Because it’s 2017: Gender Diversity in Canada’s Architecture Profession

“Because it’s 2015” is, of course, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s much-reported retort to a journalist who questioned his first cabinet’s gender parity. In October of that year, the Ontario Association of Architects initiated a Women in Architecture series on its blog, 23 years after the organization first formed a Women in Architecture Task Force.

The state of diversity in the profession has been under increasing scrutiny both inside and outside of Canada. Despina Stratigakos’ recently published book, Where Are the Women Architects?, summarizes American and British research identifying barriers women continue to face as practicing architects, before cautiously positing evidence of an emerging “ third wave” of feminism in architecture. The latter, she writes, challenges almost 20 years of equity stagnation in the profession that followed significant advances from the 1970s to the 1990s.

While much less research has been undertaken in Canada, voices such as Vancouver’s Women in Architecture group are responding to strong anecdotal evidence that advances in gender equality in education are not being consistently transferred to professional practice. How should the profession respond to ensure more timely progress?

Source: Statistics Canada, National Household Survey
Source: Statistics Canada, National Household Survey

Given architecture’s complex licencing process, data on the representation of actual practicing architects can be tricky to obtain. The best general measure is the 2011 census, which reports that women represent 28.9 percent of architects nationwide.

Notably, the percentage of female architects varied widely from province to province. Equally significant are changes from the previous 2006 census. The proportion of female architects in Quebec and Ontario moved upwards (5.5 and 3.3 percent respectively), while in British Columbia, the rate declined by 2.2 percent. Results of the 2016 census are currently being tabulated, but based on the Ontario Association of Architects (OAA)’s figures studying the gender wage gap in Ontario, it is reasonable to assume the national rate will exceed 30 percent, with Quebec passing the 40 percent mark. In addition to reporting that 51.4 percent of students enrolled in Ontario’s architecture programs were women (approximately 10 percent higher than in the U.S.), the OAA’s data revealed that during the past ten years, 33.1 percent of newly licensed Ontario architects were women. By 2015, 45 percent of intern architects were women.

This suggests Canada is ahead of both the U.S. and the U.K., at least nationally. But there are still significant problems. In the States, a study by the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture (ACSA) found that the “ licensure pipeline” has seen the percentage of women intern architects rise steadily from 1984 to reach 40 percent female in 2013. But, the ACSA argues, the virtual flatlining of practicing women architects at 25 percent since 2005 suggests significant “practice pipeline” holes.

Similarly, in Canada, representation outside Quebec suggests that the strong advances in the back end of the pipeline have not been appropriately reflected by a proportional national increase of practicing women architects. In contrast, the representation of women as practicing lawyers and doctors in Canada, both professions with similarly demanding licensing, apprenticeship requirements and long hours, is significantly higher. Some 40.3 percent of doctors in Canada are women—which rises to 51 percent for those aged 35 to 44 and 61.4 percent for those under 35.

The strong number of women training to become architects is promising. But unequal progress in practice representation raises key questions. What are the barriers to retention, as well as advancement to leadership levels? And, why is Quebec significantly ahead?

Building Equality in Architecture Toronto hosts an all-gender social at Harbourfront Centre. Photo: Scott Norsworthy
Building Equality in Architecture Toronto hosts an all-gender social at Harbourfront Centre. Photo: Scott Norsworthy

Major American and British surveys over the last 15 years have suggested a plethora of barriers to women staying in architecture. Back in 2004, Sandra Manly and Clara Greed of the University of the West of England found multiple reasons why women left the profession at a higher rate than men. These included:

  • Low and unequal pay;
  • Long working hours coupled with inflexible/non-family friendly working hours;
  • Being sidelined to limited areas of work, often based on protective paternalism, preventing development experience;
  • Stressful working conditions with more job satisfaction elsewhere;
  • Macho culture and sexism; and
  • Lack of “returner” training after a maternity leave

Twelve years later, the American Institute of Architects (AIA)’s 2016 national survey found all the same barriers—but added fewer job offers on graduation, slower rates of promotion, a lack of women role models, and a broader set of poor return-to-work strategies, including lack of upgrading for technological advances.

One reason for stunted promotion rates, reported the AIA San Francisco chapter’s Equity by Design Report (2014), was that women were less likely to see promotion systems as fair and “ effective,” with senior male architects often engaging in “ in-group favouritism.” The U.K.’s Architectural Review ran an international survey in 2016 that also raised the problem of weak mentoring. This issue dovetails with the frequent finding that women architects lack role models; in the States, less than 18 percent of licensure supervisors are women. A related issue is women’s limited opportunities to lead on projects.

In the Equity by Design study, women architects reported they were more likely to be assigned production and construction documentation roles than their similarly situated male counterparts. According to architect Melissa Higgs of HCMA Architecture + Design, who is active with Vancouver’s Women in Architecture group, a disparate ability to access hours of leadership- and management-related work experience is the number-one problem faced by female interns, followed by lack of mentorship.

As for more diverse role models, many have noted the continued poor recognition of women’s achievements in architecture. Examples range from the Pritzker Prize’s male-dominated record of awardees, to sexist obituaries for Zaha Hadid—even by renowned critics. On the positive side, in Designing Women (2000), McGill architecture professor Annmarie Adams and Peta Tancred offer insights on why women have done so well in Quebec. The Quiet Revolution of the 1960s coincided with Montreal’s building boom, which included highly visible work by women architects, not a few of whom trained in Eastern Europe, where women played a much more central role. With women architects at the centre rather than at the margins, female entry into the profession skyrocketed in the 70s and 80s.

Some reasons women give for leaving architectural practice—such as low pay, stressful working conditions and more job satisfaction elsewhere—also apply to men. But according to the Architectural Review, only 28 percent of women report overall job satisfaction compared with 41 percent of men, suggesting that the adverse impact of these pressures is gendered. Female architects’ satisfaction levels were much better in firms with more women managers and with balanced mentoring programs.

Liz Wreford, Elsa Lam and Johanna Hurme discuss equity on a Winnipeg panel. Photo: Jaya Beange.
Liz Wreford, Elsa Lam and Johanna Hurme discuss equity on a Winnipeg panel. Photo: Jaya Beange.

Tellingly, all surveys find a significant divergence in how men and women assess the state of gender diversity in architecture. Men are only half as likely as their female counterparts to have seen discrimination against women, and hold similarly divergent perceptions about the fairness of promotion and pay levels. The AIA found that 84 percent and 81 percent of female respondents wanted a change in office culture and increased job flexibility, respectively, compared to 63 percent and 58 percent for men. With males still dominating management roles and partnerships, a significant disconnect remains between how men and women perceive the extent of the problems and the best ways to respond.

Certainly, the issues of work/life balance, flexible work arrangements and return from maternity leave play a central role in women’s professional experience. Historically, women in female-dominated jobs—from office cleaners to flight attendants, to professional nurses—have found ways to cope with these issues in the modern economy. Yet an Australian journalist still felt it appropriate to title a 2015 article “ Women in Architecture: To Be or Not To Be a Mother,” and childless women form an abnormally high percentage of women in architecture. Not incidentally, Quebec’s remarkable increase in women architects from 2001 to 2011 (25.2 to 38.9 percent, compared to Ontario’s increase from 21.3 to 26.5 percent) coincided with the first 12 years of that province’s affordable daycare program, introduced in 1999. However, as Stratigakos told the Princeton University blog, “ The simplistic explanation, trotted out for decades, that women leave practice to have babies doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.” She points out that not all mothers leave architecture, and women without children are also struggling in the profession.

The most disturbing conclusion of the recent surveys and history of architectural recognition may be this: it is not a lack of educational attainment or career interest that creates the gender gap. It is not even systemic barriers that unintentionally exclude women. Instead, it is the presence of significant subtle (and sometimes overt) attitudes and biases that both exclude women, and disproportionately lead them to abandon architecture as a profession. As one senior woman architect who asked not to be identified told me, “Being a woman in business, there is still an attitude that women can attain a certain level within an organization—but that women just may not be as good, or as appropriate, as men.”


There is a need for—and signs of—Stratigakos’ third wave of architecture feminism, as well as for much stronger messaging by professional organizations. But change also requires direct action by individual firms to ensure that barriers are identified and eradicated. Architecture is increasingly drawing from evidence-based design studies; the same precept must be applied to its human resource practices.

Since 1986, Canada’s Federal Contractors Program (FCP), which covers provincially regulated employers (including most architects) with major federal contracts, requires employers to apply just such an approach by developing and implementing an equity plan.

Under the FCP, employers must first tally their representation of women (as well as Aboriginal peoples, persons with disabilities and members of visible minority groups), classified by their occupational group. This is followed by a workforce analysis, where representation is compared against availability (the expected representation without barriers) to determine “ gaps” or areas of under-representation. The third, and most difficult step, is an employment systems review that involves a complete audit of all employment systems, practices and processes, including attitudes, for adverse impact. From the findings, an employment equity plan is developed that aims to remove identified barriers, implement special measures like targeted mentoring to speed up the closing of gaps, and introduce supporting initiatives, such as accommodation and harassment policies as well as equity champions in management. Like all proper business plans, goals rather than quotas are set, then used to assess progress. As a data-based system, employment equity works best with larger firms, but its principles can also be used even with smaller practices.

Some provinces—notably Saskatchewan, Ontario and Quebec—have required similar structured action, but legislated employment equity survived into the new millennium only in Quebec. Certain larger firms, however, remain subject to the FCP through their federal contracts. I spoke to three such firms that have recently completed successful compliance reviews with Labour Canada: AECOM Canada Architects, IBI Group and Diamond Schmitt Architects.

Paul Vincent, vice president with AECOM, reports that 45 percent of the international firm’s approximately 130 Canadian architects are female, including its lead architect for North America. The key first step, he says, is developing and regularly communicating clear corporate values, including a commitment to a diverse and inclusive workforce. This is backed up by regular workforce analyses to monitor representation, an appointed architecture “ diversity champion,” a mandatory annual code of conduct course, and a well-communicated complaints process. A zero-tolerance policy toward harassment or discrimination is also conveyed to contractors and subs

Good representation of women has been achieved by using general recruitment sources, although the firm has used targeted recruitment to improve Aboriginal representation in their workforce. Once hired, women architects can avail themselves of an active mentoring program, which Vincent believes has helped reduce turnover. The firm’s Women Excel Program, explains HR Director Sharon Burton, is an online program that also helps bring women together with mentors and allows for open communication on topics including gender integration. AECOM’s flexible work environment includes options to work from home and a parental leave top-up program.

Women in Architecture Vancouver members on a construction tour of Telus Garden. Photo: Wia Vancouver.
Women in Architecture Vancouver members on a construction tour of Telus Garden. Photo: Wia Vancouver.

At IBI Group, a recent workforce analysis revealed gender disparity only at the senior architect level—a “legacy” from the original partnership structure, says Jane Sillberg, Global Director of Human Resources. “We need to focus at the leadership level when it comes to gender,” she says. This focus includes a well-structured succession plan, as well as an initiative that identifies the top 20 percent of young high-performance architects and elicits their perspectives on the practice. Although both programs are open to men and women, “we are particularly working with women who may face challenges,” says Sillberg. She notes that women frequently become licensed later than men, often into their early thirties. When combined with having families, this requires flexible work arrangements.

Diamond Schmitt Architects has been under the FCP since 2003, and successfully completed its most recent compliance review this spring. In the analysis prepared by Labour Canada, 32 percent of senior and middle managers and 42 percent of professionals and technicians at Diamond Schmitt were women, in line with Labour’s assessment of availability. Equally important, over half of the firm’s associate architects and 60 percent of its directors are women.

Given Jack Diamond’s long-term involvement with human rights, including as a Commissioner of the Ontario Human Rights Commission, it is perhaps not surprising that the company has a long-standing, strongly articulated equity policy. Like AECOM, it offers a work/life balance program as well as parental top-up for new mothers and fathers taking leave. This is augmented by an employee assistance program that provides counselling resources 24/7. To eradicate any forms of harassment, the firm has established appropriate policies and procedures, and implemented office-wide training. Other initiatives include active mentoring and networking for women in the firm, with a focus on ensuring women have access to leadership roles. The firm is a Gold Member of Building Equality in Architecture Toronto (BEAT), a non-profit organization promoting equality through advocacy, mentorship, networking and promotion.

Employment equity practices can be readily adapted to smaller operations. Johanna Hurme, an outspoken advocate of women in architecture and founding partner of Winnipeg’s 5468796 Architecture, notes that through a conscious decision and due diligence in its recruitment, the collaborative-based firm of 16 sustains equal numbers of men and women employees.


Paul Vincent makes a compelling business case for diversity when he says: “ Ultimately, we are an ideas firm and a problem-solving operation. The world is changing and you have to do things in different ways—and to do that, you have to have people that come in with a different pair of glasses.” The dramatic shift in women training as architects, coupled with the similarly huge demographic shift underway, adds urgency.But in the end, it is simply the right of women to take their place within the profession that must drive change.

Rhys Philips is an Ottawa-based architecture critic. He helped craft and enforce the Federal Government’s employment equity policies as an official with both the Canadian Human Rights Commission and Labour Canada.