Equity by Design and The Missing 32%

by Stefee Knudsen

I have spent most of my career avoiding the topic of “Women in Architecture.” After all, is there any workplace issue that is only an issue for women? Men have families. Men need mentoring. Men struggle with their goals and career path. AND, if I talk about being a woman, am I looking for special treatment? Or will I be perceived as a complainer? Worse yet, will I be labeled based on my gender rather than my actions? Surely, if I just work hard and am effective, I will be treated equitably and fairly. Right?

I believe that for the most part, that is true. But as I studied the data to prep for last month’s Equity by Design symposium, and finally read Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, I realized that ignoring tough realities doesn’t make them go away.

As a panelist at the symposium in San Francisco, I had the opportunity to discuss the issue of firm leadership, and how women fit into that role. This event grew from a research project called “the Missing 32% Project” which explored why – if architecture school classes are about 50% women – only 18% of registered architects are women. Where are the missing 32%?

I was surprised to see that at every stage of our careers, women are significantly less likely to express having the goal of being a firm principal or starting a firm. And when we look at how many firm principals are women, especially of design firms, it is shockingly low considering our percentage of the profession, much less populace. So, the question posed for my panel discussion was, Why don’t more women lead?”

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Image: http://themissing32percent.com/

I think part of this answer begins in architecture school – the way design is taught and the subtle responses we receive during that time. The traditional architect evokes the image of the “architect in the black cape,” Howard Roark in the Fountainhead, or even Mr. Brady, the gentle architect patriarch of the Brady Bunch. Design leaders of folklore are lone, solitary authors. And they are often men.

For those women who have the confidence and ego for this traditional design format, they are not perceived in the same positive light as men. In her book, Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg cites the “Heidi/Howard study,” in which leadership behavior is perceived differently in men than it is in women:

“We’re aware that when a woman acts forcefully or competitively, she’s deviating from expected behavior… If she focuses on results rather than on pleasing others, she’s acting like a man. And if she acts like a man, people dislike her… In order to protect ourselves from being disliked, we question our abilities and downplay our achievements, especially in the presence of others.”

This perception difference impacts all professional women, and I witnessed this even in architecture school. In school I remember hearing words like “harsh” or “arrogant” about the more confident women, and I definitely didn’t want to be perceived in that light. And for those who are more natural as part of a collaborative team, architecture school can be downright antagonistic. So from day one, we get the message to downplay ourselves and our design skills.

This perception conundrum continues from school into our careers. Women who have leadership qualities are often encouraged to pursue project management roles rather than design leadership. In fact, there isn’t a single medium or large design firm in the country that has a majority of female design principals. If we think design is a critical aspect of our profession, but women are pushed away from design leadership, we end up with a significant void in leadership, perspective, and mentoring.

If women typically approach the design process in a more collaborative way and are often more sensitive communicators, we are steered into project management. (Many women DO make good project managers, and I love what I do!). But women can also be great designers, and we need to mentor our staff and create a design culture that is inclusive – one that offers opportunities and encouragement to both men and women and that is more about design thinking and the team, less about individual authorship. (It is also important to note that the “black cape” architect stereotype is going away as more and more architects and emerging professionals are approaching the design process with a focus on collaboration, creating a more inclusive environment that will change the profession over time).

As for the survey results that showed women were much less likely to want to become a firm principal or start their own firm: Do women really have lower aspirations, or are we just hesitant to admit it openly? I think of an event that happened early on in my career when I worked for a large firm. I was at the holiday party, and one of the partners was putting little LED light pins on many of the younger staff. The whispers among us were that he was tagging the future partners of the firm. When he got to me, I suddenly demurred and refused it. Later, I was horrified. Why didn’t I take the silly pin? Why had that made me self-conscious? In hindsight, I didn’t want to be seen as too aggressive. I have a big personality. I have always been described as intense, and I never understood that to be a good thing, even though many of my male colleagues were praised for the same attributes. So for a long time, I’ve tried to “take it down a notch” to make myself smaller. For me, it wasn’t necessarily that I had lower aspirations – I was just hesitant to admit it openly.

In light of all of this, how do we close the 32% gap? I wonder if firms should push women with leadership potential a bit, or should we just keep working on removing barriers? I think women want to be leaders as much as men, but in a different format or with different personality. When I brought up this question with a colleague recently, I heard the argument that women should not be pushed or specifically encouraged any more than anyone else – the reasoning being that women have the option NOT to be leaders whereas in our society and profession, men do not. And while I disagree, the dialogue was crucial to understanding the complexities of this topic. Personally, I think we need to do both – remove the barriers by creating positive environments and being mentors AND giving some pushes to overcome the self-doubts many of us seem to have. (See the recent article in The Atlantic, The Confidence Gap.)

No matter your opinion on this topic, it is important that these conversations happen openly and in ways that are not perceived as complaints or blaming. We need to recognize these cultural realities so that through greater awareness, we can all – men and women – make our profession more inclusive and the world a better place through the power of design.


Top Image Credit: Flickr Creative Commons, Paco CT.


  1. Melissa Lynn Farmer says:

    Thank you for this…very well said..and relative to all professions.

  2. Jennie says:

    So well written Stefee! Thank you for your thoughts and contributions on this subject matter.

  3. Great piece. I’ve always wondered the same thing.

  4. Mari Paz says:

    Dear Stefee,
    I’ m the proud mother of the two young women architecht that apear on the picture that ilustrates your interesting blog entry,
    I just jumped into this article looking for the presence of women in architecture and wow¡. That picture was taken by my husband,, their father, when they were in the final step to defend their Master’s thesis in architecture a the University Polithecnic of Barcelona, a year ago, few months after postgraduate they flew overseas and are now working and enjoying so much at an architectural Studio in London and in Eindhoven respectively,and willing to get more experiences in other countries, intersted in Urbanism.
    I’ve sent them your interesting article, and i leave you their email address so you can get much information from them.

    Best regards
    Mari paz Alvarez

    • Stefee Knudsen says:

      Mari paz,
      Thank you for the note! It’s great to hear such a proud mom! We loved the photo as a way to diffuse an otherwise serious topic, and it’s great to know that they are “genuine” architects, as opposed just a generic funny photo. I’d love to hear about your daughters’ experiences in London and Eindhoven, if they have time. Thank you! -Stefee

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