Gen X-er, and a boomer—who are taking risks and shaping the field to come.

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For today's emerging architects, the challenges are subtler than a centerfold or, in Scott Brown's case, a whiskey poured down the neck—a goonish move perpetrated by the late architectural historian Colin Rowe. The available stats are too broad to say much about how the field's youngest members are faring. The AIA doesn't break out the proportion of young architects who are women, for instance. Presumably this figure would be closer to the 42 percent of graduates who are women than to the field's overall female tally of 25 percent, which includes architects of all ages. (In other words, if we could magically achieve statistical parity today and make the field 42 percent female, we would have to add a bunch of middle-aged and older women practitioners who never attended architecture school.)

From anecdotal accounts, it seems the trouble has for the most part left the lower reaches of the profession. "Among the students I have taught, I don't see a problem that women can't get into the field," says Grace La, a professor of architecture at the Harvard Graduate School of Design who has served on the school's admissions committee. "I see the problem down the road of them staying in the field."

Indeed, the numbers get more grim at the top: in 2011, just 17 percent of principals and partners were women, according to the latest data available from the AIA. Writing in Architectural Record last year, the critic Sarah Williams Goldhagen noted (subscription required) that the leadership of five of the country's most prominent firms—HOK, Pei Cobb Freed, Kohn Pedersen Fox, Ennead, and Skidmore, Owings & Merrill—is dominated by men. Though women have increased their ranks, the discouraging spiral that Scott Brown described in her 1989 essay "Room at the Top?" still rings true today. Difficulties arise as women advance, she writes, "when firms and clients shy away from entrusting high-level responsibility to women. On seeing their male colleagues draw out in front of them, women who lack a feminist awareness are likely to feel that their failure to achieve is their own fault."

But there are rumblings at the bottom. Last year two Harvard GSD students, Caroline James and Arielle Assouline-Lichten, petitioned the Pritzker leadership to retroactively include Scott Brown in Venturi's 1991 prize. The petition garnered more than 18,000 signatures, nine of them from past Pritzker laureates such as Hadid, Rem Koolhaas, and, naturally, Venturi. The outpouring of support and media attention did not move the Pritzker jury, which expressed more discomfort with contradicting a previous jury than it did with the awkwardness of sticking to a discriminatory stance as the world looked on.

The good news is that the Pritzker's determination to remain what Scott Brown called a "sad old white man's award" inspired corrective action elsewhere in the field. Last June, just four days after the Pritzker spiked the Scott Brown issue, the AIA voted to expand eligibility for the Gold Medal to include partnerships of two. "It confirms that design and thought leadership is not the province of a single genius, and that collaboration can yield exceptional results," writes KPF principal Jill Lerner, then president of AIA New York, the chapter that led the effort.

So why do women, after investing years and hundreds of thousands of dollars to earn those expensive B.Arch and M.Arch letters after their names, abandon the field? It's true that architecture's drawn-out path to licensure—which requires a whopping 5,600 internship hours and seven exams—tends to peak right as the childbearing years set in. According to the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards, 2012's newly minted architects were, on average, just over 34 when they earned their licenses.

"On seeing their male colleagues draw out in front of them, women who lack a feminist awareness are likely to feel that their failure to achieve is their own fault."—Denise Scott Brown

The research on attrition among women is scant, however, since the AIA doesn't track women (or men) closely and, often, neither do firms. At SOM's New York office, the SOM Women's Initiative, an internal group, is trying to fill the information gap. "We found that most of the women who we were able to track weren't necessarily leaving because they had a new baby," says Julia Murphy, an associate and a leader of the group. "They were leaving to pursue other opportunities. That tells us something. This is a many-headed dragon."

The effort to gather data is growing. On the other side of the country, AIA San Francisco's Missing 32 Percent Project recently launched the Equity in Architecture Survey, which assesses both male and female architects' feelings about work. Questions ask about career goals, workplace gender ratios, and salary negotiation. "What we're trying to do is arm women with the challenges that will come up before they get there," says the project's chairperson, Rosa T. Sheng, who is a senior associate at Bohlin Cywinski Jackson in San Francisco. "Ultimately they still have to make their own choices, but they have the possible iterations of what could happen."

When Maytum got out of school and went to work at Sandy & Babcock (now SB Architects), she found a mentor in the firm's only woman associate. "I was able to have my first job in a place with a role model," she says. "That was highly unusual." Many women aren't so lucky, and may find their career options pruned by a shortage of senior staff to take an interest in them. As Sheryl Sandberg writes in Lean In, mentors tend to favor disciples who remind them of themselves. And if 83 percent of the leadership is male, well, Barbie was right: math is hard.

One young practitioner, a 26-year-old architectural designer in New York, seems divided between a sense of her own power and an acknowledgment of social dynamics beyond her control. "If you're confident as a female, you can find your way, and if you know what you want and ask for it, you can get it," says the designer, who works at a large firm and wishes to remain anonymous. "But sometimes opportunities to take leadership roles are more comfortably given to men, and then they have more of an opportunity to prove themselves. There are definitely times where just seeing the number of promotions makes you wonder if your goals are inhibited because you're a woman."

In a profession that routinely demands a decade of investment and 60-hour workweeks in exchange for a relatively unglamorous salary, the sting of inequity can feel sharper without the buffer of money. In college, our anonymous New Yorker was cavalier about her prospects as an architect. "Some people were like, 'Architecture is really hard, you don't understand, it doesn't pay a lot,' and you're thinking, 'That doesn't matter, that's not going to be me,'" she says. "And you don't realize that's just the industry." At one point she considered leaving architecture to pursue an MBA and a more lucrative career, but thanks in part to her husband's well-paying job, she decided to stay.

"But sometimes opportunities to take leadership roles are more comfortably given to men, and then they have more of an opportunity to prove themselves. There are definitely times where just seeing the number of promotions makes you wonder if your goals are inhibited because you're a woman."

Motherhood can't account for all of the field's missing partners and principals, but the work-family conflict elicits strong reactions even from women who are just beginning their careers. "I've only been working for about six months, but I already feel like I dedicate so much of my time to work that I hardly have time to take care of myself, much less kids," says Wendy Truong, a 24-year-old project designer at the Bay Area firm LCA Architects. The architect-mothers Truong knows ended up choosing modest technical work, such as writing specifications for construction materials and details, after having children. "If I were to have kids, specializing in something smaller would be a good solution," she says. "But the idea that I'm sacrificing any part of my career is just, like, 'Uggghh, I wish I didn't have to do that.'"

For Grace La, the problem of women not returning to work may have more to do with the work than the women. "A big issue is, Do the women want to come back? Sometimes it's incredibly rewarding to do other things," she says. "It depends on the quality of work that makes women want to rejoin." In other words, if you have a clear path to partner, you're more likely to return.

Those who do leave—whether to care for family or pursue another interest—can have a hard time getting back in, says Rosa Sheng. "Once you decide to go do something else, you're stigmatized as not being serious about practicing architecture," she says. This suspicion of alternative choices has the effect of narrowing the field—an outcome that doesn't help anyone. "A diversity of voices, whether it's men and women, different cultures, or different ages, only makes architecture a better profession," says Maytum.

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