Published May 11, 2016
While researching her new book, UB architectural historian Despina Stratigakos met with a group of women who worked at a world-renowned architecture firm.
They were dedicated employees, and good at their jobs.
But each year they noticed the firm’s male partners would choose someone — whom the women referred to as “the anointed one” — to mentor and bring up through the ranks. This person was always the same: a young male architect.
“These women had worked there for years and had never seen a woman be chosen as ‘the anointed one.’ Informal, old boys’ club processes like these make it difficult for women to get noticed and advance,” says Stratigakos, interim chair of the Department of Architecture.
Stratigakos is the author of “Where Are the Women Architects?”
The book, released in April by Princeton University Press, uses the architectural profession as a lens to examine issues that affect women across male-dominated occupations, from a lack of female role models to unequal pay.
The statistics pertaining to architecture are alarming, says Stratigakos. According to the National Architectural Accrediting Board, women account for 44 percent of architecture school students and 42 percent of graduates.
But women make up only 19 percent of licensed architects and 17 percent of firm principals and partners. Data collected by the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture indicate that more than 80 percent of architecture school deans are male.
The often difficult path for female architects is a problem that architecture has acknowledged for well over a century, but it has gained prominence in the wake of the death this March of Zaha Hadid, the first woman to receive the Pritzker Architecture Prize, considered the profession’s top honor.
“The architectural profession suffers from amnesia about its gender problem. There’s been a long cycle of acknowledging the issue and then forgetting about it,” Stratigakos says.
Many people assume women leave the profession to have children and raise a family. But that’s not the case. “Work-life balance is very important, but surveys of women who have left architecture indicate that having children is not the primary cause,” she says.
Stratigakos’ book draws from industry surveys and statistics to find out why this attrition occurs. But she also tells the story through the lens of popular culture. For example, Stratigakos discusses the rarity of female architects as characters in Hollywood films.
“Where Are the Women Architects?” also looks at the lack of female architecture role models — “Successful role models show that it can be done and help combat alienation,” Stratigakos says — and the significant salary gap that exists between male and female architects.
U.S. Department of Labor statistics show that women architects working full time earn 20 percent less than their male peers; in England, it’s 25 percent.
In addition, the book covers the failure to recognize female architects with major awards, and the fact that women often don’t receive top billing at conferences and are frequently overlooked as presenters for academic lecture series.
“When added up, these slights and barriers become formidable,” Stratigakos says. “And they affect women across the board, whether they have children or not.”
The profession’s patriarchal nature — more evident among large firms — also holds women back. Studies show that mentors tend to select protégés who remind them of themselves, she notes.
“When 83 percent of the leadership in architecture firms is male, women are already at a disadvantage in terms of seeming like the chip off the old block in someone’s eyes,” she says.
Architecture’s reluctance to fully address the problem seems to be changing, thanks to young male and female architects speaking up through social media and other communications channels, according to Stratigakos.
“Although we need better studies of the attrition problem, we also need to move forward with concrete actions. Asking the same question — ‘Where are the women architects?’ — for 150 years and not getting an answer is not working,” she says. “And I don’t want to be asking that same question 20 years from now.”
Despite the slow progress in addressing the issues women in architecture face, Stratigakos says there are reasons to be optimistic.
“We’re in the midst of a third wave of feminism in architecture. This movement is broad, global, cross-generational and vocal. It’s a powerful coalition of architects, men and women, who see gender equity as everyone’s issue.”