Designing New Spaces:  Women in Architecture

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Designing New Spaces: Women in Architecture
Walsh, Suzi
Kohen, Martha ( Mentor )
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University of Florida
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Designing New Spaces: Women in Architecture

Suzi Walsh


Nearly half of all graduate architecture students in the United States are female (Toy 9). With such a large

number of women pursuing degrees in architecture, it would seem to follow that an equally high number of

women would be pursuing careers in architecture. This does not seem to be the case. In the United States, as

of 2002, just twenty percent of all registered architects were female ( Even if some women choose to

teach architecture, rather than go into professional practice, the question remains: where are the women

in architecture?

There are several possibilities. Professional architects are required to undertake a licensing process that entails

an average of three to six years of internship (Ostroff), in addition to completing graduate school and

taking professional exams. These additional years of preparation required before entering the workforce can

coincide with the traditional child bearing years, which are strongest around age twenty (Crooks and Baur 101).

A desire for marriage and children could be one reason why women are less inclined to pursue the path

of professional architect after graduation. Another possibility is that architecture is a traditionally male-oriented

field, which might present a daunting obstacle to many young women trying to enter the field.

It is the purpose of this paper to discover the reason why women are not prominently employed in the field

of architecture. I began with the notion that traditional values like marriage and motherhood are factors in

women's decisions to leave or never begin careers in architecture after college. Initial research led me to

suspect that an outdated, androcentric (male-centered) ideology makes architecture a particularly difficult field

for women to break into and be successful and autonomous within. What I found, and what I will show in this

paper, however, is that although women educated in architecture are acutely aware of the issues both

motherhood and androcentrism pose, these issues are not keeping women out of the field. Rather, women are

very much practicing. While they may be underrepresented in architecture firms and only twenty percent carry

their own license, women are participating in the field of architecture on their own terms in a space

somewhere between the public and private spheres. They are balancing work and family and accepting jobs

they want and enjoy. They are teaching, consulting, heading small firms, or joining with licensed partners to take

on special projects. Women are designing new spaces for themselves within the field of architecture.


"The male culture that dominates architecture will not change until forty to fifty percent of practicing architects

are women" (Laron 130). This statement by Australian architect Eve Laron mirrors the opinion of many women in

the field of architecture. The idea that there is a "male culture" in the field is reflected by the ratio of male to

female architects, engineers, and building construction personnel as well as the general conception that

built structures are often symbolically male. In architecture programs in the U.S., there is an almost fifty

percent enrollment of female students, especially in master's degree programs (Toy 9). Architecture professors

and professionals, however, are overwhelmingly male.

The Department of Labor defines "a nontraditional occupation for women" as "one in which women comprise

twenty-five percent or less of total employment" (United States 2006). On the list of such nontraditional jobs

is architect. The reasons architecture is a nontraditional field for women has much to do with history and much to

do with societal expectations. Women did not have the right to work, to hold property, or to make

decisions independently regarding their own lives; men have long been in the workforce gaining experience in

the public world, or the "extradomestic, political, and military spheres of activity" where they have been "free to

form those broader associations that we call 'society'" (Rosaldo 21-22).

The first school in the United States to educate women in architecture opened in 1916 and primarily focused on

home building and decorating, which was considered appropriate for women (Cole 78), who have traditionally

been expected to stay home and take care of the family. Even women who have been able to attend college

are often under societal pressure to follow the "normal" path back to the home and family. This contributes to

the notion that the house is female domain. It is expected that, because men have so long been a part of the

world outside of the home, they are better equipped to build structures fit for the interactions of business

and government. Women are too inexperienced or lack the expertise to create these structures, and are better

suited for designing the interior space of a home or office because a woman's place has traditionally been a part

of the domestic sphere; the place inside the home.

Sherry Ahrentzen describes the "hidden curriculum" that has been found in many college architectural programs

as part of the "studio pedagogy, social dynamics, and ideals and expectations that tend to impede or support

the progress of a diverse architectural student body" (Ahrentzen 196). She explains that "the hidden curriculum

are those tacit values, norms, and attitudes embedded in the social milieu of the course or studio that shape

and determine the course content as well as the process or method of instruction and learning of

that content" (Ahrentzen 196). There is something of a hidden curriculum in American society as a whole.

The process of teaching begins before birth when baby nurseries are decorated in pink or blue and with butterflies

or baseballs in order to emphasize the differences between boys and girls, and continues throughout life in a

manner consistent with society's gender expectations. Chris Shilling makes this point by saying "the popularity

of baby clothes which are pink for girls and blue for boys illustrates the continuing importance attached

to highlighting differences between bodies when there are none of any significance. Babies are all usually capable

of feeding, urinating, defecating, vomiting and keeping their parents awake at night" (Shilling 95). Children's

toys are also gender specific: boys are generally given tool sets and workbenches while girls are generally

given baby dolls and kitchen sets. On the surface this seems harmless, but it is actually the method by which

gender norms and societal roles are introduced and then reproduced, generation after generation. This is the

hidden curriculum of gender. Girls from the first moment they are conscious are learning to be wives and

mothers. Susanna Torre points out that "girls are more restricted by their parents in their movement in

the environment; girls are also more restrained in their manipulation of the environment. Girls build less

frequently than boys; girls also build less grandly - houses and rooms rather than cities and airports...boys are

clearly being prepared for adult roles as creators and builders, girls for work within interior spaces" (Torre 148).

This education continues throughout our lives and helps to feed the idea that men are architects and women are not.

The idea that there is a "male culture" in architecture is reflected not only in the ratio of male to female

architects, but also by the perception that built structures are often symbolically masculine. Male bodies are

trained from a very young age to be strong, muscular, and fit. Men are often taller than women. Although this is

a stereotypic generalization, it helps to illustrate the common belief that women are biologically different from

men and as such are "programmed" to act and think differently, and pursue different careers and lifestyles.

Women are often smaller in stature, with softer bodies and are often not as strong as their male counterparts.

Just like the human body, masculine buildings and structures are those that stand strong and tall or have

an authoritative purpose such as skyscrapers and government buildings. Houses are examples of feminine

structures because their purpose is caring work such as shelter for the family. Houses are generally smaller in

size compared to skyscrapers and other large city buildings. In modern American society, the masculine is

preferred and the feminine is ignored. Sandra Bem explains, "it is not that man is treated as superior and woman

as inferior but that man is treated as human and woman as 'other'" (Bem 2). Women are expected to maintain

roles that are tied to home and family and even when power falls into the hands of women, such as when they

enter the male-dominated workforce as architects, they are still expected to maintain these roles.

The role of architect requires many years of college; internships, licensing and exams that require study outside

of regular office hours and that can be labor intensive. As Louise Lamphere states, "Clearly work and home

are distinctly separated spheres in the United States. Women who have been employed in the paid labor force

have experienced the disjunction of spending eight or more hours of the day in a place of employment where

they are 'female workers' and the rest of their time in the home where they are daughters, wives, and/

or mothers" (Lamphere 92). For women seeking to fulfill the traditional family role of wife and mother, a career

path is prohibitive. If women focus on career first and become successful, it is often at the expense of having

a family. While this is certainly the case in other professions as well, in the field of architecture there are

many factors to consider. Fewer females in the field provide fewer role models for woman in architecture. It

also means less opportunity for bonding and networking. Women only comprise about ten percent of affiliated

fields, such as engineering (Society of Women Engineers), and building construction (US Census Bureau). That

these affiliated fields are also male dominated means that the only other females an architect is likely to

encounter each day are secretaries in the office or clientele, if clients happen to be female. Additionally, the pull

by society for women to keep their traditional roles of wives and mothers is strong and this is a clear motivator

for many women not to pursue the traditional career path.

"There are too many architecture firms today that have few, if any, women among their design and

management leaders" (Pran 8). This makes women in the field even less visible and less competitive,

which ultimately feeds the stereotype that men are architects, an attitude that allows men to receive many of

the high profile jobs, leaving women as part of the support team or as the architects of less important,

perhaps leftover projects. So many social factors underlie the construction of these concepts that the

simple imitation of men by women will not be enough to alter the career field. Meghan O'Rourke concluded in

her article "Desperate Feminist Wives," "worrying endlessly over choices isn't the path to greater freedom,

equality, or happiness for women" (O'Rourke 2006). Until society allows women the freedom to choose

masculinity or femininity (and likewise allows the same for men), there will be an internal tug-of-war between

the private and public, the home and career, the wife/mother and the architecture career.


The research for this work consisted of personal interviews with six women affiliated with the University of Florida,

in two categories: current professors and alumni who are currently practicing architecture. Each woman was asked

a series of questions about her past experiences in education and career in order to ascertain a perspective of

what the main conditions might be for women in the field of architecture either as students or professionals, and

to try to determine the main reason women choose or hesitate to enter the field of architecture. Data was

also reviewed, showing the numbers of female students in graduate architecture programs at the university over

the past twenty years, in order to observe any trends in enrollment.

Six interviews, ranging from thirty to sixty minutes in length, were conducted by telephone and in-person over

a period of several months. The informants range in age and background. Some are instructors, some

are architects, and some are both. The interviews were intended to provide personal and anecdotal insight into

the subject of women in architecture. It was my hope that some underlying theme might be uncovered and that,

for each woman, a single issue might emerge as the reason so few women are practicing architects. Each

woman provided unique perspective and a varied reason for not becoming licensed, or for picking and choosing

when to be licensed and not to be licensed during her career.

I chose personal interviews over mass-quantity surveys or other methods in order to gain an in-depth

understanding of the issues facing women in the field of architecture. Personal conversations provide a

unique insight into the personal lives and choices of the interview subject that a paper survey cannot offer.

I contacted fifteen women and received eight responses. Of those eight, six agreed to be interviewed. The limits

to this research are those of all case-based research: the results cannot be applied to the entire population.

There was no control for age, race, or class and the women interviewed all have a connection to the University

of Florida, either by education or by current employment. Further quantitative research should be carried out

to validate these qualitative findings.


Of the six informants, four women have children. While family seemed to be a common concern among

these women, it was not the main reason for any of the six to alter her original career plans. Three of the

six informants are currently licensed, Informant Three has let her license lapse, and two others have never

been licensed. Of the two who have never been licensed, Informant Two intentionally chose the path of

instructor and never intended to license. Informant Four has never needed a license for the type of projects that

she prefers. The two most intriguing cases were Informant Three, who let her license lapse and yet still works in

the field; and Informant Five, who has maintained her license but does not work in the field.

Informant One is licensed but not currently practicing in the U.S., although she has done some projects abroad

in recent years. She has taken time off over the years to raise her family, and move to new cities to help support

her husband's career. She is heavily involved in architecture today through academia and personally

meaningful occasional projects but is not currently operating her own practice. Informant One placed an

emphasis on the importance of academia, a sentiment that was mirrored by almost all of the women I

interviewed. She stated, "What we teach our architecture students is what is going to modify the world, and

modify Florida. It's tremendously important that we do this job very well" (2006).

Informant Two never planned to practice architecture in the field and has pursued academia throughout her

career. She is currently teaching and working on the publication of a new book. Informant Two expressed that

her students seem to interact as equals with each other and that there has been a trend of more and more

women, both as students as professors, since the early 1990's. She expressed that since she first entered

college, "It is amazing to see how much has changed in forty years" (2006).

Informant Three was employed immediately after graduate school and was licensed within three years. She did

not have any difficulties assimilating into a male dominated profession and was made a partner of her firm

within seven years of earning her graduate degree. She eventually resigned this position due to conflict among

the partners and, shortly after, started her family. Informant Three found that she was able to be selective with

the jobs she took, as an independent architect even though this meant that if there were no clients there was

no work. She is able to let her license lapse because most of her projects are through cooperative agreements

with licensed firms that commission her for specialty jobs for which they have been contracted. Informant Three

has been able to stay home to raise her children while still maintaining a level of professional contact in the field

of architecture that is comfortable for her. She stated, "It's up to you to choose whether you're going to still

dedicate full time to your career or whether you're going to dedicate yourself to your family and I think, you

know, the answer for me is a balance" (2006).

While Informant Four has never been licensed in the U.S., she is actively practicing architecture both in the

United States and abroad, competing in design competitions, and teaching architecture. Her small design firm

is sometimes contacted for collaboration and consultation by large firms that have "all the technical expertise

there but they might not have the design background to take on a really challenging, kind of cutting

edge project" (2006). These collaborations, as well as design competitions allow her and her partners to

participate in projects of all sizes while being selective about the jobs they take. "We won't take on just any house

or any kind of small commercial project just to pay the bills because we don't need to. We take on projects that

have a relationship to our research" (2006). Informant Four is also raising a family and expressed that there can

be challenges to being your own boss, such as the lack of "allotted, legal maternity leave, as well as perhaps

sick leave and other things like vacation leave that I could negotiate with. [A large firm] could find

temporary replacements to cover my workload and so on and then I could come right back in and just pick up

with whatever was on the table. In the situation that I'm in now, falling out for a little while means

losing opportunities, because I sort of am the firm. If I put something on hold, it doesn't get done. It's put

on hold" (2006).

In contrast, Informant Five is not currently practicing architecture in the field, but is licensed and has maintained

her license since earning it, approximately three years after receiving her graduate degree. She

expressed discomfort with the idea of allowing her license to lapse, indicating that letting her professional

reputation depend on the licensure of another party is an unfortunate choice that many women in architecture

make. Informant Five is currently teaching architecture and is also heavily involved in leadership roles within

the architecture and university communities. She is currently focused on learning new concepts and technology

that have been introduced in the field in recent years, and is taking a break from professional practice to

experiment with these new techniques.

Informant Six is a licensed architect, working as a developer, where she can be something of a "translator

between the builder and the architect" (2006). Throughout her career, Informant Six has consistently been the

only woman in her academic and professional peer group. From the time she was a student to the present day,

she says she now encounters more women in the field and she makes an effort to mentor young women in

the profession. She has also taken an active role in architecture leadership positions, and stated, "I don't want to

be called a woman architect, just an architect" (2006).

While each woman has a different story, it is clear from these interviews that none of my interview subjects

have abandoned architecture. Even the women I contacted who did not reply are employed in real estate and

city planning, or are professors of architecture. Several women expressed that they are lucky to be able to

continue taking jobs and do what they love, even while exploring other avenues such as motherhood or re-

schooling. There was an overall sense of flexibility for these women that they can start and stop their

professional practice as needed. They did caution that there is a risk of losing some prestige and that the

possibility of designing only houses or other non-public spaces is present for those who don't consistently keep

their name and reputation in the marketplace.


The assertion that there is a lack of female representation in the field of architecture is misleading. By

observing numbers alone, it seems that men dominate the profession even though women make up half of

the graduate level college enrollment. Women are, however, pursuing architectural careers after obtaining

the Master of Architecture degree. It is possible that because this research focused strictly on graduates from

the University of Florida, that a higher percentage of graduates from UF become employed in the field. It is

more likely that using licensing statistics is not a fair or accurate way to assess the participation of women in

this field. If this small sample of six women could be considered representative of the greater number of

female graduates of architecture across the country, then it would seem apparent that most women are

indeed pursuing architecture careers after college. Some women have chosen to teach architecture, and others

have taken positions with city planning offices or in real estate, but it seems clear that women are not leaving

the field to marry and raise families, they are not allowing traditional social and gender roles to hold them back

from their career goals, and they are not being forced out of the profession by a collusive "boys club."

Based on my interviews with six women in architecture, it is obvious that social pressures still exist. More than

one woman made note of the struggle involved in juggling a career and family. Several women mentioned

feeling like an outsider in a man's world, and there was a sense that some of the women have spent years

ignoring the existing hierarchy, putting themselves in the forefront, and trying to ignore subtle prejudices inherent

in a male-dominated profession. These personal accounts show that while the number of women

pursuing architecture education appears to be on rise, there is still a long way to go in changing the philosophy of

the profession . Societal expectations are not keeping women out of the field; they are encouraging women

to develop flexible, yet meaningful niches for themselves. This could be viewed as a shirking of

feminist responsibility, or as a yielding of power but I think that would be a mistake. It should be viewed as

an innovative way that women are establishing a balance between the public and the private.

The answer to the research question is that women can be found in all areas of architecture. They are

students, teachers, designers, and partners in firms both large and small. They are in affiliated fields like real

estate and engineering, they are winning awards for their work and contributing in countless ways to the

built environment. Women are creating new and authentic spaces for themselves within the field of

architecture. They are not always following the man-made career path of internship, licensing, and working for

a large firm to establish their name and take on high profile, high-prestige jobs. Many women are

deliberately choosing to practice architecture on their own terms.

Because they are not keeping up licenses and professional practices and because they are taking career breaks

to raise families, move around, or go back to school, women seem to be less visible in the field of architecture.


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6. Informant One (name intentionally withheld), personal interview. 06 July 2006.

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