Women Architects

Women in Architecture: Leaning In Without Falling Over

I often get asked if architecture is a good career choice by young women. Depending on the day of course, I usually answer yes. However, the statistics strongly disagree with me.

In the U.S., more than 45% of students in architecture school are women yet they only make up 23% of the work force. And when it comes to large firms only 17% have a partner that is female.

So where do all the girls go?

It takes 3500 intern hours and 20-25 hours of exams to get licensed as an architect. For most women after the 5 to 7 years of school required, that puts you right at about 35. That is just in time for a baby.

Now, a young architect (male or female) does not make a lot of money and the culture is one where your dedication is proven by the number of hours spent in the office. For an industry that prides itself in creative solutions, it is strictly “in the box” when it comes to providing flexibility and family balance. So, if your family consists of a two-person income, god willing you have not married to an architect, then your income is the obvious choice to eliminate. A young architect makes only $5.00 to $8.00 more per hour than her babysitter.

Now, if you are still not discouraged, women must also deal with some unspoken truths about the construction industry. It is not easy being the only woman at a jobsite meeting; you have to think about what you wear, what you say and how you say it. It’s a tightrope, establishing your expertise without loosing a sense of collaboration. You have to be twice as good to be just as confident.

These are all reasons I love my work. It should be impossible and I should quit but I won’t. Don’t tell Sandberg but I am attempting to lean in without falling over.

Women bring something different and good to the design table; nobody is arguing that cities, building technology, and the world itself benefits from this.

Articles about women in architecture typically includes a list of woman who have succeeded and will leave a legacy in an industry very much still dominated by white males. I am inspired by these women. At the top of the list is Zaha Hadid who was the first woman to receive a Pritzker Prize. There is my personal idol, Maya Lin, also a mother, she designed the Vietnam Memorial and has folded art with a Capital A seamlessly into her architecture practice. Right here in the Bay Area we have notable Michelle Kaufman responsible for the Sunset breeze house and expert on green prefab. There are countless others making their way to the top as we speak.

What you don’t find on these lists is the thousands of women architects who work for themselves on project of all different scales and sizes and enjoy a level of autonomy and creativity that is unmatched in most other fields of work. These women work in their spare rooms or they share a co-op space with other creatives, or they consult to bigger firms and work from home.

There are out of the box ways to be an architect and you have to invent what works for you. I am an architect and I live a balanced life rich with family, hobbies, and friends. Well ok maybe hobbies is a stretch.

I am sole proprietor of Laraarchitecture, it’s just me. I make all the decisions which can be scary sometimes but also exhilarating. I collaborate with engineers, drafts people and creatives of all types depending on the project and what I can and can’t accomplish with my own two hands.

Because I am so small, I have to take a project sometimes that is not ideal and other times I am able to turn work down simply because I don’t want it. This is a gift. The three most interesting projects in my undertaking right now are girl age 7, boy age 10 and a young man, age 14.

Yes, I want to work more and I want my work to be meaningful and impactful. “If only I could be Zaha and get commissions like that”….I ask myself as I am cleaning up yet another orange juice spill? Truthfully, architecture, at least the version of it that I know is one of the only places a woman can create flexibility in her day so that she can run home to feed her newborn, drive on a fieldtrip or escape to a yoga class. So since the children growing up will not slow down or wait for me, I expect that starchitect status will have to.

So when I get the question from young women, “Is architecture a good career?” I am not being asked if a woman can succeed in the industry but rather I assume I am being asked if it is possible to succeed and still have some balance. The answer is yes but as always, it helps to be creative.

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