Why equity is good for your practice


Equitable practice promotes the recruitment and retention of the most diverse talent and leads to stronger, more successful, and more sustainable practices

“The goal of equitable practice is for everyone, not just women. It’s about advancing our profession. It’s about making us all more relevant. It’s about communicating the value of architecture in society,” Saskia C. Dennis-van Dijl, a principal consultant in the Cameron MacAllister Group in Portland, Oregon, told a crowded room at a session at A’17 this Friday.

Dennis-van Dijl is a contributor to the project Equity by Design. The project was born out of the lack of data and research in the area of equity, but they are also very interested in the meaning of that data and how it relates to each individual firm and architect.

“It’s about connecting all of you together,” Dennis-van Dijl says. “It’s about connecting all of us to the profession … in an effort to solve what is arguably a really complicated, challenging problem”

Why equity ≠ equality

“There is a primal difference between equity and equality,” states Rosa Sheng, AIA, a senior associate at Bohlin Cywinski Jackson in Albany, California, and contributor to Equity by Design. To help illustrate the point she shared an image of three people of varying heights, each standing on one box, attempting to look over a fence.

The first person, who is tall, could see. The second person, of medium stature, could also see. But the third person, even though they also had a box, was still too short to see.

“Everybody gets the same exact resources, equal right?” Sheng asks. “But the person on the right [the third person], can’t see over the fence with the equal resource.”

Equity, however, has many different meanings Sheng notes, but one important way to consider it is that means “maximizing just opportunities and… recognizing that each person has individual challenges in life that they are affected by. In this case, the tall person recognizes they don’t need the box [to see over the fence].”

However, Sheng states that we can’t just sit around and wait for equity to come on its own. “If we let things just run their course, it will take us about 115 years for us to reach equity and parity in multiple situations,” she says.

Laying the groundwork for change

In 2016, Equity by Design and the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture conducted the 2016 Equity in Architecture Survey, the second national survey that they had done on the subject.

“The survey really asks us to rethink what it means to have a career in architecture,” says Annelise Pitts, a designer at Bohlin Cywinski Jackson in San Francisco, California, and Equity by Design contributor.

The report looks at it through two frameworks: career dynamics and career pinch points.

Career dynamics are challenges that most architects can expect to face throughout their careers. The issues may occur at different points in an individual’s career, but by looking at them as individual issues, the problems can be reframed.

Career pinch points are personal and professional milestones that cause people to devalue the perceptions of their career or even leave the field.

Key findings in the survey

In total, 8,664 individuals responded to the survey making it the largest survey on the topic of equity in architecture in US history. The survey was sent to graduates of partner schools, NCARB, AIA, and other organizations around the country. Some of the key findings of the survey are highlighted below.

Career perceptions and mentorship: Across 14 categories from “work–life flexibility” to “promotion process” to "their likelihood of staying at their job for the next year,” male respondents’ average perceptions were more positive than female respondents’ perceptions in all categories.

Additionally, mentorship, especially having access to career advice from a senior leader in one’s own firm, made individuals more optimistic about their professional future. The survey found that male respondents were more likely than female respondents to report turning to someone senior within their own office for career guidance.

Pay equity: At every level of experience, our male respondents made more, on average, than our female respondents, with the highest differences at the top of the experience spectrum.

Work-life balance: Not only did our female respondents make less money on average than their male counterparts, but they were more likely to report having faced a host of work-life conflicts, from poor health and neglected personal duties to turning down travel or even leaving a job.

Paying your dues: The survey demonstrates clear divisions in the office management tasks that male and female respondents take on within the first five years of their careers. Female respondents with less than five years of experience more likely than their male counterparts to take on planning office events and managing the office library and less likely to take on more strategic tasks like firm project standards, strategic planning, or firm operations and management

Obstacles to licensure: The survey demonstrated that licensure presents many professionals with challenges, with long work hours, the high cost of registration and exams, and low perceived rewards as the most frequently cited challenges. Female respondents were more likely than male respondents to experience every one of these challenges to licensure.

Gender balance amongst firm leadership: Sixty-five percent of male respondents, and 66 percent of female respondents reported working in a firm that was mostly or completely led by men, while only 5 percent of male and 8 percent of female respondents reported working in a firm that was mostly or completely led by women.

Likelihood of being a principal: White male respondents were more likely than non-white men and both white women and women of color to be principals or partners at nearly every level of experience. Men of color were the least likely of any group to be principals or partners in a firm.

So, what can we do?

Towards the conclusion of their presentation, the group offered a few quick takeaways for individuals, architecture schools, and firms and what they can do to advance equity in architecture. Their recommendations are included below, but they acknowledged several times that this is just what they’ve found so far. They encourage others to share their ideas and examples of what works.

What individuals can do

  • Articulate your values: What matters to you and why?
  • Take your first steps: Participate in #EQxDActions
  • Build your tribe: Cultivate a network of mentors and champions
  • Speak up: Ask for feedback, a raise, or to discuss your goals
  • Become a champion: Advocate for your teammates
  • Join (or start!) a local Equity in Architecture group
  • Leverage EQxD Resources: Use our toolkit to discuss survey with firm colleagues, and local chapter
  • Become a change agent: Commit to meaningful action

What architecture schools can do

  • Use professional practice courses
  • Diversify program faculty
  • Diversify curriculum
  • Equip students with knowledge, forums, and resources

What firms can do

  • Talk about your firm’s values: How do they shape your work and your culture?
  • Firm self-assessments: How do you compare to the survey?
  • Walk the talk: Firm leaders that adopt equitable practice
  • Increase access to firm leaders as mentors
  • Go beyond annual reviews and provide ongoing feedback
  • Implicit bias training: Identify and mitigate biased practices
  • Conduct a firm-wide pay audit
  • Develop clear and transparent promotion criteria and policies
  • Create a culture that is equitable, empathetic, and adaptable
  • Invest in opportunities for staff to build relationships
  • Develop leadership opportunities at all levels

Equity by Design's finding, when paired with AIA's 2016 equity report, highlight the challenges of creating a more equitable profession but also offer straightforward opportunities to advance the cause.

Brendan McLean is the digital content manager at AIA.

Image credits


Getty Images

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