REFLECTING ON WOMEN IN ARCHITECTURE & UNCONSCIOUS BIAS

Panel Discussion Photo

On Thursday, February 25, 2016, the Executive Dean of Philadelphia University’s College of Architecture and the Built Environment, Barbara Klinkhammer, held a roundtable at the Specter Center for Public Service called, “Unconscious Bias: Women in Architecture”. The panel included Karen Blanchard, President of Women in Architecture Philadelphia; Cecilia Dengre, Senior Director of Architecture, Temple University; Marguerite J. Anglin, Project Architect/Manager, Temple University and the former President of NOMA Philadelphia and Susan I. Frostén, Associate Provost Philadelphia University, RA, LEED AP BD+C and Vice President of PA ACE Women's Network Planning. Philadelphia University students Breanna Sheeler, Ashley Cummins and alumna Belinda Daisey, also participated.

Barbara opened the talk with a fascinating remark. She explained that when graduating in 1991 from the RWTH Aachen University in Germany, her class was the first to complete with 51% women graduates. Apparently, at the conferring of degrees, the dean said something that really left her baffled. While acknowledging her class’ gender achievement, he “guaranteed” that half of the distinguished female graduates would leave the profession in less than 10 years.

Looking at the panel’s impressive mix of women, all of whom have multi-dimensional experience within the world of architecture, one would assume that Barbara’s old dean’s comment was outdated and flat out wrong. As the talk continued however, she shortly discovered that the dean’s obnoxious prediction was correct. While 43% of students enrolled in architecture are female, only 15% (far less than half) go on to practice as licensed architects. Barbra confirmed, that while she was initially offended by the callus remarks, years later, after looking at her own pool of female architect friends, more than half had indeed left the profession early.

As the panel continued, the panelists attempted to grapple with questions such as why are women leaving the profession in much higher numbers than men? What challenges do they face in a male-dominated office culture? What changes need to occur to increase the number of women and minorities in the profession?

As Barbara and the panelists tackled disparaging statistics that confirm underrepresentation of women in the field in almost every arena, they began to discuss their own experiences maneuvering in the professional architecture world after college. Throughout the discussion, each woman gave accounts of projected bias, their reaction, and reasons as to why the numbers are low. Cecelia, for example, recalled how her equally experienced architect husband, ascended much more quickly than her in hierarchical office environments. Many panelists agreed that when evaluated for advancement, management often chose men for promotions based on their “potential” for success. Women, they argued, often had to achieve more in a longer period of time, for their work to be deemed worthy of promotion. In Ceselia’s case, it took leaving her firm and being asked back to advance into a management position.

As challenging as it is for Caucasian women in architecture, minority women in the field often face significantly more challenges. Marguerite, who is an African American woman, recalls being overlooked in meetings with clients and constantly having to reaffirm herself as an Architect. She recalls, I had a meeting with a client and a developer, the client was praising the architects work and comprehension of the drawings. The developer then turned to the client and asked when does the architect get here. The client, then red in the face, tells the developer she's right here (pointing to me). If I was a man, or had a different ethnicity, he may have seen me as an architect.”

African American women make up only 0.2% of registered architects, which means that in the United States there are only 355 registered African American women architects. It was this stark reality that pushed Marguerite to success in her field. She knew that she would have to work harder, faster and smarter than her male and Caucasian counterparts to be counted among the few black architects in America. This lesson was reinforced in her second year of college when asking a professor she respected how to obtain an architecture internship, to her dismay her professor responded: “Don’t worry, you may not go through with architecture”.

This kind of bias within architecture educational settings is not uncommon, Breanna, a current Philadelphia University architecture student, says that she encounters micro-aggressions during her critiques to the consistently white male panel in her department. She explains that often, evaluations from the panel are uncharacteristically patronizing towards female student work. She believes that this type of behavior destroys the aspirations of young women who seek licensure. Susan agreed by adding, “When bias is constant and persistent it becomes oppressive”.

If bias in schools and work environments have this kind of negative impact, what then could be created by positive reinforcement and encouragement? Susan recounted her first day in a Columbia University architecture program. On the first day of class, the professor promptly turned to the male students and stated, “There is not a single woman here to fill a quota. You better watch out!” This set a positive tone for Susan and the other women in the class leading them to excel in their careers. Belinda, an alum of Philadelphia University’s architecture program, feels that positivity in school is important. She reflected on how equal treatment and recognition from her male counterparts was empowering to her and gave her the confidence to push through challenges within the male dominated classroom.

In the end, one is left to wonder, is the architecture world doing enough to retain women and minorities in the workforce? Are we doing enough to push back against the implicit and unabashed bias that these populations face? While one panel can’t solve these issues, it is clear that we, as women architects, must continue to create platforms where conversations like this can continue. We must also continue to guide and support each other, and if nothing else, make sure that at least we believe that we deserve to be here.

—Chanelle Hurst