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Labyrinth to the Top

By Rena M. Klein, FAIA

In Fortune 500 companies ,only two percent of Chief Executive Officers are women. Statistics are scarce, but one can assume that in prominent architectural firms, the numbers are similar. Research is now showing that barriers to the top for women are more like a labyrinth than the iconic glass ceiling.

The American Institute of Architects (AIA) reports that in March 2008, sixteen percent of firm principals and partners were women, up from twelve percent in 1999. Anecdotally, it is known that most of these female principals and partners are sole proprietors or owners of small firms. This common wisdom is consistent with research studies of managerial demographics in the United States. While women occupy forty percent of all managerial positions, only six percent of the most highly paid executive positions are held by women.

In her book, Designing for Diversity (University of Illinois Press, 2001), Kathryn Anthony reports that the wage gap between men and women in architecture widens dramatically with experience. A male architect with more than fifteen years experience can expect to earn around twenty-five percent more than his female counterpart. One explanation for this phenomenon is that fewer women reach the more highly paid positions in the industry. It may also indicate that women are less successful or less interested than men in using the traditional routes of career advancement. Anecdotal evidence supports the existence of a “brain-drain” occurring in larger firms, as smart and capable women leave for more promising alternatives.

In their article, “Women and the Labyrinth of Leadership” (Harvard Business Review, September 2007), researchers Alice H. Eagly and Linda L. Carli discuss the barriers women face as they aspire toward professional leadership and make practical suggestions for how organizations can support and retain women leaders. This is important information for women architects and for architectural firms that seek to retain their best and brightest female employees.

More than a Glass Ceiling

The phrase “glass ceiling” became popular in the 1980s as a metaphor for gender discrimination in business leadership. It describes a goal that can be seen clearly, but is not attainable. It suggests a situation that occurs once in a career, when a woman reaches an absolute barrier at a specific high level in an organization.

Eagly and Carli point out that times have changed and that the glass ceiling metaphor is now misleading. “The metaphor implies that women and men have equal access to entry and mid-level positions. They do not. …Worst of all, by depicting a single, unvarying obstacle, the glass ceiling fails to incorporate the complexity and variety of challenges women can face on their leadership journeys.” Using an incorrect metaphor creates misunderstanding of the issue and results in more less effective interventions. “If we want to make better progress, it’s time to rename the challenge.”

Eagly and Carli propose a new metaphor for what women confront in their professional endeavors – the labyrinth. “For women who aspire to top leadership, routes exist but are full of twists and turns, both unexpected and expected. Because all labyrinths have a viable route to the center, it is understood that goals are attainable. The metaphor acknowledges obstacles but is not ultimately discouraging.”

No Easy Path

The article reports numerous findings about the barriers faced by professional women. Although the studies cited don’t specifically discuss women architects, there is no doubt that they face similar hurdles. Women who aspire to the top of their professions must deal with:

    • Vestiges of Prejudice

    o Women continue to be paid less than men at all levels of the workforce. In 2005, women employed full time earned 81cents for every dollar a man earned. Marriage and parenthood is associated with higher wages for men but not for women.

    o White men are advantaged at entry level over all other groups and their advantage in attaining managerial positions grows throughout their careers. Even in jobs usually held by women such as nursing and elementary education, men rise to supervisory positions more quickly than women.

    • Resistance to Women’s Leadership

    o Women are psychologically associated with communal qualities: affectionate, helpful, friendly, kind, sympathetic, interpersonally sensitive, gentle, soft-spoken.

    o Men are psychologically associated with agentic qualities: aggressive, ambitious, dominant, self-confident, forceful, self-reliant, individualistic.

    o Most people associate leadership with agentic qualities and have difficulty reconciling this association with women in leadership roles.

    o Women leaders are in a double bind – if they act dominant or ambitious, they may be criticized for not being sensitive enough; if they act warm and considerate, they may be criticized for not being tough enough.

    • Demands of Family Life

    o Women continue to interrupt their careers, take days off, work part-time which results in fewer hours of employment per year and fewer years of experience. In turn, this slows their career progress and reduces their earnings.

    o Although men have taken on more domestic and child care work in recent years, the work/family struggle has not gotten easier for women. Studies show that any gains made through men’s contributions have been erased by increasing pressure for intensive parenting and the rising demands of a professional career.

    o Work/family demands on women leave less time for socializing with colleagues or for building professional networks. The social capital gained from these activities is critical for advancement and success in managerial and professional positions.

Actions that Work

How can firms hope to retain their talented female employees through this maze of obstacles? How can these women be supported to assume leadership and executive positions? Eagly and Carli offer numerous suggestions in their article. Here are interventions that are particularly applicable to architectural firms:

    Change the norm of long-hours. Assess an individual’s contribution to the firm based on effective and productive work habits, rather than by number of hours worked. Shift to other objective measures of productivity, such as utilization rate and project profitability.

    Reduce the subjectivity of performance evaluation. Objectivity in evaluations reduces the effects of lingering prejudice in hiring and promotion. Be explicit and transparent about the evaluation process to ensure fairness.

    Ensure a critical mass of women at every level, particularly partners or principals. When women are not a small minority, their identities as women become less prominent, and coworkers are more likely to react to them based on their individual competencies.

    Help shore up social capital. Women gain from strong mentoring relationships and from connections with influential networks. When a well-placed individual who possesses greater legitimacy (often a man) takes an interest in a woman’s career, her efforts to build social capital can proceed far more effectively.

    Prepare women for leadership with appropriately demanding assignments. Professional women often change jobs to acquire experience with more challenging projects. Providing promising women employees with stretch assignments will keep them interested in staying.

    Establish family-friendly human resources practices. Encourage male participation in family-friendly benefits. These may include flextime, job sharing, telecommuting, elder care provisions, adoption benefits, and employee-sponsored on-site child care. Such support can keep women at their jobs even during the most demanding years of child rearing. Family-friendly policies also help women build social capital, keep up-to-date in their fields, and eventually compete for higher positions.

    Welcome women back. Give highly capable women the opportunity to return to the workforce when circumstances change. Keep in touch and let these women know that return is possible.

Awareness of the barriers that women face in their professional careers can give them a roadmap for navigating the labyrinth they face. For firms, the labyrinth metaphor can guide development of strategies designed to retain and promote talented women employees. If there is a “brain-drain” of women from the architectural profession these actions can help stem the tide.


Rena M. Klein, FAIA, principal of R.M. Klein Consulting, in Seattle, Washington, is a member of the Soloso Editorial Content Review Board and serves as the Subject Matter Expert for Practice.

Keywords: Practice, Human resources, Diversity, Women in leadership, Work-life balance, Employee retention, Family-friendly workplace, Women architects, Women in architecture, Leadership, Critique


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