Overcoming "Pinch Points" in the Architectural Profession


[PGDG Conversation on June 16, 2015]

The week before our PGDG conversation, I had the good fortune to attend TEDx Philadelphia 2015 with the theme: “And Justice for All.” As part of the speaker series, Rosa Sheng of the Equity by Design (EQxD, a Committee of AIA San Francisco) came to describe The Missing 32% Project which asks the question: if only 18% of the architecture profession are practicing women, where are the other 32% that graduate from accredited architectural programs?

Alesa Rubendall WRT Denise Thompson AIA Philly Danielle DiLeo Kim

Joining our PGDG conversation was Alesa Rubendall, the Co-Chair of the Philly chapter of Women in Architecture (WIA Philly - a committee of AIA Philly); Denise Thompson, the President Elect of the Philadelphia chapter of AIA (AIA Philly); and Danielle DiLeo Kim, Co-Founder of Locus Partners and Philly Girls Do Good!

Using Rosa Sheng’s TEDx Philadelphia talk as a springboard for our discussion, I began with presenting the “pinchpoints” that EQxD’s research identified in the architectural profession where women tended to leave:

  1.     Hiring and Retention
  2.     Paying Dues (Internship)
  3.     Licensure
  4.     Caregiving
  5.     Glass Ceiling

Assoc of Collegiate Schools Architecture Women

[Link to ACSA Article]

Infographics Social Media.ai

   [Link to EQxD Research]

With Rosa Sheng’s ringing call to action echoing in my ears, I posed the question to our panelists: “Through your leadership positions, how have you addressed the pinch points women (and men) face in the architectural profession?”


Alesa with WIA Philly – “Pinch Point Zero: Entering College”

Alesa got involved with WIA with her co-chair, Karen Blanchard (PGDG class of 2013-14). Nicole Dress (PGDG class of 2013-14) who revived Philly’s branch of WIA a few years ago, saw their talent for leadership and passed them the baton. Alesa and Karen decided the mission of WIA should support the next generation of architects by cultivating female high school students entering college for degrees in architecture and design. This is pinch point zero because so much talent never even gets to go to college to pursue architecture. Alesa and Karen received support from the WIA steering committee, and it was full steam ahead!

Through only the last three years of WIA leadership, Alesa helped to establish a speaker series whose proceeds would go towards the WIA Scholarship for the Charter High School for Architecture + Design (CHAD). Looking forward, Alesa hopes to improve the effectiveness of targeting pinch point zero by beginning a Big Sister mentor program that pairs a woman architect with a female CHAD student. Alesa recognizes that mentoring in the formative years is key to helping shape a young designer’s career. I admire Alesa’s persistence in rebuilding the face of the profession, one student at a time.

Denise with AIA Philly - “Pinch Point 3: Licensure”

Leadership came naturally to Denise, who often served as captain of sports teams in high school. She has held a string of leadership positions in the PA and National architecture scenes, having represented PA on the National Associates Committee and the National Young Architects Forum. Denise also restarted the local Philly YAF group, served on the Board of Directors for AIA Philadelphia and the Center for Architecture, and she is currently the President-Elect for AIA Philadelphia.

While she was leading YAF Philly, Denise began the Architectural Registration Exam (ARE) Study Group because she observed that licensure was decreasing and increasingly difficult for women and men alike. After identifying the problem, she developed a solution by arranging a support group with the professional resources at her command. It is currently going strong into its fourth round of leadership. (Success story: I myself began studying for the ARE’s by attending a couple of these study sessions. They were very helpful!)

Opportunities Flourish in Philadelphia

Over the next year and a half, there are number of international and national events that will be held in Philadelphia, such as:

Denise is very excited to be leading AIA Philadelphia when AIA Convention 2016 is here next spring. She will have an opportunity to promote the design community’s accomplishments since the last AIA Convention was here in 2000 such as the amazing public and private developments that have brought Philadelphia national acclaim as a city with tremendous public spaces and a thriving Center City and surrounding neighborhoods.

I am thrilled to see that the architects of Philadelphia have elected Denise to this position based on her merits and her proven track record of leadership that she painstakingly built for herself. She also happens to be a woman, but it is not her defining feature as a practitioner, rather, an interesting detail.

Architecture and Architects – "Pinch Point #4: Caregiving"

While discussing the fourth Pinch Point, Caregiving, we all agreed that flexibility in a demanding, deadline-driven, architectural career is a systemic problem for both women and men. Alesa, Denise and Danielle are all navigating pinch point #4 with aplomb. Alesa manages childcare scheduling challenges with a flexible schedule supported by her employer, WRT, as well as a solid partnership in parenting with her husband. Denise opted to have children later in her career because of the benefit of flexibility that comes with seniority. Danielle was also able to successfully negotiate a part-time scenario while at a firm during the birth of her children, and now benefits from establishing her own schedule as a partner at Locus Partners. It should be noted that architects leaving the profession to seek a better lifestyle (and pay!) is not just an issue for women. Plenty of men leave as well for increased salary and more manageable work hours.

Alesa and Denise both agreed that pressures from clients seem to have increased since the recession, with demands for faster design and construction processes. Architects often jump to meet those unreasonable demands by accepting our “starving artists” role. In turn we do a disservice to our families and often have poor life-work balance. Denise suggests that part of the solution is educating our clients: showing clients the added value of architects, such as AIA National is doing with the “Look Up” Outreach Campaign. One method she finds effective is bringing the design process to the meeting–solving problems in the room with clients via animation and three dimensional technical software that illustrates the issues at hand.


As Rosa Sheng began her talk at TEDx Philadelphia, she acknowledged that the lack of women in leadership positions is not limited to architecture. Sheryl Sandberg is of course a trailblazer in encouraging women to “lean in” to take and create a leadership role. Recently, the science world was blazing against nineteenth century attitudes towards women scientists. Thousands of women scientists around the world unleashed a skeweringly witty #distractinglysexy Twitter campaign against Tim Hunt’s sexist remarks. The uproar was so loud that he eventually resigned his position as Honorary Professor at the University College London. The great thing now is that women have a voice.

I have a deep gratitude towards all the women architects before me who have worked so hard to prove that gender has no bearing on ability. I know that I walk on roads paved by their hard labor, and I do not take it for granted.

Thank you so much to Alesa, Denise, and Danielle for a wonderfully inspiring conversation!

—Sophia Lee