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Women in the Built Environment: Where Do We Stand? In Ho...

Women in the Built Environment: Where Do We Stand? In Honor of International Women’s Day 2018

When I graduated from the Ecole Nationale d’Architecture in Rabat, Morocco, we were a class of 73 students, 68 young women, and 14 young men. That’s right, more than 75% of this group of freshly graduated architects were women. My school of architecture in Morocco wasn’t an exception. When I went to pursue my master

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When I graduated from the Ecole Nationale d’Architecture in Rabat, Morocco, we were a class of 73 students, 68 young women, and 14 young men. That’s right, more than 75% of this group of freshly graduated architects were women. My school of architecture in Morocco wasn’t an exception. When I went to pursue my master of urban planning in the U.S, I found a similar pattern. All over the world, universities are boasting growing numbers of female students across all majors, including architecture and urban planning. Overall, the number of girls obtaining bachelor degrees, is now equal in many countries, if not superior in some, to boys. Moreover, these girls often constitute the majority of the top percentile of their classes upon graduation. We are far from the days in the late years of the 19th century when the first women finally gained admission to formal architecture education - such as the Finnish Signe Hornborg and America's Julia Morgan and Sophia Hayden Bennett.

In the work environment, however, progress has been much slower. While there is an increasing number of women working in the built environment and urban development related fields, that number remains dramatically low in comparison to other fields such as medicine and law. The percentage of those in leadership positions is even lower compared to their male counterparts. Women are more present in academia and are leading more professional associations than before, including the current presidents of the American Planning Association, the Australian Institute of Landscape Architecture, the Canadian Institute of Planners and the CEOs of the American Society of Landscape Architects and the Australian Institute of Architects. But in practice, very few firms are led by women.

Women pursuing careers in the built environment suffer from the same inequalities experienced by most women professionals in the workplace. Major issues include wage inequality, access to quality child-care, and double-duty because women continue to be primarily responsible for household and child-care responsibilities.

Downtown Santa Cruz contraflow bike lane - Richard Masoner

While most country members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) have enacted laws that address the gender wage gap, their interpretation and application still depend on the slow evolution of mentalities and attitudes. In fact, most of the barriers hindering women's progress in the workplace are often not explicit and are rather fueled by a collective rhetoric that underestimates and undervalues women’s abilities to take responsibility, engage in meaningful careers, and contribute to public life.

In addition to these common challenges, women practicing architecture, especially, face increased pressure due to the unique workplace characteristics and conditions of the profession, which affect both men and women. A highly competitive business environment, long-hours culture, and unpaid overtime labor, all make it difficult to achieve work-life balance, impact their professional development, and constitute key reasons to leave the profession for both men and women. However, women are more likely to feel impacted. According to the AIA 2016 Diversity in the Profession of Architecture Survey, women reported lower levels of satisfaction (around 44%) than men (around 53%) and were more likely to leave the field because they were unhappy with the work-life balance (around 36%) or to start a family (around 25%).

Bike After Work Bash BTWD May 11 2017 - Richard Masoner

These negative numbers and reports shine light on a very inconvenient truth: women working in the development of the built and urban environments do not feel at home. While they don’t miss the passion, nor the drive or the motivation, women have a hard time breaking through a field still largely dominated by men. Many reasons are advanced but most boil down to the lack of three elements:

1. Recognition

Women have contributed tremendously to shaping our cities, both technically and intellectually, but urban history seems to have registered only a few of their names. Whether it is because, in the words of Jane Jacobs, “women have always been willing to consider little plans” and therefore focus on addressing issues at the human scale rather than pursuing delusions of grandeur or because they couldn’t make their voices heard in the first place. It is time for women’s work to be recognized for its just value. This comes through more visibility and participation of women in public events and debates, publications and other media but most importantly through women themselves speaking out, learning about other women and supporting them.

Sarah Susanka: Life's invisible feast - TEDxSanDiego 2013

2. Flexible work practices

To promote a better work-life balance and retain women in the workplace, it is critical to revise the current work patterns practiced in many built environment professions. The negative perception of part-time work and the lack of access to quality and work-adjacent child-care often leads many women to make the hard choice between their careers and starting a family. While the shift towards flexible work patterns, namely working remotely, is happening in other fields facilitated by technology development and a greater focus on employees well-being, it is yet to reach built environment professions, especially architecture, where in-office work remains the norm. Flexible workplaces have proven benefits for both employers and employees. Most importantly, it empowers both men and women to make more equitable choices with regards to sharing family and household responsibilities.

3. Supportive networks

Role models and supportive professional networks are critical for women in all career stages. Mentoring and peer-to-peer support help to navigate the challenges of a new job or advance a stagnating career, share resources, and opportunities, broaden networks and develop leadership skills. Across the world, women groups and committees have been playing a great role in bringing women architects, planners, and city-makers together to share their experiences to the great benefit of all. Here is a list of ten national and international platforms dedicated to advancing women’s careers in the built environment through the sharing resources and organizing events:

More local groups networks and chapters of larger organizations can also be easily found. And if there are none in your city, start one, give a voice to the women who contribute time, effort and expertise to making your community better by showcasing their work. In doing this, we will continue to inspire young women to pursue careers in the built environment and urban development.

Happy International Women’s Day!

Are you a member of a women’s professional network? What are the challenges that you face as a woman in the built environment? What could help advance careers for women in this field? Share your comments and experience in the comments below.

Credits: Images by Columbia GSAPP, TEDx SanDiego, and Richard Masoner. Data linked to sources.

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Sarah Essbai is an architect, urban planner and independent researcher based in Zaandam, in The Netherlands. As of September 2017, she is leading the communications and marketing efforts of The Global Grid.

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