Closing the architecture leadership gender gap

Published: June 18, 2019 | Updated: March 23, 2020


Patricia Saldana Natke, AIA, founding partner of UrbanWorks, LTD discusses a project with colleagues .

How women are overcoming a mid-career squeeze—and traditional power structures—that inhibit their rise to firm leadership.

One-and-a-half years into a new job at a medium-sized architecture firm in New England, Yanel de Angel, AIA,  told her boss she was pregnant. She got a swift congratulations, but then something much worse. She was told that for the sake of continuity and service to clients, she’d be removed from all of her projects, lest they be inconvenienced by her maternity leave. De Angel had been practicing for nearly a decade, and had no desire, or reason, to be relegated to LEED administration duties. She went to HR. But her boss came back enraged, furtively speaking in Spanish (de Angel is a native speaker). “How dare you go to HR!”

“He stuck to his word and did just what he said,” says de Angel. She spent her days running checklists, documenting credits, and being ruinously unhappy. She started looking for other jobs.

“It made me feel penalized, as if my brain contributions were dismissed due to the physical changes in my body,” she says. “It made me question if I could have a career and a family.”

The sexist discrimination De Angel faced was resolved in time. She was six and a half months pregnant when Perkins + Will’s Boston office offered her a job. She initially declined, and felt like she’d be taking too much time for her maternity leave with only a few months at the new firm. She took a nine-month unpaid leave, and stayed in touch with Perkins + Will. She joined the firm before her daughter’s first birthday. Today she’s a principal there.

De Angel’s ordeal illustrates the career and family crunch that envelops women at the mid-point of their architecture careers, as they struggle to become principals and partners in a male-dominated field that often comes with punishing hours and expectations of absolute commitment. Apart from changing design culture to encourage women to stay in architecture for any length of time, there’s a unique set of barriers that inhibit women from ascending to its highest levels.

According to the 2018 AIA firm survey, the profession sees less gender parity the higher up the ranks one ascends. Nearly 20 percent of respondents to the 2018 Equity by Design survey report that their firm leadership is all male. Half say it’s mostly male. There have been strong increases in female representation at the principal and partner level recently, but parity is still far away. Women increased from 11 percent of firm leaders in 2008 to 29 percent in 2017, the biggest jump of any rank.

Starting a firm yields leadership opportunities, flexibility

Patricia Saldana Natke, FAIA, founded her own Chicago firm, UrbanWorks, 25 years ago, subverting this trend. She says that decisions on whether to get married or start a family often happen at the critical mid-point of an architect’s career in their mid-20s to 30s, and this period defines “which track you’re on and how you’re going to compete.” Saldana Natke started her firm first, and then had kids. “I was able to set my own flexibility, and that really makes a huge difference.” Her experience is borne out by data from the Equity by Design survey, which revealed that female sole proprietors were much more likely to be mothers than women working at firms.

This survey also showed that more male architects are parents than women, which may indicate steady attrition for women who become mothers. Of all architects that are parents, 44 percent of women are primary caregivers, while only 5 percent of men call themselves primary caregivers. Women with a secondary caregiving role don’t get the same bump in salary that men who are secondary caregivers get, disincentivizing women from doing less care and working more. (For example, the survey indicates that amongst architects with 20 to 25  years’ experience, men who are secondary caregivers make a bit more than $140,00 per year; women secondary caregivers make just over $120,000.)

This sexist perception of childcare illustrates just one of the ways that gender parity in architecture leadership is conflated with broader patriarchal social constructs. Once they’re born, taking care of kids has nothing to do with one’s gender, despite the enforcement patriarchal systems push onto women through not accommodating flexible parenting schedules (which hurts fathers as well as mothers), scheduling events in the evening when family time is critical, allowing gendered pay gaps that devalue the labor of women, and any other number of subtly—or outright—discriminatory practices that push women out of professional contexts.

Because of the consciousness-raising older generations have done around gender as well as race (Natke and De Angel are women of color, navigating an additional universe of bias), women joining the profession are more prepared to understand and confront such gender biases and structural disadvantages at architecture firms. In many ways, their primary challenge will be fighting these battles in a much more public and less deferent way, while still navigating their way through male-dominated power structures on their way to becoming leaders.

Challenging and overcoming power structures

There are plenty of reasonable suggestions for what women and other minorities can do to  overcome barriers to leadership. But most importantly, there’s the recognition that men are in control of the firms that perpetuate these unfair systems, and the onus is on them to change.  “That really is the crux of the problem,” says Natke. “[It’s] making sure women and architects of color aren’t just speaking to each other. It’s about creating overall change.”

"[It’s] making sure women and architects of color aren’t just speaking to each other. It’s about creating overall change.” -Patricia Saldana Natke, FAIA

A bit more specifically, what’s needed is an overhaul of office policies. With the AIA Chicago Diversity Roundtable, Natke is assembling a self-assessment tool for firms, evaluating office policies and hiring practices so that firm leaders can critically evaluate how their operations might perpetuate inequality. This could give principals concrete metrics and schedules to advance diversity goals, like eliminating pay gaps between men and women, that are persistent at all levels. She’s planning on the assessment tool being complete by the end of the year.

Natke says that what’s likely to be uncovered here is not so much explicitly and self-consciously sexist behavior, but the institutional ghosts of these practices, simply never confronted. The goal is to “break the cycle of going to the person that’s most similar to yourself,” she says.

And while the onus of change is on men, there are ways women can leverage the progress forged by people like Natke. From the outset, she says, be “very direct and honest as to what [your] goals are.” Tell leaders up front: “I’m committed [to] this firm. In 5-7 years, I hope to be [at] a principal level. What do I need to do to get there?”

Self-promotion from women is often viewed differently (and negatively) than when it comes from men, but Lynne Sorkin, AIA, a director at bKL architecture in Chicago, says it’s key. “You have to sell your personal achievements so that people are aware of what you could do next,” she says.

In particular, Jackie Koo, AIA, founder of Koo Architecture in Chicago (and also a woman of color), says it’s important for women to get licensed. “If you don’t get licensed and have that credential after your name, people can think of you as ‘less-than’ much more easily,” she says. Unfairly, women need this official validation more than men in order to compete with them. The push towards licensure often happens at the mid-point of a women’s career, as she might be considering starting a family, resulting in a time squeeze from both ends of the professional and domestic spectrum. And sure enough, the Equity by Design survey reported that women are more likely than men to report having made personal sacrifices to deal with long work hours, and more women say their physical and mental health has suffered due to work-life imbalances.

Sorkin says one strategy that can gain women more power and autonomy is to get involved in business development. “When you’re able to bring in work,” she says, “it sets you up in a good position to also be leading the projects.”

Certainly, there’s a moral and ethical responsibility to make sure different groups of individuals have an equal opportunity for success in a given institution, but there’s also a case to be made for gender diversity based on business utility. Most broadly, as a service profession, architects do their best work when they represent the society they serve, and Saldana Natke says they have more female clients than ever, both private and public.

Diversity breeds success

“A diverse group of people is a resilient strategy,” says de Angel. With a diverse pool of talent, designers can shift strategies and sectors at will. De Angel designs higher education student centers and residence halls, and her clients want to see the diversity of the student body in their design teams.

She has focused her time specifically on helping women in the middle of their careers climb the ladder with the Boston Society of Architects’ Mid-Career Mentorship Program. An outgrowth of the BSA’s Women’s Principals group, it’s now in its second year of pairing up mid-career women with women principals. Earlier in her career, Natke spent a bit less than five years working for Carol Ross Barney, a titan of Chicago architecture, where she had the benefit of a female mentor with a strong regional reputation. “That was a turning point in seeing that I could have my own firm,” says Natke. “You can’t be what you can’t see.”

Those are relationships Lori Krejci, AIA, could have used.

She founded her own firm, avant architects in Omaha, after continued frustration from working for men. Krejci always knew she wanted to be an architect; she started working at architecture firms when she was 16. One early boss asked her to cut her hair because, “You’re petite, you’re young, you want people listening to you, not looking at you. I’m not telling you to cut your hair, but it might be a good idea,” says Krejci. Another had her (and only her, the only female architect in the office) cover the receptionist’s lunch break, and also had her pick interior colors and fabrics, something she had no specialized training or interest in, “because you’re a woman,” she says. She never got a raise, and was sure she wasn’t being taken seriously.

Krejci left a “mad bohemian,” she says, determined to forge her own creative path and found her own firm. She was in her late 20s when avant opened up shop. It was 1988, and it was the first woman-owned firm in the state of Nebraska.

Her male bosses’ belittling made her second guess herself, unware that they were reacting to her gender, not her talent, until it was explicitly pointed out. “I thought, ‘What is wrong with me? Maybe I need to work harder? I must not be as good as the boys,’” she says.

But regardless of who’s getting the credit, architecture is almost never the result of a single person, and properly recognizing this dynamic holds the potential to sweep away any number of explicitly and implicitly discriminatory practices.  “Everybody that works on large-scale projects really understands that it takes a whole team of people to do [them],” says Koo. This shift will best be realized not by simply inserting women into the coveted and unquestioned leadership roles that men had horded, but instead by collaborating across gender, race, sexual orientation, and more, in a way that doesn’t offer any one group or identity leverage over any other.

Zach Mortice is a Chicago-based design journalist, and former editor at AIA, who focuses on landscape architecture and architecture.

For more stories like these, join us for the Women's Leadership Summit this September. Also, learn more from the AIA Guides for Equitable Practice, which provide real-world-derived best practices for fostering equitable and inclusive workplaces.

Image credits


UrbanWorks, Ltd

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