Where Are the Women? Measuring Progress on Gender in Architecture

Kendall A. Nicholson, Ed.D., Assoc. AIA, NOMA, LEED GA

ACSA Director of Research and Information

June 2020

Like many professions in the United States, architecture has a long-standing history of being a male-dominated field. From its inception the discipline has not been accessible for all people. In 2014, the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture (ACSA) investigated the disparities between men and women in the areas of representation, inclusion, and recognition. This 2020 edition of Where Are the Women? updates information highlighting how women make up an equal part of the population but an unequal part of the discipline. The chart shown below calls attention to the path of progress for women in the profession using commonly referenced metrics. It starts with the U.S. population and tops out with the percent of females awarded the AIA Gold Medal over the history of the award. Not all of the metrics provide an “apple to apples” comparison, but each metric gives some reliable indication of how much or how little gender equity has progressed in recent years.

U.S. Population: The United States Census Bureau reports that in 2019, 51% of the 328 million estimated people residing in the United States were women.

Post-secondary Students: In 2019, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) reported that more than half (57%) of the students enrolled in higher education across the United States identified as female. This means that women make up a larger percentage of students enrolled in higher education than in the general population.

AXP Beginners: Aspiring architects log hours of on-the-job experience in the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards’ (NCARB) Architectural Experience program. In 2018 NCARB reported 50% of those who started in AXP were women, a metric for tracking the demographics of those moving from education toward licensure.

NAAB-accredited Architecture Degrees: The National Architectural Accrediting Board’s (NAAB) annual report also shows that in 2017-18 academic year, 48% of the 5,995 accredited architecture degrees were awarded to women. Because a NAAB-accredited degree is a requirement for licensure in most jurisdictions, earning this degree is a clear and measurable moment of the “pipeline” into the profession.

NAAB-accredited Architecture Students: In its 2018 annual report, the National Architectural Accrediting Board (NAAB) indicates that 46% of the 25,305 students enrolled in NAAB-accredited architecture programs (B.Arch, M.Arch, and D.Arch) in 2017-18 were female. Over the past 5 years, the representation of women in architecture schools has been steadily increasing.

NCARB Record Applicants: Applying for an NCARB record is a first step for students or graduates to complete the AXP or the Architect Registration Examination (ARE). In 2018, 45% of NCARB record applicants were women

ARE Completers: In 2018, 39% of those who completed all 6 divisions of the Architect Registration Examination (ARE) were women, according to NCARB. Successful completion of the ARE is one prerequisite for professional licensure and an important part of the architecture pipeline as it relates to the profession.

AIA Associate Members: The American Institute of Architects (AIA) indicates that in 2017, 39% of its Associate members were women. This membership category is open to individuals “without [an] architectural license from a US licensing authority who meets other architectural educational or employment requirements set out in the Institute’s Bylaws.” So although this number is an inexact measure of the “pipeline” through the profession, this voluntary membership is an indication of representation and intention.

ACSA Faculty Members: More than 5,000 design educators teach in ACSA member schools in the United States and Canada. ACSA records indicate that 38% of program faculty identify as women. Reviewing tenure status for professors at tenure-granting institutions revealed a significant difference in men and women’s likelihood to be a tenured professor. More than half (55%) of the male professors at ACSA member schools reported having obtained tenure, while only 40% of women reported being tenured. In regard to areas of expertise, women were more likely to report research expertise—in order from greatest to least—in Interior Architecture, Health & Aging, Materials Research, Participatory Design and Community Engagement, and Resilience.

Architecture Degrees (all levels): Based on data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), women received 36% of all architecture degrees awarded in 2018. Whereas the above NAAB data count only the accredited degrees that are generally required for licensure, NCES does not distinguish between NAAB-accredited and non-professional architecture degrees and instead counts both. Degrees awarded across all levels from Associate’s up to Doctoral degrees show varying percents of female enrollment. Associate degree programs were found to have the lowest percent of women enrolled at just 25%.

Directors, Heads, and Chairs: Based on 2019 ACSA data, , 33% of 496 directors, heads, and chairs at U.S. and Canadian ACSA member architecture schools were female.

Deans: By ACSA’s 2019 count, 31% of 110 deans at U.S. and Canadian ACSA member architecture schools were female. This number has increased by 12% in the past 5 years and shows substantial growth among female leadership in architectural education.

Architecture Employees: The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that in 2019, 25% of the 208,000 people working as “Architects, except naval” in the United States were women. Let’s unpack this statistic. The BLS counts those who are employed as an architect in any industry in an “architects, except naval” role. This includes those working as architects for the federal government or for developers, but not those employed as craftspeople, university instructors, urban designers, writers and critics, or other roles in which a person may identify with architecture while not practicing it in the strict sense. It includes the self-employed and those on leave, but not those who are unemployed. Importantly, the BLS does not distinguish between licensed and non-licensed practitioners (“apprentices and trainees”). If we’re measuring different points along our pipeline, this metric refers to points that are potentially before, during, and after—or even separate and parallel—to the steps towards licensure described above. By comparison, NCARB reports that there were 113,554 registered architects in the United States in 2017, so the BLS figure of 208,000 counts many aspiring architects who are pursuing licensure, as well as those who are not working towards a license.

Moreover, this statistic is made more significant when compared to the percent of women reported for what architects often use as comparable professions, law and medicine.  The BLS reported that 36% of “Lawyers” were women and 41% of “Physicians and surgeons” were women. This puts the imbalance shown between men and women at more than 10 percentage points below our peer professions.

AIA Members: AIA membership is one of the best metrics for understanding who in the profession is consistently engaged in current practices and thought leadership specific to architecture.  However, because membership is not complimentary, there are inherent barriers to membership and the rationale for membership changes from year to year and from person to person. In 2017, the AIA reported just 21% of their membership identified as women.

Licensed AIA Members: The AIA knows which of its members have a professional license, and in 2017 they reported that 22% of their licensed members are women.

AIA Fellows: Using some data mining, we estimate that approximately 21% of its AIA Fellows members were women. This membership category is open to AIA members who have demonstrated distinguished contributions to the discipline and have been elevated to the College of Fellows.

NCARB Certificate Holders: NCARB reports that 21% of NCARB certificate holders –a credential allowing architects to practice in multiple jurisdictions—are women.

ACSA Distinguished Professors: Starting in 1984-85, the ACSA has recognized a handful of living individuals each year for their sustained achievements in advancing architectural education through teaching, design, scholarship, research, or service. Chosen by a committee based on nominations, 19% (or 29) of 151 recipients over 35 years have been women.

AXP Supervisors: NCARB by the Numbers reports that 19% of AXP Supervisors—firm managers who supervise and review the work of intern architects submitting AXP hours, and who in most cases must be licensed architects—are women.

AIA/ACSA Topaz Medallions: One Topaz Medallion is awarded each year to a living person who has influenced “a long line of students” over at least a decade primarily spent in North American architectural education. Based on nominations and selected by a jury, 7% (or 3) of 44 recipients since 1976 have been women: Denise Scott Brown in 1996, Adèle Naudé Santos in 2009, and Toshiko Mori in 2019.

Pritzker Prizes: Known as the “Nobel Prize of architecture,” the Pritzker is awarded each year to a single living practicing architect (or occasionally a pair) in recognition of significant contributions to humanity and the built environment through built works of architecture. Decided by a jury, based on nominations solicited from notable people in the field, 7% (or 2) of 39 Pritzker Prize recipients since 1979 have been women. This includes Zaha Hadid in 2004, Kazuyo Sejima in 2010, alongside her male partner Ryue Nishizawa and Carme Pigem in 2017, alongside partners Rafael Aranda and Ramon Vilalta.

AIA Gold Medals: This highest honor that the AIA bestows upon an individual or pair recognizes “a significant body of work of lasting influence,” based on nominations and reviewed by a jury. Of 75 medals since 1907, two have been awarded to a women (Julia Morgan, posthumously in 2014 and Denise Scott Brown in 2016 alongside her husband Robert Venturi), representing 3% of the total.

While data in recent years show an increase in women being awarded architecture’s highest honors (AIA Gold Medal, AIA/ACSA Topaz Medallion, Pritzker Prize, and ACSA Distinguished Professor), it’s equally important to understand the context. With the exception of the ACSA Distinguished Professor designation, the highest honors in architecture have at least 20 years of history being male-only awards. This history cannot be changed and counters women’s rights legislation in the United States. In the case of the AIA Gold Medal, the era of male-only recipients lasted 107 years making it the most male dominated and the last of the four to be awarded to a woman.

While women were pursuing architectural education in the United States as early as 1874—Mary Louisa Page at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign—almost 100 years would pass before many institutions offer full co-education and Title IX of the Education Amendments would be signed into law by President Richard Nixon. Title IX, prohibiting sexism in education, and the preceding Equal Pay Act, prohibiting sex-based wage discrimination, were landmark moments in the women’s rights movement. Nonetheless, 50 years later, the effects of this have not led to gender parity in architecture and many other disciplines.

The last chart shows metrics for students, graduates, NCARB applicants, architects, and architecture awards for the past 35 years. Starting at the top with the green and red lines, we can see that the proportion of women among NAAB accredited degree earners has historically trailed the proportion of women among enrolled students. However, over the past ten years these two lines have converged. In other words, women are graduating with accredited degrees at approximately the same rate they’re enrolling, indicating that there is no longer either a gender-based achievement gap or pipeline delay within architecture school.

The purple line shows the increasing participation of women among NCARB Record applicants, based on a chart recently published by NCARB. For instance, in 1985 women represented over 25% of architecture students enrolled at NAAB-accredited programs but fewer than 10% of NCARB Record applicants. This is a classic example of what we call a leak in the architecture “pipeline.” If this gap reflected only the pipeline delay, or time that it would take for these women to progress to further stages at the same rate as their male peers, we would see the proportion of female NCARB Record applicants exceed 25% a few years after 1985—not fifteen years later, in 2000.

However, in recent years, NCARB Record applicants have reached 40% and has continued to climb indicating that, by comparison to their male colleagues, female students and graduates are substantially more likely than they were in 1985 to take this step towards licensure.

The blue line shown above represents those working as architects or unlicensed architectural designers as measured by the BLS. While the BLS is cautious about certain analyses based on time series data (in part because they occasionally adjust their occupational definitions), even with a sizable margin of error it is clear that there are far fewer women in practice than in school. This pipeline leak requires a better understanding of the lived experiences of women working in the profession. ACSA’s partnership with AIA SF Equity by Design in 2016 and 2018 uncovered unequal pay, numerous barriers to work-life balance, and a glass ceiling in job roles and responsibilities as just a few reasons why women leave the profession.

Lastly, the yellow line at the bottom represents the winners of architecture’s highest honors, i.e., the AIA Gold Medal, Topaz Medallion, Pritzker Prize, and ACSA Distinguished Professor. While the numbers, shown as percent of female recipients per decade, have steadily increased, we have not yet reached gender parity. This lack of gender balance among the most prestigious awards in architecture reveals a larger problem with the perception of an architect in society and how the field more readily ascribes design excellence to men.

Although the data show gains in gender equity, there is still much room for improvement.  For example, we see that the longer a woman continues to work in and contribute to architecture, the narrower her opportunities become for recognition and community building with other women. The research provided above chronicles the need for greater representation of women in the discipline. However, it is important to note that this attention to representation and diversity is not the same as what is required to create an equitable future for women across the discipline. This research is only the beginning of a longer discussion. Not only do we need to attract more women to schools of architecture, but we need to support them when they get there, and continue supporting them as they engage the profession throughout their career.


Kendall Nicholson, Ed.D.
Director of Research + Information