The Architect’s Take interviews five prominent San Francisco women architects about the challenges and rewards faced by women in architecture today. Left to right, from upper left: Anne Fougeron, Kate Stickley, Karin Payson, EB Min, and Amy Eliot.
We all know the diatribes about gender inequality within skilled professions: barriers to entry, salary disparities, glass ceilings, mommy tracks, old-boy networks, differences in socialization, and more. We hear how “feminine” strengths such as empathy work against women in male-dominated fields where confrontation and open struggles for dominance are the only acceptable ways to succeed. We hear about the few women who do break the glass ceiling, and how they often act vigorously to defend their privileged status as the “token” woman executive. Well, how much truth is there to all this, specifically within the architectural profession?
Architecture certainly has its disparities: while close to half of architecture graduates are women, only 20% of licensed architects are women.  Not only are women dropping from the profession in droves, so it seems, but they’re not even going for their license. Well, why the hell not? Is discrimination the only cause?
Defining the problem
When we started discussing this amongst our own circle of peers at our monthly Small Firms Committee meetings , some surprising things came out: opinions amongst the women themselves that discrimination might not be the only problem. Our group is mainly principals of small firms, both design and construction, specializing in mostly residential work. Our small-firm experiences may represent an important perspective: while corporate architects account for the majority of staff hires and total billings, 90% of architectural firms are under 20 people. 
Not only that – but a brand-new women in architecture survey by the Architecture Journal, a British publication, points to widespread perceived discrimination: “47 per cent of women claim that men get paid more for the same work, and almost two-thirds believe the building industry has yet to accept the authority of the female architect.” 
I think this article is a good teaching case on how anecdotal wisdom can snowball into an urban legend until some skeptical debunker actually picks it apart and starts examining the claims one by one. We asked ourselves whether women were really being driven from the field, and what we could do about it. We approached some firm principals who are women, starting with our own Small Firms Committee, and started with the same set of questions:
- Why did you start your own firm?
- Why did you go through with getting licensed?
- How did you get your first projects?
- Have you ever been frustrated by your female colleagues?
- Do you have any stories of discrimination that you or someone you know experienced?
- How would you advise women architects to invest in their career?
The interviews themselves don’t necessarily follow this format, because the conversations took some very different turns, and we wanted the interviewees to tell the story in their own words. If you want read the actual interviews, they are, in order: Anne Fougeron, Kate Stickley, Karin Payson, EB Min, and Amy Eliot.
Women architects who were interviewed
Anne Fougeron, FAIA of Fougeron Architecture. Anne is the sole principal of her own firm, based in San Francisco. After earning a Bachelor of Arts degree in Architectural History at Wellesley College and a Master’s Degree in Architecture at UC-Berkeley, Anne worked with San Francisco architect and urban designer Daniel Solomon, and then went on to found Fougeron Architecture in 1986. She developed her own unique and decidedly Modernist vocabulary, and quickly gained recognition for numerous award-winning public and private sector projects. Anne has taught architectural design at CCA and at UC-Berkeley, where she also served as the Howard Friedman Visiting Professor of Professional Practice in 2003-4.
Kate Stickley, ASLA of Arterra LLP landscape architects. After practicing large-scale resort design in Florida and the Caribbean, Kate lived and worked for four years in the South of France, where she developed her love of Mediterranean plants and water-wise planting. Designing and collaborating with local artisans in the Old World laid the foundation for her comprehensive knowledge of how things are built. Kate founded Arterra with her business partner Vera Gates in 2003. She continues to draw from her early foundation today, as innovative detailing and design are hallmarks of Arterra Landscape Architects. Kate is a member of the American Society of Landscape Architects, Build It Green and the National Association for Women Business Owners. She is a Certified Green Building Professional. She earned her Bachelor’s in Landscape Architecture from Michigan State University in 1984.
Past features on The Architect’s Take: We’ve featured Arterra on both our blogs: a designer interview with Kate and her business partner Vera Gates and a feature on Arterra’s living roofs for our sister blog, Green Compliance Plus.
Karin Payson, AIA of KPA+D. Before founding KPa+d in 1992, Karin’s professional experience included several years in the New York office of Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates where, as a Project Architect, her work focused on the planning, programming and design of large-scale commercial buildings and adaptive re-use of historically significant buildings. Karin holds degrees from Columbia University and UC Berkeley, and is a licensed architect in California and New York. Her work has appeared in several exhibitions and publications, including California Homes; Science & Spirit; Architectural Digest; San Francisco Chronicle Sunday Magazine; Sunset Magazine; The Sacramento Bee; The San Francisco Examiner Sunday Magazine; and The New York Times.
Past features on The Architect’s Take: In our two-part feature interview with Karin, she spoke very openly about the challenges faced by women in architecture.
E.B. Min, AIA of Min|Day Architecture. E.B. Min is the San Francisco principal of Min|Day, which also maintains offices in Omaha, Nebraska. An honors graduate of Brown University with dual concentrations in Art History and Studio Art, she began her architectural studies as a cross-registered student at Rhode Island School of Design. She received her Master of Architecture from the University of California at Berkeley in 1993. E.B.’s experience in the landscape architecture office of Delaney and Cochran nurtured her interest in the integration of landscapes and buildings. E.B. has taught at U.C. Berkeley and is an Adjunct Professor in the Masters of Architecture Program at California College of the Arts in San Francisco and serves on the Board of Directors of the AIA San Francisco.
Amy Eliot, AIA of tef Design. With 20 employees and three partners, Tom Eliot Fisch is slightly larger and more complex than the other firms. Amy also has a broad perspective on working in corporate firms such as SOM, SMWM, The Polshek Partnership (now known as Ennead) and Chong Partners.
She holds a BA in Art History from Smith and a Master’s in Architecture from Harvard, and is a licensed architect in California. Amy was the Chair of the Interior Architecture department at California College of the Arts from 1999-2001, and an associate professor teaching in multiple design programs there from 1992-2001. She serves on the board of two arts organizations, Creativity Explored in San Francisco, and Art Works Projects, based in Chicago, both of which advocate in very different ways the power of art and design to create powerful change, one in the lives of artists with developmental disabilities, and the other in educating international audiences about human human rights and environmental issues.
References and Suggestions for Further Reading
 “Calling All Women: Finding the Forgotten Architect”, Alexis Gregory, AIA Archiblog, November 12, 2009
 The AIA-San Francisco Small Firms Committee was founded in 1990 as a support and knowledge sharing forum to address the specific challenges faced by small firm practitioners and firm owners, and currently has 86 active members.
 “The Female Brain-Drain in Architecture“, Lira Luis AIA, blog entry on the AIA Knowledge Net, November 9, 2011
 “Shock survey results as the AJ launches campaign to raise women architects’ status” January 2012 study from the Architecture Journal in the U.K.
 “Not Only Zaha: What is it like to be a female architect with a solely owned firm in the U.S. today?“, Suzanne Stephens, Architectural Record, December, 2006
 “What I Learned From Architect Barbie”, Despina Stratigakos, Design Observer, June 13, 2011
 2003 study sponsored by the Royal Institute of British Architects on why women are leaving the architectural profession.
 “Architecture Organizations for Women“, a listing from Architecture.about.com, listing women’s architecture, construction, and engineering associations within the United States.
About the author
Rebecca Firestone has been working in the Bay Area since 1998 as a technical writer, business content developer, architectural filing lady, marketing director, and sorcerer’s apprentice.