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Designing New Spaces: Women in Architecture
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 (AIA.org). Even if some women choose to
teach architecture, rather than go into professional practice, the question remains: where are the women
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suspect that an outdated, androcentric (male-centered) ideology makes architecture a particularly difficult field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.
1. Ahrentzen, Sherry. "The Space Between the Studs: Feminism and Architecture." Signs: Journal of Women in
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2. AIA.org. "Diversity Within the AIA." Diversity and the AIA. 2006. The American Institute of Architects. 26 Nov
3. Bem, Sandra Lipsitz. The Lenses of Gender. 1st ed. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993.
4. Cole, Doris. From Tipi to Skyscraper. 1st. Boston: i press incorporated, 1973.
5. Crooks, Robert, and Karla Baur. Our Sexuality. 8th ed. Pacific Grove, CA: Wadsworth Thomson Learning, 2002.
Also see pages 355, 388.
6. Informant One (name intentionally withheld), personal interview. 06 July 2006.
7. Informant Two (name intentionally withheld), personal interview. 21 July 2006.
8. Informant Three (name intentionally withheld), telephone interview. 3 August 2006.
9. Informant Four (name intentionally withheld), personal interview. 4 August 2006.
10. Informant Five (name intentionally withheld), telephone interview. 15 November 2006.
11. Informant Six (name intentionally withheld), telephone interview. 13 December 2006.
12. King, Cindy. "Enrollment - Architecture 1985-2005." University of Florida. Office of Institutional Planning
and Research, Gainesville, FL. 05 July 2006.
13. Lamphere, Louise. "The Domestic Sphere of Women and the Public World of Men: The Strengths and Limitations of
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15. O'Rourke, Meghan. "Desperate Feminist Wives: Why Wanting Equality Makes Women Unhappy."
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16. Ostroff, Tracy. "Demographic Data Analysis Affirms Anecdote and Perception." AlArchitect February 2006: "Time
to Complete IDP"
17. Pran, Peter. "Preface." The Architect: Women in Contemporary Architecture. Ed. Maggie Toy. New York: The
Images Publishing Group Pty Ltd, 2001.
18. Rosaldo, Michelle. "Woman, Culture and Society: A Theoretical Overview". Michelle Z. Rosaldo and Louise
Lamphere, eds: Woman, Culture and Society. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1974.
19. Shilling, Chris. The Body and Social Theory. 9th ed. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications Ltd, 2003.
20. Society of Women Engineers. "Employed Engineers by Gender." Workplace Statistics About Women in Engineering
in the USA. 2006. 23 Jul 2006. http://www.swe.org/stellent/
21. Torre, Susana . Women in Architecture: A Historic and Contemporary Perspective. 1st. New York: Whitney Library
of Design, 1977.
22. Toy, Maggie. "Introduction." The Architect: Women in Contemporary Architecture. Ed. Maggie Toy. New York:
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23. US Census Bureau. "Industry and Occupation 2000." Occupations: 2000. 21 December 2005. 23 Jul 2006
24. United States. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics. Quick Facts on Nontraditional Occupations
for Women. Washington D.C.: http://www.dol.gov/wb/factsheets/Qf-nontra.htm, 2006.
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