Money is the catalyst for gender equity/equality discussion

A few days ago, I received a surprising LinkedIn invite.

Instead of the usual business development-related promotional messages about their services for my business, an architecture firm, it was from a student I taught in the past.

After the usual hello message, she specifically asked for a separate meeting to talk. She wanted me to share my architecture career experience with her since she was planning for a similar career trajectory.  

With her flattering “I have tremendous respect for you” remark, I was eager (?) to say yes to her meeting request. 

Her question was specific; How did you start in your architecture career, and how I made it as an architect in the male-dominated industry?

Two aspects of her questions surprised me; the first was “made it,” and the second was “male-dominated industry.” I did not particularly feel that I “made it,” considering the everyday struggles of working on projects, trying to solve many issues from projects/consultants, or even dealing with different personalities and conflicts that arise from other people; I feel far from “making it.”

The second aspect of her “male-dominated” comment surprised me even more than the first one. It was a curious comment considering her class consisted of more female than male students. 

Her question took me back to my architecture school days gazillion years ago. My first year of architecture school consisted of nearly fifty students, and the division of male and female student ratio was 50/50. I certainly did not feel I belonged in the “male-dominated” industry then.

However, after entering the “real world,” It was a different story.

I still remember my first project meeting at an architecture firm I started working after graduation. It was my first “real” project discussing unfamiliar issues like project budget/ schedules instead of design theories/ ideas I was forever drilled into from school.

Our project meetings happened every Monday at 10:00AM, and ALL of us involved in the project (design of the new Seattle Marinar’s Baseball Stadium) were required to attend.

Being the least ( more like zero) knowledgeable person on the team, my work tasks consisted of 3 things during the meeting: listening, taking notes, and observing.  It is the third task item -observing- I realize I was one of the two females in 14 member project team working on a arguably a male(?) project: Baseball Stadium. 

At that moment, I realized that my work setting differed vastly from my architecture school days, where I studied with many female classmates.  

However, I did not give too much significance to the observation. I thought that maybe, I was one of the early hires, maybe a small number of woman architects/interns applied for the job, or maybe, the female candidates were not interested in the sports stadium project….

There were many maybe’s but no clear conclusions why I was the only other female in the primarily male colleagues meeting.

Fast forward 20-something-odd years later in the architecture profession, my experience ranging from working on various projects, acquiring an architecture license, and also starting my architecture practice a decade ago,

I am once again reminded of the gender disparity in my chosen profession by a student who is about to graduate now.  

In the last few years, we have gone through many cultural, social, and technological changes. Some changes (Work From Home, digital meetings, …) were forced upon us due to the gigantic/no one-expected event – the Pandemic

However, one social/cultural shift had nothing to do with the Pandemic: the significance of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI).

Equity is probably the most difficult to define, explain, and measure within the group in the EDI discussion. The difficulty lies with the inherent fuzziness of the word itself, Equity. 

We have been exposed to the word in many contexts – race, gender, and class. We think we know the meaning until we have to explain the concept to others.

However, there is one universally known element that can help with the understanding of the word equity: MONEY.

Let me explain…

Definitions of Equity and Equality

I thought I knew the word, Equity until someone asked me the differences from another similar term, Equality.

The word, Equality, I was 100% sure about the meaning of that particular word. On the other hand, the other e word, Equity….I was not so sure.  

I knew they were similar words, but how exactly did they differ? I was no longer the 100% sure person I thought I was.

With Equality, we can agree that the word has ONE clear meaning: same, 50/50, balanced, identical, etc. We know exactly what it means for something/someone to be equal; however, when it comes to equitable, our definitions differ, our understanding is mismatched, and our value system disintegrates, depending on who we are and where we come from.

The best explanations for these two E words were; If Equality is the end goal, Equity is the means to getting there.  In other words, one is the outcome; the other is the process.

Thinking about these two words in outcome/process reminds me of another well-known struggle in our industry: messiness of design work

I even see the same struggle my students go through working on their projects. While I am judging students’ work at the presentations, I genuinely do not know what kind of process (or no process) they went through to get to the final product they produced.

Once again, the outcome is clear; the process is not.  

Equity is happening, but not at the leadership level

Gender equity is a popular topic these days. 

I get some women’s event invitations related to women’s equity/equality discussions everywhere. The topics range from professional (work expectations from their bosses, pay gap, leadership styles) to personal (their own expectations/ambition, work-life balance).

2018 NY times article, Where are all the Female Architects?  Indicates that only 20% of licensed architects are females in the US (slightly better for Canada). Even though architecture schools’ male/ female student ratio is even 50/50.  

What happened to 30% of female architecture students? Where did they go?

As a 20% female architect group member, I must admit that becoming an architect was difficult. It consisted of many requirements (particular project experience, 9 licensing exams to pass) and challenges (job site difficulties working with male contractors, competency questions from clients, leadership difficulties working with primarily male consultants).

Even with these difficulties I experienced, I know I have it much easier being the boss of my architecture practice than other female colleagues who work with many bosses(male and female) above them.  

Gender equity discussion is a hot topic companies are paying attention to in our industry. However, these discussions cannot stay on generic information like “20% licensed female architects” stats.  

Without digging deeper and understanding who these 20% female architects are and, more importantly, where they are at the leadership level, the “true” equity discussion would not advance. 

I also suspect that the lack of women’s leadership is directly tied to financial implications.  

Without the trust/backing from clients or even their superiors or sometimes women’s unwillingness to “ask for more money” ( hence higher position), not much progress would be made in women’s equity conversation.

Rethinking architecture Success

Money can be the catalyst helping to minimize the women leadership gap.

However, it will not be the FIX-ALL solution in this ongoing gender equity discussion unless ALL (male and female) architects start challenging the oldest and most pervasive views in architecture and its measurement of success in our profession.

Architects’ obsession (including yours truly) with the beauty of projects (ex-big budget gleaming shiny skyscrapers) over the social quality (ex., low budget small, low-income housing unit renovation) can be the new benchmark for the success of architecture projects and their creators.

Once again, money signifies the oldest perception of architecture success and its creators.

Final Thought

Like the expression, “money can’t buy happiness,” money alone can’t fix the gender equity issues in the architecture and construction industries.

However, money can be the catalyst for pushing the awareness of disparity in gender equity discussions.

Socially ingrained topics such as Equity/Equality, money an absolute must-have ingredient that needs to be part of the overall discussion.

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