October 1, 2015
by Elsa Lam
A recent panel at Ryerson University’s Department of Architectural Science discussed the challenges facing female designers. From left to right, panellists included Sanaz Shirshekar MRAIC, Jennifer McArthur, Betsy Williamson MRAIC, Brigitte Shim FRAIC, Meg Graham FRAIC and Tania Bortolotto MRAIC.
This summer, a young architect with a troubling story contacted me. Samantha Lin was applying for intermediate-level architecture jobs earlier in the year. From 30 applications, she landed three interviews and three rejections without an interview.
With those three firms that rejected her, Samantha decided to embark on an experiment. She resubmitted her resume and portfolio with a different name—Sam Smith. It was still technically her name—the first name her friends call her, with her husband’s last name—if not the one she would typically use in a professional setting.
“I know that name holds a different connotation in the header of a resumé,” says Samantha (her name has been changed to protect her privacy). Another reason for the experiment is that Samantha was in contact with a local architecture school, and noticed that some recent graduates were having trouble finding work. “The ones that remained unemployed for over six months after graduation were mostly visible-minority females,” she notes. By contrast, “many of the Caucasian males in the same class had jobs lined up before they graduated.”
Shortly after reapplying, she heard back from all three firms, and scheduled two in-person interviews. She backed out of one of them, as she knew the interviewers and didn’t want to put them in an awkward position. For the other, she screwed up her courage and went.
“The first statement from one of the interviewers was that they were expecting a boy, with a name like Sam,” she recalls. The interview carried on in a routine fashion, but left her hopping mad. “I can’t understand why I’d been passed over before with no interview. It’s the same portfolio as the one I’d submitted just weeks ago.”
According to census data, women held about 29% of jobs in architecture in 2011, a 6% increase since 1991. But is this keeping pace? For over a decade, more than half of graduates in architectural Master’s programs have been women. At the current rate of change, we’ll be waiting until 2080 before we see a 50-50 split in the ranks of employed architects.
We’re not alone in wrestling with gender equity. “The farther up you look in the world of architecture, the fewer women you see,” says Lian Chikako Chan, who recently analyzed the prominence of female architects in the United States. A crunch point is licensing: while 43% of architecture students are women, only 30% of those that applied for an NCARB record (a necessary step to completing the US registration program) are female. Twenty-five percent of working architects are women and only 17% of firm principals and partners are women. At the top of the pyramid, just one woman has won the AIA Gold Medal.
By some measures, Canada is doing better. We have a higher percentage of women in architecture schools and employed as architects. The leadership positions in Canadian schools are split evenly between male and female. Three women have received the RAIC Gold Medal: Patricia Patkau as a joint recipient with John Patkau, Phyllis Lambert and Jane Jacobs.
But Samantha’s story belies the underlying truth that gender equity (not to mention racial equity, a topic that would merit a separate discussion) is still an issue. For any number of reasons—maternity leave, perceived reluctance to take on overtime, personal decisions to leave the profession—women simply aren’t being hired as often as men.
As a profession, if we want to see change in this picture, we need to actively pursue it. We need to recruit employees in a more equitable manner. We need to nominate women for awards. We need to support females as they seek to grow and thrive as architects. There’s still a large gap, and it’ll take a concerted, collective effort to close it.