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Editorial: Architecture’s Gender Gap

In Canadian architecture firms, gender equity 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.

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.

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.



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3 Comments » for Editorial: Architecture’s Gender Gap
  1. I have hired hundreds of architects for our firm and I have never considered a person’s gender. Although the ratio in our firm is 50:50, at present the major shareholders are men. That is because, when offered the same opportunities to purchase shares, the women declined. I’ve not asked them why. It should be noted that the schools of architecture are presently filled predominantly by women. This will surely change the make up of Canadian architectural practices in the near future.

  2. name witheld says:

    I was a graduate architectural student in the late 80s/early 90s, having previously obtained a BSc and MSc in a different field. While I did well as an architecture student, I was specifically told by one of my professors that I did not belong in the program, as I was female, married and had a young child. All of my instructors were male, and I definitely needed to outperform my male colleagues and be more visible in the studio in order to maintain my grades. The resulting stress in my final year led to my withdrawal from the program, and while I have established a successful career in urban planning and design through real estate development, the obvious gender bias that I experienced as a student was impactful. I strongly hope architectural schools and the profession are more actively addressing this prevalent problem today, and encourage all students/young professionals to speak out against these types of biases. Thank you for this article.

  3. Withheld says:

    I graduated in 1988 from the architectural technology program Only 15 percent of my classmates were female. At work I found the Architect firm that I was hired at had about 30% women which was much higher than the colleges and universities that I knew at the time. Five years later, due to recessionary reasons, I found myself in business for myself because there were few jobs, but I could eke out a living with private clients. Five years out of school and I was in a position of hiring candidates for my own firm. Similar to school, I found that only 15-20% of the applicants were female. This was the same across the next ten years when I posted jobs available. So if only 15% of the graduates of my generation were female, it is unlikely that senior positions would have a different mix. Ownership, partnership and associate-ship doesn’t come to recent graduates but generally experienced individuals. Perhaps a study of both male and female graduates from twenty-five years ago through today would give a better idea of the profession than just looking at current graduate numbers. I for one never hired based on gender or ethnicity. In fact, until I had looked at the resume, I usually hadn’t even looked at the name. Today, my own associate peers who hover around my same age, 49, have a similar make-up of percentage of female ownership of companies. Perhaps architect firms are greatly different!

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  1. […] Editorial: Architecture's Gender Gap 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 … Read more on Canadian Architect […]

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