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Iowa architect firms have few women, fewer still as principals

Designing women

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CEDAR RAPIDS — When Barbara Welander graduated with an architecture degree from Iowa State University in 1967, she was the only woman in her program.

Eight years later, she would become the first, and at that time the only, female architect in Iowa. But she doesn’t think of herself as a trailblazer. She just didn’t want to pursue what were considered the traditional jobs for women at that time — secretary, teacher or nurse.

That wasn’t for her, she said, and her strong math, art and science skills led her to designing buildings instead of teaching in them.

But the architecture field was overrun with men and, she began to see, throughout her life: In high school, she initially was barred from taking a drafting class by the superintendent of her school district. (When a new superintendent followed, she was allowed to take the class.)

In college, two of her female classmates were rejected by their families for pursuing architecture degrees. And as a professional, her presence on construction sites was considered a jinx by some of the older workers who would turn their backs to her whenever she was present. None of that, however, stopped her.

“My parents were very supportive. They said, ‘Well, if she wants to do that, then why can’t she?’” she recalled. “I think that whether you’re a male or female makes no difference. You need to go ahead and get into the line of work that you love.”

Conditions — and attitudes — are much better today. When Welander was licensed in the 1970s, about 1.2 percent of licensed architects in the United States were women. Now, women make up roughly half of all students in American graduate schools and, according to the American Institute of Architects, the professional organization for practicing architects, women accounted for only 15 percent of its licensed members in 2014.

But advocates say those numbers are too low and speculate that a lack of diverse voices and visions could have an effect on the aesthetic of the build environment around us. However, there seems to be a renewed focus on including and supporting women in the profession, with efforts generally geared toward helping employees find a better work/life balance and encouraging firms to incorporate family-friendly policies.

“We have to create a situation that is not cookie-cutter. When you have a cookie-cutter situation, only a few people fit in that form,” ISU Architecture Department Chairwoman Deborah Hauptmann said. “Before (diversity) was desirable. Today it’s necessary.”

For example, she said, when parents take time off to raise children, it can be hard to get back into the profession. The same can be said, she said, for other demanding fields such as engineering, law and medicine.

“Stepping back into the workforce in a field like architecture that is so demanding is not always an easy thing to do,” Hauptmann said. “Architecture is a field you have to keep up with — there are material changes, practices change. In many fields ... you have to keep up with your licenses in extended education and know changes in these professions.”

Iowa Women in Architecture, founded in 2011 and headquartered in Des Moines, focuses on how architecture firms can examine their policies to offer more flexible work options. It encourages firms to think about how they accommodate employees’ different lifestyles, from offering flexible hours for work-life balance conflicts, implement telecommuting options, and begin tracking employee workloads and rebalancing when necessary, among other issues.

Millennials, many of whom are in their first jobs, have pushed for such changes, too.

“We’re sort of hitting that critical mass of women in architecture, and some of these issues start to bubble up to the surface,” said Danielle Hermann, co-founder of Iowa Women in Architecture and an associate principal at OPN Architects in Des Moines. “... With this new generation, there’s also a greater focus on and a lot more conversation around the importance of work-life balance.”

Industry professionals say the architecture field is fraught with long hours and demanding workloads, aspects of the job that can deter women who are attempting to juggle families with their careers.

“The field is a demanding field,” Hermann confirmed. “It takes a lot of time. It’s just the way the profession is.”

While women and men study architecture in equal numbers in school — the National Architectural Accrediting Board reports 43 percent of students in their accredited programs are female — many women drop off to pursue different careers, perhaps to find something less demanding, before becoming licensed.

For many women, by the time they’ve completed licensing exams, internships and other requirements, they’re getting married and having children, Hermann said.

“We see that women involved in architecture, as you go through the course of the program, drops off significantly,” she said. “Most research indicates that it’s really a matter of work-life balance.”

Ann Sobiech Munson, an architect at Substance Architecture in Des Moines and another co-founder of Iowa Women in Architecture, recently completed research on the issue, creating a timeline from 1850 to 2015 on Iowa women architects.

It showcased their milestones and accomplishments, but it also illuminated how underrepresented women have been in the field dating back to the 19th century. For example, from 1850 to 1969, there were fewer than 20 female architects in Iowa.

Even as recently as the 1970s, there were only be one or two women graduating with architecture degrees or earning their licenses. And while in recent years, the situation has improved, it’s nowhere where it needs to be, she said.

“There’s still work to be done,” Sobiech Munson said. “It still hasn’t achieved any gender parity.”

LEADERSHIP

Women architects so far have been much less likely to become executives in their companies than their male counterparts. In a 2014 report by the American Institute for Architects San Francisco Equity by Design Committee, women accounted for 17 percent of partners or principals in architecture firms.

(According to a 2014 study conducted by Iowa Women Lead Change, a not-for-profit based in Cedar Rapids, women hold 25 percent of leadership roles overall in private for-profit companies and 22 percent for publicly traded companies in Iowa.)

Hermann, with OPN in Des Moines, was named the first female associate principal in the fall.

“It’s a privilege, and I think of it as a responsibility,” Hermann said. “There’s been so few women that’s been in that position, and they’re looking up to you. I feel responsible giving back to them, being the role model and mentor they need, trying to make choices and decisions and offer thoughts that are going to influence and help other women coming up through the architecture profession.”

For Jordan Trannel, a recent graduate working at OPN in Cedar Rapids, she sees this as an inspiration.

“I just think that it’s great to see women leaders finally coming to fruition in Iowa, and they’ve always been a great inspiration to me,” Trannel said. “Despite the fact we’re a minority in this profession, it makes us want to work a little harder to get those positions.”

Andreya Veintimilla, another recent graduate working at OPN in Cedar Rapids, received her master’s from the University of Wisconsin where the majority of her classmates were men.

“I think that for women it’s hard,” she said. “You don’t see a lot of women following through with the profession for one reason or another, but here at OPN it’s more diverse than other places I’ve been, which is really encouraging.”

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