For centuries, the skylines of cities around the world have grown and been shaped by the ideas of architects. Frank Lloyd Wright, Frank Gehry, and Philip Johnson are just some of the great architectural names renowned for creating these buildings, names that seldom represent female figures.
Often referred to as the “glass ceiling,” (the unspoken barrier that keeps women from advancing to their maximum potential), the architecture industry is no stranger to criticism for its lack of female presence.
“There are times when I’m in a meeting of say 20 people, and looking around I realize that I’m the only female,” says Jennifer Mallard, an associate with Toronto’s Diamond Schmitt Architects. “It is a male-dominated industry, especially on the construction side.”
According to a 2012 survey from the American Institute of Architecture, approximately 17 per cent of its members were female—a jump from their 2000 survey, which reported just nine per cent of all members as women.
Jennifer Marshall, co-founder of Urban Arts Architects in Vancouver, came to understand this imbalance early in her career. “I had to start my own practice because I was pregnant. In those days , you could not survive as a working mom in that environment because getting time off because your child was sick, etc. [was difficult]—you would just be fired,” she explains.
Mallard adds that “the gender balance in school and in the industry at the entry level is virtually equal.” She says that she was given as much opportunity and challenge as anyone else; it’s in the higher professional roles that female numbers dwindle.
Sharon Leung is an architecture student currently pursuing her master’s of architecture at New York’s Columbia University. Having recently entered the architectural world, she views the gender imbalance as something that “will change over the course of my career,” although she is uncertain of by how much. Like Mallard, Leung says that, in school, “it is a more equal division between males and females” despite males still primarily holding the senior positions.
So, what can women do to continue to shift this disproportion?
“[Women are] much more team-oriented, much more wanting to find a solution that everybody’s happy with, (and that can work for better or worse), but I definitely think that’s a strength that we bring,” says Marshall.
Mallard agrees, explaining that in her experience, “women are stronger coaches, collaborators, and team builders.” Given that architecture is an inherent team effort that often solely recognizes the “superheroes—the ‘starchitects,’” she also explains that it’s important for women not to adopt a defeatist attitude and stay in the background.
“It’s about being clear about what you want and not being afraid to ask,” adds Marshall. “The world is changing, and I think for women pursuing a design architecture career, staying on top of technologies, always bringing something extra to the table really will help; having an expertise in something and developing an expertise is really important because it gives you some power.”
Regardless of gender, if you develop a strong interest in architecture, you will already bring an excellent asset to the professional table—passion.
“Don’t be afraid!” says Leung to other young women pursuing (or considering) architectural careers. “Architecture is such a fascinating field to be in. Although it requires passion, dedication, and hard work, if you love it, it becomes a part of you.”