Architecture Matters: Women in Architecture

Architecture Matters: Women in Architecture

Cincinnatians are likely familiar with two iconic modern buildings, Terrace Plaza and the Center for Contemporary Arts, each designed by pioneering architects, Nathalie de Blois and Zaha Hadid respectively. The only two buildings designed by women among dozens of architectural landmarks (Music Hall, Union Terminal, The Ascent, Crosley Tower, etc.) throughout our city. Why? In 1900, there were only 39 American women who graduated from the School of Architecture. Today, only 23% of registered architects are women (2023 NCARB numbers).

Representation in architecture is important because architects design buildings, places, and environments that impact everyone. Having a design team that looks like the community at large helps ensure all voices are part of the conversation.

Emily Lubbers, AIA with MSP Design“You will always end up with a better solution if you start with a set of options, ideas, and perspectives,” said Emily Lubbers, AIA with MSP Design. “Getting the perspectives of different building users will always lead to a better design but we don’t always have that in the design process. So getting diverse backgrounds of the designers themselves is as close as we can get.”

The presence of women in the architectural profession positively impacts the built environment and encourages women to enter the field and advance professionally.

“I had been working at a company for 13 years, and it seemed like the only way to get up there was to bring more work into the company. I didn’t feel comfortable with that, but I felt like I could make my own commitments to clients for specific types of projects,” said Nina Goud, AIA. With Harmony Architecture. “I knew other women in architecture who had small businesses or were sole proprietors. Through their example, I realized that I could start my own company.

Step 1: Become an architect

Half of architecture students and graduates are women but only 23% of registered architects are female. The discrepancy is greater than law (55% students, 36% lawyers) or medicine (53% students, 41% doctors and surgeons). What happens to female graduates who do not pursue licensure?

Academic architecture programs skew male and white both in teachers and the content they teach, which may discourage women from pursuing architecture as a career.

Ashley Pinkard, NOMA with DNK Architects“By my third year in the history and theory course, it dawned on me that I had not seen a single black architect and hardly any female architects,” said Ashley Pinkard, NOMA at DNK Architects. “It made me wonder where I fit in here.”

The typical path to becoming an architect is to attend an undergraduate program accredited by the National Architectural Accrediting Board (NAAB), followed by graduate school, and work experience (approximately 4,000 hours) before taking the Licensing Examinations (ARE) and becoming a registered architect.

The licensing process has changed over the years, from a full week of in-person testing in Columbus once a year to the ability to take the ARE test online at a local testing center or proctor it virtually from home. Until 2023, there is a “rolling clock” that requires all six ARE exams to be completed within five years of passing the first exam. While this may not seem unreasonable, for women in their 20s and 30s who are likely to have children and take time away from work, that rotating clock could prevent a license.

“As a woman, it is necessary to have a license in order to be taken seriously,” said Heather Wehby, of the AIA. “I got my license as soon as I could out of school.”

Balancing the time to study and take the ARE exams while gaining the professional experience required for licensure, and the salary needed to pay exam fees and student loans, is a challenge. Minority architects are particularly affected by the high cost of pursuing architecture as a career. Only 5.4% of architects are women of color (2022 NCARB), including 566 Black women.

“I’m still working on the license,” Pinkard said. “I’m determined to get it over with. It’s important that you be that 600th licensed black woman. For acting, for me personally, and for my growth in the profession.”

Step 2: Stay in the field

The American Institute of Architects (AIA) study on bias in the profession confirms the prevalence of gender bias in the workplace, which for architects includes not only corporate offices but also construction sites that are less diverse than the architectural profession (construction is 9.9) percent For women according to the National Association of Women in Construction).

“Anytime you’re a female in a male-dominated industry, especially young people and females, it takes a lot of courage to walk into a room where you’re literally the only one,” Lubbers says. “Especially when you have to tell a group of guys what to do or how to solve a problem. My college program was close to 50/50 male/female. It was like a bubble, where you’re treated equally, so when I had to go to job site, I realized that a lack of diversity is still prevalent.

Motherhood is a challenge for women in most fields – balancing parenting and work or taking time away from work to raise children can derail a career. In architecture, this problem is exacerbated by the scarcity of women in this field.

“When I started working at my company, they didn’t even have a maternity leave policy,” Lubbers said. “I am the first woman in the company in 25 years to have a baby, and my company has gone out of its way to help me.”

Childcare is an issue for any working woman – especially when working hours fall outside the 9-5 working day, such as public hearings that architects are expected to attend. In architecture, remote work was not common until the Covid pandemic. As companies continue to offer some flexibility in work schedules, this may help mothers remain in the workforce.

Heather Wehby, AIA“We need to challenge this idea that working more than 40 hours a week is required to be an architect,” Wehbe said. “When it comes to competing for who wants to stay up all night and work on weekends, why would you choose to become an architect? I even considered not having children because I was an architect. Why should anyone have to choose whether to become a mother?” Or not because of that?

The gender disparity increases with experience, with women making up smaller numbers of company leaders and owners.

“There are many situations where there is only one seat at the table for a woman, so you have to compete for that one seat,” Wehbe said. “When you are allowed to head one department, when you are marginalized in this way, there will be competition for that position.”

This scarcity can create an environment in which it is difficult for women who succeed to support the next generation of professionals.

“I’ve met women who have experienced misogyny and discriminatory behavior, but they’ve had to deal with some of those tendencies from a survival standpoint,” Pinkard said. They had to mentally train themselves to carry themselves a certain way. “We should not go through this stage if we have our work and our skills.”

How can we solve this problem?

Building a community of women nationally and locally to connect and support each other has proven successful by creating opportunities for mentorship, leadership, and career guidance.

Nationally, the AIA hosts an annual Women’s Leadership Summit that has grown from 150 participants in 2009 to 900 in 2023. The National Organization of Minority Architects (NOMA) offers a nationwide mentorship program that connects established design practitioners with young professionals to support them as they work toward Licensing and providing guidance as they navigate their careers. A local NOMA chapter was established in Cincinnati this summer.

“Ohio Valley NOMA is actively reaching out to the University of Cincinnati Student Chapter (NOMAS) to provide avenues for these students to be mentored and let them know we are here and accessible,” Pinkard said.

In Cincinnati, the Boyer Guild for Women in Architecture formed in the early 1990s. Named after India Boyer, the first female registered architect in Ohio and the first female member of AIA Cincinnati, The Boyer Guild filled a need that the AIA lacked.

Nina Goud, AIA with Harmony Architecture“AIA meetings at that time were full of older white men in suits who didn’t seem to want to talk to us,” Judd said. “A few female architects in Cincinnati had heard about a group of female engineers and architects in Columbus that was separate from the AIA, not to discredit the AIA but to focus on women’s issues. They felt freer to talk about the things they were experiencing in the profession, and in doing their work.” , and to live their lives. Some of us went to Columbus at different times to join them, but we decided that we couldn’t keep driving once a month, so we should start a group here.

The women of The Boyer Guild were able to connect with other women architects, see their work, learn about their practices, and share their challenges and the solutions they found. Discussions ranged from harassment, child care, and balancing responsibilities between spouses. They also had programs on architectural topics and offered continuing education courses.

“‘Guild’ was specifically chosen to refer to a group of equals, a group of people who work together to help each other improve the profession,” Judd said. “We supported each other. Long-lasting friendships were formed.

AIA Cincinnati now has a Committee for Women in Architecture that organizes regular programs including dining circles, borrowed from AIA Columbus, to connect women at different career stages outside the office.

Access to women’s networks at the national and regional level is important for women in this profession. But changing a company culture to be more inclusive requires effort at the micro level.

“Having someone to support you is huge,” Lubbers said. “It’s easy to be overlooked when you’re just one person. I found an ally in our company in another department who has more experience and can share what other industries and companies are doing. Having someone else who also talks about recruiting, hiring, retention and policies helps.”

Women also need the support of business leaders, both men and women, to obtain licensure, stay in the field, and advance their careers.

“If you’re young and this is your first job, or you’re trying to get experience to get your license, or you’re just trying to do the job, you have to have sponsors,” Wehby said. “Not just someone signing papers, but a real active participant to make sure you learn what you need to learn.”

Changing company culture is slow, but improving policies, providing guidance, and providing career support represents progress.

Achieving justice

Progress has been made: 35 years ago, only 4% of registered architects were women. This amounts to 23% and more than 40% of people taking ARE exams are women. This year, all of AIA’s senior leaders are women: Lakeisha Ann Woods, CAE is Executive Vice President/CEO, Emily Grandstaff-Rice, FAIA is 2023 President, Kimberly Dowdell, AIA, NOMA is 2024 President-Elect, and Evelyn Lee, FAIA , Noma has been elected president-elect for 2025. Is this a sign that the tide has turned and that women will step into the field? Is the work done?

Follow this discussion in person:
When: Wednesday, November 15, 2023
Time: 5:15 PM – 7:00 PM
Where: Contemporary Arts Center, 44 East 6th Street, Cincinnati, OH, 45202
RSVP here.

“It’s not done until there’s honest equity, until 50% of major companies are headed by female architects, and there’s 50% representation all the way through, and equal pay no matter what your genitals are,” Judd said.

It may take a couple of decades to get there, but women will persist and change the field in which they have made a significant impact despite their lack of representation.

To learn more about women in architecture historically and today, visit:
Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation
International Archives of Women in Architecture
Mrs. Architect

Profiles of local women architects are featured on the AIA Cincinnati website. The Center for Contemporary Arts celebrates its 20th anniversaryy Commemorates the building designed by Zaha Hadid with an exhibition examining her work and legacy.

The series, Architecture Matters, is supported by AIA Cincinnati. Learn more at

The opinions expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the American Institute of Architects or the members of AIA Cincinnati.

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