UP CLOSE: Architecture a difficult path for women

Architecture a difficult path for women

Published on September 14, 2016

After Julia Medina ’18 officially began the architecture major in the spring of her sophomore year, she received her first list of roughly 50 notable architectural works to serve as an inspiration and guide for her own designs. She noticed that within the list of works, called precedents, there were only about four works by females from which to choose.

This fall, when she began a junior studio course required in the major, “Methods and Form in Architecture,” she was again presented with 20 precedent studies, this time with roughly two buildings attributable to women.

For female students studying architecture, this problem is symbolic of a larger issue — although the numbers do not necessarily reflect it. The undergraduate major at Yale is made up of 28 students, just 12 of whom are male. The Yale School of Architecture, with over 200 graduate students, is 42 percent female according to digital-data company Graphiq,  and is led this year by the first female dean in its history, Deborah Berke. Comparable institutions like the Princeton School of Architecture and the Columbia Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation are also composed of a roughly equal proportion of men and women.

But despite the near gender parity in the classroom, discrepancies persist in the professional field, with very few women serving as partners or leaders of firms. According to a 2012 American Institute of Architects survey of 2,805 member firms, only 17 percent of firm partners and principals are women.

“When I look at firms and none of their partners or principals are women, it makes it tough to find a role model and that’s something that I’ve always worked for,” Daphne Binder ARC ’16 said. “I guess it is not necessary that the role model has to be a woman, but that would definitely answer a lot of questions I have about my own course in architecture.”

This jump to a professional gender disparity can be attributed to a number of factors, from long hours and unequal pay to a lack of family-friendly policies and female role models. But even before joining the workforce, architecture students are taught in an environment which encourages late nights and often favors men.

And all of these factors combined make current female students reconsider whether architecture at Yale is for them.

“Beyond just a rather patriarchal understanding of architecture in general, architecture has a work culture that is quite inhospitable to women,” architecture major Sheau Yun Lim ’18 said. “It definitely makes me rethink whether I want to go into architecture as a career.”

(Ken Yanagisawa)


In February 2006, the News reported that nine School of Architecture students received notices to take a semester off in light of inadequate performance judged during portfolio reviews. Six of the students were women. At the time, there were only 45 architecture students in the students’ class, just over a third of whom were female. Currently, the class of 2017 has 56 students.

Since then, the number of women enrolled at the school has steadily grown, with the current class of 2017 made up of more women than men. Mark Foster Gage ARC ’01, assistant dean and associate professor at the school, said the number of female applicants is generally equal to, or greater than, that of their male counterparts. Several classes in the past have included more women than men. This year’s post-professional degree program is 67 percent women, Gage said, as compared to the two women he had in his own graduating architecture class of 15 at Yale. He added that the school also has significantly more tenured female faculty than male — three men and six women are tenured.

Gage also pointed to “Yale Women in Architecture,” a group of students and alumni of the graduate school that discusses the legacy and status of women in the field. The group shares professional information and opportunities with women, and was formed following the school’s 2012 symposium with the same name, which drew nearly 200 female Architecture School graduates for a series of lectures and discussions about gender in the field. The symposium was held to celebrate the 30-year anniversary of the Sonia Albert Schimberg Award, given annually to a high-achieving female School of Architecture student. And since Medina’s first day of the junior seminar this fall, even the troubling list of precedents has been expanded to include more buildings by females, according to Architecture Director of Undergraduate Studies Bimal Mendis ’98 ARC ’02, who co-teaches the course.

But despite these strides forward, students interviewed say that subtle undertones of prejudice still exist within the school.

“When I came to Yale I felt the change immediately. It was like an invisible wall that barred certain people from making progress or expressing themselves in productive ways,” Ioanna Angelidou GRD ’18 said. “There was a tendency to disrespect younger voices in general and women in particular, by finding minor excuses to reprimand or marginalize them, mostly indirectly but often in explicit or even rather offending ways.”

Angelidou said that in many instances, these discriminatory attitudes from faculty members set an example for some students, and also prompted student skepticism toward female instructors.

Similarly, Melinda Agron ARC ’19 said that while discrimination has not occurred in every group setting she has worked in within the school, there have been cases where she felt her voice was ignored in favor of those of male group members. Architecture major Charlotte Smith ’17 said she thinks that she, along with her ideas, would have been taken more seriously if she were male, though such impressions are difficult to prove.

“It’s hard to say for sure if putting my gender down would change the opportunities I have, and that’s the hard thing about gender inequality, because the things you can pinpoint are small and you can only change that specific point,” Smith said.

Examples of discrimination are not unique to student experiences. School of Architecture professor Peggy Deamer said she experienced discrimination as an architecture professor at Yale when she became a mother and chose to continue teaching full-time. She said derogatory comments were made about her decision to keep working, with both faculty and administrators saying men would not have made the same choice to give up raising a child the “proper way” in order to become a full-time academic. Beyond parenting, there has been an element of discrimination involved when determining desirable teaching slots and positions of leadership within the school, she said.

Berke noted that discrimination against women in architecture exists across the academic field. She added that while she has experienced various forms of gender-based discrimination herself in the past, she hopes that such incidents will diminish with the rise in female leadership. Berke said that by assuming the deanship, she can be a voice for female architecture students and help them overcome discriminatory challenges before and after their education.

“Looking at the contemporary architecture scene, it is a lot different from where it was a few years ago, because the role models that are out there are much broader than those in the recent past and they will continue to improve,” Mendis said. “What the school can do is expose students to more female practitioners and faculty that can serve as role models and see that there are women doing incredible things in academia and profession.”


Nowhere is the disparity between women and men in architecture more evident than in the transition between education and career.

A 2012 American Institute of Architects survey of 2,805 member firms found that women comprise 49 percent of architecture students and 39 percent of interns. However, when looking at the professional field, only one-fifth of firm partners and principals are women, according to the same survey. And when it comes to academia, only 25 percent of architecture faculty members and professors in the U.S. are women, according to data released in 2015 by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

(Rebecca Yan)

Somewhere between school and career, women in architecture drop off. Given the large time commitment architecture requires, one of the largest obstacles to females attaining senior positions is the balance between childbearing and work. –Smith said that since architectural projects are stretched out over a span of a couple years, missing even just one year due to pregnancy and childbirth can be a big loss for an architect due to the lack of continuity.

Even with the rise of laws and benefits that may help to alleviate the burdens of child care, including paid maternity leave and extended paternity leave, stunted career growth persists.

Smith, an architecture major whose mother and father are both architects, said that giving birth and raising a child pose significant challenges to female architects due to the physical commitment required of the mother. Smith said she was fortunate in that her mother had her own firm, allowing her to work from home during pregnancy and while caring for a newborn.

However, Smith noted that the same cannot be said for most female architects who are not in control of their own hours and have to travel often.

“We usually act the way that we’re raised, and the way that we’re raised is that the mom is the one who takes care of kids,” architecture major Victoria Ereskina ’18 said. “Even if the burden is mitigated by paternity leave, it doesn’t take away the fact that there are nine months of pregnancy or the commitments like breast-feeding that follow.”

Deamer said the profession does not lend itself to raising a family, adding that there is practically no discussion within the field of family-friendly policies in the profession. Agron said that the culture of the field sets people up to be mostly devoted to their work, ignoring family roles played at home. At the Architecture School, family obligations are not really discussed, she said, and the reality remains that women tend to be the ones associated with fulfilling family obligations both in the field and in society more broadly.

But alongside issues of family care, many students pointed to the nature of the profession itself as another root problem. Medina said that since architecture is a client-based profession, patrons are likely to be attracted to certain representations or impressions of what — and who — they think an architect is. Similarly, Binder said some architecture firms have policies where partners are expected to bring in their own clients and projects, putting female partners at a disadvantage because clients will be more likely to hire men.

These power dynamics also exist between architects and developers. Samantha Monge Kaser ARC ’19 said that in her professional experience at an architecture firm, the interactions between female architects and developers are different from those between those same developers and male architects. Women’s opinions are not usually given as much weight, she said. Similarly, Deamer said that when working with contractors, the attitude taken toward women is usually one of skepticism.

Furthermore, relationships between teachers and their students also can pose difficulties for women. Angelidou said the field is male-dominated because it is based as much on creativity as it is on interpersonal relationships and power structures on the master-apprentice level. In academia as well as the profession, any close collaboration between males is considered natural and mutually beneficial, she said, but that is not the case when it comes to women working with men.

“How many male professors or professionals would not think twice before favoring one of their brightest female disciples or associates, in sheer fear of the relationship being considered inappropriate by their peers and the potential of everyone involved being deconstructed morally and professionally?” Angelidou asked. “This is terrible, but unfortunately an issue that a female academic or professional has to face every day.”


Architecture students and faculty interviewed suggested that in order to combat discriminatory attitudes in the job market, change would have to first begin in the classroom, where the expectation of an unusually high time commitment is fostered.

Deamer said one of the reasons the field is not accommodating to women in pregnancy is its tendency to reward long hours, a mechanism reinforced starting in students’ careers as undergraduates and carried over into the workplace.

“This is a problem that starts in academia, where students are praised for spending two nights without sleep, which shows dedication, which leads to passion, which leads to talent,” Deamer said. “Professors can definitely talk to their students about how to be sensitive to comments from faculty or other fellow students that imply sacrificing yourself for the good of the course is not enlightening and ultimately will not yield good work.”

Architecture major Margaret Gleberman ’17 said there is an expectation that architecture students will spend all of their free time working on projects, and even if it is not explicitly stated, the caliber of work expected is not possible otherwise.

Beyond the time commitment, students have also raised concerns about the lack of female architectural works in the curriculum. Architecture major Thaddeus Lee ’17 said that due to the male bias in the history of the field, the number of notable female architects in the past that can serve as role models is far fewer when compared to their male counterparts.

Further, students interviewed highlighted the large number of male critics and visiting lecturers regularly invited to the school. Medina said that posters were spread over the architecture school last year highlighting the fact that only 35 percent of architecture critics that the school brought in as jurors for student work were women.

But Lim said these issues are not only women’s battles to fight. The structures in place that hinder women from excelling in the field need to be addressed by men as well, she said. Architecture major Cameron Nelson ’18 agreed that the number of male architectural works students are taught is “glaring” given the number of works by females that are eligible for study. He said that it should not fall upon just female students to bring such discrepancies to the attention of instructors, adding that the lack of female works in the curriculum is an incomplete picture of the profession that affects everyone.

“The problem is that the students are half and half, yet we’re still being taught primarily by males and being taught primarily male canon,” Medina said.

Gage said the school relies on well-known and established visiting practitioners, most of whom have founded their own firms and achieved notable acclaim, to teach a large portion of the advanced graduate studios.

The pool of candidates from which these visitors are selected is overwhelmingly male, which reflects the profession at-large, he added. Gage added that while the school is aware of the problem and wants to diversify the visitors brought to campus, a delicate balance exists because the school does not want to turn away a particular male candidate who still has expertise to offer.

“Moving forward, the school is making focused efforts toward gender equity in our lecture series, visiting appointments, faculty representation at all levels and support for our women graduates,” Gage said. “Four out of nine advanced studio classes will be taught by women next semester, and before I was granted tenure, it was awarded to three women in a row.”

(Ken Yanagisawa)


“I’m deeply honored to be the first female dean of the Architecture School, but I tend to look at it more broadly, which is to say that while I’m a female dean at Yale, there’s a female dean at Princeton, a female dean at Columbia and there recently was one at Penn,” Berke said. “What we’re seeing is a real acknowledgement of women’s progress in architecture by the number of female deans across the country.”

This year marks the first time the School of Architecture is under the direction of a female dean. Berke succeeded Robert Stern ARC ’65 and is the third woman to head one of Yale’s 12 graduate and professional schools. In addition to having taught architectural design at Yale since 1987, Berke also leads her own firm, Deborah Berke Partners, which focuses on designing hotels, residences and institutional projects.

The School of Architecture lagged behind some of its peer institutions in appointing a female dean. Amale Andraos was named the dean of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation in 2014, and Monica Ponce de Leon was named dean of Princeton’s School of Architecture in 2015.

“We now have a woman at the helm of the school and she also happens to be a person of a very different generation,” Angelidou said. “I think that in many ways this change will have a very positive impact on the politics within the school by releasing pressure and providing a much-needed paradigm shift for everyone involved.”

But while Yale named Berke to a historic deanship, it soon lost one of its most world-renowned visiting professors with the death of Zaha Hadid. Hadid, a visiting professor at the Architecture School since 2013, was widely lauded as the greatest modern female architect. Born in 1950 in Baghdad, Hadid was the first female to be awarded the Pritzker Architecture Prize, which is regarded as the Nobel Prize-equivalent in the field of architecture. Around the world, her buildings include the Guangzhou Opera House and the London Olympics Aquatic Center. Hadid died March 31 of a heart attack while being treated for bronchitis.

Berke, who studied alongside Hadid while they were students together at the Architectural Association School of Architecture in London, said Hadid was brilliant from early on. She added that Hadid’s gifts extended beyond architecture, from her outgoing personality to her talent for drawing.

Despite Hadid’s accomplishments, her gender sometimes still overshadowed her identity as an architect. And as there are so few living female role models for women in architecture, her death was a particularly striking loss.

“People who knew [Hadid] would clearly tell you that she was not a diva, that she was humble and down-to-earth,” Medina said. “People do not care about personalities when it comes to men, but [Hadid] was a genius, and people still managed to degrade and insult her.”

How people categorize female pioneers in architecture is related to how women are viewed as leaders in all fields, Monge Kaser said. She added that there is a tendency to call women bossy or demanding, when those adjectives would not be used for male leaders who act the same way. Women have to fight their way to earn respect and the majority of famous female architects have a reputation as overbearing, Monge Kaser said.

Since Hadid won the Pritzker Prize 12 years ago, the number of female architects within the U.S. has barely increased. According to data released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the percentage of women in the field has risen only to 25.7, up from 24 in 2004, the year Hadid received the award.

“For a woman to go out alone in architecture is still very, very hard,” Hadid told The Guardian in 2006. “It’s still a man’s world.”


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