Equity & Justice in Architecture

Equity & Justice in Architecture

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Betsy del Monte
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Betsy del Monte


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Equity & Justice in Architecture

Justice and equity are difficult to connect directly to the practice of architecture. But they are clearly tied to the lives of architects.

These are not new issues. In 1968, civil rights leader Whitney Young spoke to the AIA convention in Portland, Oregon, saying, “You are not a profession that has distinguished itself by your social and civic contributions to the cause of civil rights, and I am sure this has not come to you as any shock. You are most distinguished by your thunderous silence and your complete irrelevance.”

One would think such harsh words would have a profound impact, and they did — on those who heard them and only then for a short while. Some changes did occur through the years, but today’s data, as reported by National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB), shows that non-Hispanic whites make up about 91% of all registered architects. African Americans are about 4%. Not much progress in 50-plus years.

When it comes to leadership at architectural  firms,  the  numbers  are worse. Black-owned architecture companies are few, and African Americans in leadership positions at firms overall are rare.

In this era of #MeToo, the numbers show that women have a harder time advancing in the profession than men. Architecture schools are just now about 50/50 male to female students. But the path after graduation is still rocky.

PERCENTAGE OF PARTICIPATION AT EACH CAREER STAGE: A survey conducted by Dezeen, the online architecture magazine, shows that of the top 100 architecture firms globally, only three are led by women, six have male and female co-CEOs, and two have leadership teams that are greater than 50% female. Sixteen firms have no female top leaders. In general, women hold 10% of the leadership jobs.

Fewer women fulfill the requirements to take the ARE. Fewer still pass all the sections and become licensed. More women are missing at each subsequent professional milestone. The diagram “Women in Architecture/ Percentage of Participation at Each Career Stage” shows this.


In the early 1980s, Margaret had just graduated from a well-known architecture school and got a job at a good firm in a midsize city. She was eager to learn all she could and worked hard, staying late many nights to meet deadlines — it was what everyone did. When new projects were assigned, she was ready. But it took three years before she got her own project, while the two guys she had started with had gotten projects within a year or two. She figured she just needed to work harder, so she did.

At an important staff meeting, when they were brainstorming how to handle a difficult manpower issue, she proposed a new way of assigning staff that she thought would be an improvement. No one commented, and the discussion moved on until Steve proposed the same idea. This time the partners reacted with enthusiasm, and the idea was adopted. Steve was credited with the big improvement.

A few years later, Margaret was leading a major project that was in the materials selection phase. Steve had done a similar project and offered advice, but he was not part of this project. The client proposed a trip to Italy to select the stone for the lobby. Steve was invited to go because “he’ll know what to look for.” Margaret was not included. When the group returned, there were photos of stone and quarries, as well as of big dinners and good times. Margaret overheard a partner say that Steve “really opened up on that trip. Turns out, he’s a great guy.”

Later that year, Steve was promoted to partner. Margaret left for another job. After a similar experience there, she left the profession and started a graphic design group.

Graphic by Ming Thompson with Atelier Cho Thompson for the AIASF Equity by Design and Equity in Architecture Survey 2018

Margaret is a composite example; her story is based on the real experiences and reality of many women. There are reasons people succeed, or don’t, in architecture, as with any other profession. But architecture was a boys’ club for a very long time. Things are changing, but the numbers still indicate a problem:

As architects move through the profession, women drop out at much higher levels than men.

Graphic by Ming Thompson with Atelier Cho Thompson for the AIASF Equity by Design and Equity in Architecture Survey 2018

The flow chart above shows interesting correlations. The numbers coming out of school are fairly equal, and a huge proportion of all groups go to work for firms. Of sole practitioners, a larger percentage are male. Of those who get licensed, most are male.

Perhaps surprisingly, more women than men have no children. Although many male architects with children share in their care, almost none have the primary responsibility for the kids. As would be expected, the reverse is true for women with children.

The proportion of women to men declines in each box, from designer to staff architect to associate to principal. For non-white architects, the story is similar but the numbers are much smaller at the start. There is almost no visible trace of architects of color in the box for principals. However, for 2018, NCARB reported that non-white students represented about 25% of the total.

Graphic by Ming Thompson with Atelier Cho Thompson for the AIASF Equity by Design and Equity in Architecture Survey 2018


It’s been noted that higher performing firms have more diverse staffs. (See On the Habits of High-Performance Firms by Lance Hosey, Architect, March 2017)

Although the profession is better in some areas, it is challenged in others. I recently sat in a meeting where a speaker described the efforts his group had made to address inequity. He said that the coalition they had assembled looked much like the group in the room, and he was proud of that. The room was filled with a range of ages, about 40% women and about 30% Hispanic. There was one black face.

‚ÄčGraphic by Ming Thompson with Atelier Cho Thompson for the AIASF Equity by Design and Equity in Architecture Survey 2018

The problem for architects is much the same as for other professions. To do the best work requires the best designers and managers. This means those with the best training, the best experience, and the best understanding of the design process.

Even more important, equity in architecture introduces a greater vision in design.

Architect Kenneth Luker of Perkins + Will designed a project for an African American community in Vancouver.

“I like clean, straight geometry,” he said. “They wanted none of that. They wanted forms that expressed the movement and the action of their lives, even if it was messy. They actually wanted the ungeometric, uneven edges.”

By including the community members and engaging them in an equitable process, the project became  a much-loved success, with a different design than the architect would have provided otherwise.

Circling back to Whitney Young, here are some words of foresight from him:

“An ancient Greek scholar was once asked to predict when the Greeks would achieve victory in Athens. He replied, ‘We shall achieve victory in Athens and justice in Athens when those who are not injured are as indignant as those who are.’ And so shall it be with this problem of human rights in this country.”

And so shall it be with the profession of architecture.


Betsy del Monte, FAIA is a consultant at Cameron MacAllister Group.

AIA Dallas has introduced an Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) Task Force as part of the vision of 2020 president Maria Gomez, AIA. The goal of the task force is to be a resource for members and firms to learn more about EDI as it relates to individuals, to firms, and to the profession of architecture. It will provide direction based on AIA National’s Guides for Equitable Practice, with an emphasis on issues affecting the Dallas area. Throughout this year, the task force will hold panel discussions, issue a survey, and create an online resource center in an attempt to broaden equity, diversity, and inclusion to create a stronger profession.


The American Institute of Architects has released Guides for Equitable Practice. We are providing tools and resources to help architects take steps to build a more equitable, diverse, and inclusive profession. Download the guides here.

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