Housing Complex

Architecture in D.C.: Still a Man’s World

Architects' Journal's new take on Architect Barbie.

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.

  • Thayer-D

    This phenomenon is something I first noticed in architecture school some twenty years ago. At the most simplistic level, the building arts have an implication of strengh required to erect large structures, so that the closer one gets to the execution of architecture, the more one finds male chauvanism at play. But what I noticed in my architecture school days was an intellectual male chauvanism that ironically was strengthened by modernism's dominance in the curiculum.

    One of modernism's main principles is that decoration and beauty are superfluous while structure and conceptual rigor are the only criteria for "real" architecture. Of course, human psychology has made great strides in laying out how our emotions are at the base of even our most "rational" motives, but none of that progress seems to have permeated the ivory towers of architectural academia, where the modernist mania for structural primacy and intellectual rigor (haha) has remained unchallenged.

    Never mind that the general public views most modernist structures as cold and sterile. This undercurrent of percieved masculinity was clear in the patronizing way I saw many of my professors deal with the females in my classes. Even as a male who was interested in the more emotive aspects of a design such as how does the building interact with the passerby, or will people actually take joy in looking at it, ie. the dreaded "beauty" word.

    While I'm glad that you are highlighting this often dismissed issue in architecture, I sometimes feel like we accept the terms of this fight without taking the time to re-evaluate what good architecture is. If a woman's strenght is interior decorating, why is decorating only good for the interior of a building? It's clear from the way many of these chauvanist architects talk and dress, they don't seem to have an issue with decoration, but when it comes to their designs, they use these outdated modernist principles to negate this aspect of human experience, and it shows. What ever one's stylistic preferences are, we all hang a building's skin on it's frame. Maybe someday we'll sculpt the concrete columns into something beautiful rather than hide them with the latest curtain wall style. But let's bring our full human perspective to bear on architectural design and appreciation.

    Isn't architcture supposed to be a marriage between the arts and the sciences? While I would never imply that the sexes have unique skill sets, but it's clear that there's a lack of balance in how we approach archtiectural design, and women are on the loosing side of that arrangement.

  • http://blog.inshaw.com Mari

    Susan Reitag gets a lot of love from the United House of Prayer and all their ugly buildings she keeps throwing up all over Shaw.

  • David B

    Wow, sounds like someone has an axe to grind with modernism! I'm not going to debate the merits of traditional vs modern architecture, but will note that this has very little to do with gender. Zaha Hadid's work is very "masculine", an almost violent collision of forms, while the sinewy curvilinear forms of Frank Gehry could be called "feminine". I think it silly to say modernism, or more generally design, can be simplistically categorized by gender.

    I agree with Sorg's analysis--as firms start to rebound more women will enter the field, but since it takes such a long time to establish oneself in the field, there are still a lot of gray haired male principals out there who entered the profession when it was still a boys club and who have no intention of retiring now that they finally have the "gravitas" to land the large flashy commissions.