Architecture in D.C.: Still a Man’s World
Last week, Architects' Journal released a massive study of female architects in Britain, profiling 60 of the most successful and finding in a survey of 700 that nearly half think they are paid less than men for the same work. (It also got some attention for the cover, which is actually a better take on Architect Barbie than Mattel's.)
Even without that much data, we know things aren't much better for lady architects in the United States. The most recent survey by the American Institute of Architects is from 2009, and found that women made up 27 percent of all architecture staff—up only 1 percent from three years before—and only 17 percent of principals and partners (the same percentage as women in Congress!).
There's been no shortage of soul-searching into why women don't fare well in the profession's higher ranks. Despite the fact that women have been responsible for between 40 and 50 percent of architecture degrees conferred for a while now, they suffer from what former New York Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff called exceptional chauvinism in the "rarefied and strangely macho" corners of the field—which didn't get any better in the great winnowing of the real estate crash, when designers lost their jobs en masse.
For a personal perspective on the District's architecture scene, I checked in with Suman Sorg, who went to Howard University, started her own firm in 1986, and now runs it out of offices on U Street NW. She says things have gotten better from the days when women were steered into designing interiors and townhouses, rather than the big projects that made an architect's name.
"I've seen a shift for the better," she says. "But there's still a glass ceiling, it's still a man's world."
Things are a little better for women in D.C. because of the volume of projects run by the federal government, which often have set-asides for women and minority-owned firms. For that reason, Sorg says, she's done quite a few embassies for the U.S. in foreign countries. "We are lucky to be in a city that has that advantage," she says. "I think there's more of a reluctance in the private sector."
The thing that'll help women in architecture most: The recovery of the whole industry, Sorg thinks. With women making up nearly half of those graduating from design school, when firms start hiring again, they'll have a better chance to at least enter the profession at all.