Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

The Realities of Equity in Design

Charlotte Wiederholt


March 30, 2023

Written by Charlotte Wiederholt

This past September, Studio Other proudly hosted an event at the San FranciscoLinkedIn offices called “Equity in Design.” This is a part of a larger event series that aims to bring people together to discuss the current state of equity in architecture and design, as well as other industries.

Several prominent speakers joined the panel in San Francisco. They shared their views on some of the most interesting, overarching topics affecting modern design careers – especially the opportunities and support provided to women. We’d like to share some of those topics and ignite the continuation of powerful, women-led conversations. Things are changing, but it’s crucial that we all play a part in discussing the challenges and evolutions of equality in these fields. 

Reality 1: More women are present but leadership is still male-dominated.

Since the 1900s, women have made significant strides in the design and architecture industries, quickly closing (and even exceeding) the gap in the workforce.

As of 2019, more than 61 percent of designers were women, indicating a positive momentum and a genuine sense of progress. With over half of designers being women, there’s an enormous opportunity to spearhead further change for equality in design careers.

“At my first design job, I was the only female Asian agent,” said Susan Orlandi, principal at DLRGroup, San Francisco, at the panel. “Now, women have come a long way. Design firms are a mix of lots of females and males. It’s pretty much almost fifty-fifty, which is really fantastic.”

A similar trend has taken place in the architecture industry – although the increase in the number of female architects has been slower than that of designers.

It’s now estimated that roughly one out of every four professional architects is a woman.

Unfortunately, the numbers of women in design and architecture may be growing, but the leadership ratios aren’t changing nearly as dramatically.

According to a 2022study of 30 million interior designer participants, 79 percent of all interior designers are women while 21 percent are men. However, in terms of salary, in2021, women still made 98 percent of what men made. Furthermore, research indicates that women only make up 21 percent of the highest-ranking jobs in the100 largest architecture firms around the globe.

Where do we go from here?

Tangram Interiors agrees with our panelists that there’s still a long way to go, especially when it comes to supporting working mothers and those pursuing leadership opportunities.

“I do think that well over 50 percent of our population is female, and we’re still not seeing enough female leadership,” said Kelly Dubisar, principal, design director and regional design experience leader of Gensler. “Our company has quite a bit more than any other major architectural environment in the world, but we can still do a lot more. There’s a lot of awareness in our company about making that prominent and important to us.”

Reality 2: The pandemic triggered an exodus.

Although women are now highly present in the design and architecture industries (among others),the COVID-19 pandemic did trigger a noteworthy “exodus” of working mothers. InSeptember 2020 alone, more than 865,000 women left the labor force. Then, a year later in the following September, a wave of another 300,000 women exited their jobs.

Although it is difficult to point the finger at one impetus behind this exodus, economists are largely blaming the demands that remote learning (and working) placed on parents, especially mothers. Reports are now indicating that many working mothers’ careers could potentially be set back by decades due to the stress, complications, and challenges presented by COVID-19.

During our panel event, this brought us to an important question in regard to workplace equality:Are organizations really empowering working mothers and ensuring they have the support they need to succeed, both at work and at home? 

“We need to make sure that women feel like they have the choice to come back (from time off) and ask for what they need,” said DLR Group’s Orlandi. “After they have kids, it’s about giving them flexibility. They need options so they don’t feel fear when thinking about having a family or going home because their child is sick.”

Where do we go from here?

Organizations, including design and architecture firms, can no longer ignore the toll of “double shifts”on working moms juggling household duties and childcare with full-time work.These challenges are further compounded for dual-income households and single mothers. We all need to be thinking about what organizations can do to alleviate the burden. In many organizations, this support could come in the form of:  

- Subsidized childcare

- Truly flexible work schedules

- Equitable healthcare

- Mental health support

- Normalizing male and female parental leave

Reality 3: Reproductive health and maternity leave.

Women’s healthcare was another hot topic at the Women in Design event. In the wake of Roe vs. Wade being overturned, many women are heavily assessing their workplace’s reproductive benefits and support.

Employers are uniquely positioned to help advance women’s health in the U.S. Many are now calling out organizations that fail to offer adequate reproductive healthcare benefits, maternity leaves, and other kinds of support to women.

“In many ways, companies are being asked to step up and be more political because the government has not stepped up,” said Verda Alexander, co-founder of Studio O+A.“There is a response (to certain events) that’s almost demanded of employers now, and it’s interesting.”

Whether it’s a lack of support for abortions or stigmas around breastfeeding in the workplace, many women and mothers are still lacking the support they need to thrive. A 2020survey found that only 17 percent of new mothers reported having support from their supervisors or co-workers, and that needs to change.

Where do we go from here?

With input from the women in their companies, employers need to create workplaces that support women as females, caregivers, mothers, and individuals. This is not simply for the benefit of individual women, but for the benefit of the design and architecture industries as a whole.

Investing in women’s health results in a healthier population as a whole. Furthermore, companies that offer comprehensive support for women’s health exhibit higher productivity and better retention of female employees. 

Reality 4: Mentoring is a key part of creating a long career.

As more women have entered design and architecture firms, there are more women approaching their 60sand 70s. These women are now faced with the challenge of continuing their careers as they age.

We’re in a skills-based economy, and being able to continue to learn and mentor is crucial. In many ways, mentorship can be the critical difference between a  successful work experience and  one that is unfruitful or stalled.

When the event panelists were asked about creating a long, prosperous, and successful career, the answer quickly turned to discussions of women as mentors in design and architecture.

“We know that people are great detailers that are working until their seventies, and they’re now mentoring,” said Orlandi. “(The key) is being able to mentor the next generation.”

We’re in a skills-based economy, and being able to continue to learn and mentor is crucial. In many ways, mentorship can be the critical difference between a successful work experience and one that is unfruitful or stalled.

Where do we go from here?

As women in the industry grow their careers, there’s a place for them to pass on their hard-earned wisdom to the next generation of female designers and architects.They are not obsolete, but rather teachers in the making with a wealth of knowledge and passion to draw from.

“I think passion keeps you young,” said Alexander of Studio O+A. “Follow it, no matter what, even if it seems crazy. Even if it’s going to be a U-turn, it will keep you young and will keep you going, especially in design.”

Women in their 60sand beyond may have fewer opportunities for advancement, but they can find immense fulfillment from tasks like mentoring younger employees. This is also a great way for women to solidify their reputation and standing in the industry before retiring from their design careers.

Reality 5: Self-promotion is tricky but necessary.

Lastly, the LinkedIn panel featured a great deal of discussion on self-confidence and self-promotion. Many people, especially women and minority members, find it challenging to advocate for themselves in the workplace.

This is especially true when it comes to compensation. In 2021, women working in architecture and engineering made 83 cents to the full dollar earned by their male counterparts.Similarly, women who worked in arts, design, and entertainment earned 87 cents to the dollar. As such, the discussion at the panel hung heavily on the need for women to fight for their fair earnings. Self-promotion is challenging, but necessary – especially for the sake of long-term equity.

“A lot of us, myself included, are not self-promoters,” said Christi Geiger, senior associate at M Moser in Denver.  

“It’s actually really terrifying to do that. But (you must) recognize that you need to stand up for yourself and, when you do, you become vulnerable. In those moments, that’s when you really have to do some self-reflection and find what your intentions are.”

Where do we go from here?

All of us, both women and men, must realize that self-promotion is not entirely selfish.Advocating for your worth as a worker, especially as a member of a minority group, can be inspiring and impactful to others.

When you say what you deserve and you get the response you need, you’ll know who truly supports you and your career. Even more important, you’ll be a part of the change that so many industries desperately need.

This article was originally featured in The Source.