Where are the great women architects?

When as an architecture student in the 1990s I visited Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater in Western Pennsylvania, the docent took notice of the number of women architecture students on the tour and asked, “why do you suppose there haven’t been any great women architects?” Virginia Wolfe’s argument about the impossibility of a female Shakespeare came to mind, how it is precisely the crazy talented women that would have been stamped out by a patriarchal society.

I only had anecdotal evidence back then, but I’m armed with facts now. The University at Buffalo, SUNY professor Despina Stratigakos has researched the career paths of women architects and has found evidence that disproves common misconceptions. Architecture lags behind medicine and law in the incorporation of women in top positions in the profession, but not for the reasons you might think.

According to Stratigakos, women and men do equally well in professional firms for about the first ten years of their careers. Then there is what she describes as a “pinch point,” when a lot of women leave professional firms for teaching careers, to start their own practice, or for related fields such as interior design; women find better opportunities in these optional career paths than in architecture firms. The common misconception is that babies and the need for a more flexible schedule are the reason women leave, but Stratigakos shows that even among those women that opt to not have children and to dedicate themselves to their careers the dropout rate is the same.

It turns out the real reason women leave is because they don’t see opportunities for advancement in the architecture firm in which they are working. At some point in the careers of young architects diligence and talent are not enough to advance; they need to be given responsibility and a high profile project that allows them to prove their mettle and shine; in other words, they need a mentor. Stratigakos found that women get mentored less than men at this crucial point in their careers. In other words, it is precisely the ambitious, talented women, the Shakespeares of architecture, that leave architecture firms when they don’t see opportunities for advancement.

But the recent influx of women into Congress has put a spring in my step. If the power structure of a nation can start to turn female, then perhaps the shift will eventually make its way into the power structure of the profession of architecture.

Perhaps the public nature of high profile building commissions makes the difficulty for women in architecture more akin to the difficulties women face running for office than to the professions of medicine or law. In both politics and architecture the advancement of women is a power issue: women need to be mentored and the public at large needs to be OK seeing women in charge.

It has been speculated that for architecture in particular the association with construction makes the profession need a certain burliness. But saying that architecture is construction is like saying that math is arithmetic—we have calculators for the hefty long divisions. And if we could manage to make architecture break away from this association with male burliness, perhaps politics too can loose its mighty male ideal.

Much has changed since I was an architecture student on that Fallingwater tour. Elizabeth Diller, Zaha Hadid, and Kazujo Sejima are women architects with tour de force buildings in the high profile stage of New York City.

But we have a long way to go. Since the Prizker prize was established in 1979, the highest honor in architecture, only three women have been recipients: Hadid, Sejima, and the Spanish architect Carme Pigem. And in the architect’s Robert Venturi’s obituary this past September we were reminded of the Prizker Prize insulting exclusion of his partner Denise Scott-Brown, with whom he had founded Venturi Scott-Brown Architects and had collaborated on research and publications.

We await more power shifts. Meanwhile, women in architecture continue to do their part. It was Frank Lloyd Wright’s granddaughter Catherine Ingraham who first hired me to teach at Pratt Institute’s School of Architecture, where I’ve been doing what I can to mentor both women and men into thriving careers in architecture.

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