Cincinnatians are likely familiar with two iconic modern buildings, the Terrace Plaza, and the Contemporary Arts Center, each designed by a groundbreaking female architect, Natalie de Blois and Zaha Hadid respectively. The only two buildings designed by women out of dozens of architectural landmarks (Music Hall, Union Terminal, The Ascent, Crosley Tower, etc.) across our city. Why? In 1900 there were only 39 American women who’d graduated from architecture school. Today, only 23% of registered architects are women (2023 NCARB By the Numbers
Representation in architecture matters because architects design the buildings, places, and environments that impact everyone. Having a design team that resembles the community at large helps ensure all voices are part of the conversation.
Emily Lubbers, AIA with MSP Design
“You’re always going to end up with a better solution if you start with a bunch of options, ideas, and perspectives,” said Emily Lubbers, AIA with MSP Design. “Having perspectives of the different building users will always make for a better design but we don’t always have that in the design process. So having diverse backgrounds of the designers themselves is the closest we can get.”
Having women in the architecture profession positively impacts the built environment, and it also encourages women to enter the field and to advance professionally.
“I’d been with a company for 13 years and it seemed the only way to move up there was bringing in more work to the company. I didn’t feel comfortable with that, but I felt I could make my own commitments to clients for specific types of projects.” said Neena Jud, AIA with Harmony Architecture. “I knew other women in architecture who had small firms or were sole proprietors. With their example, I realized I could start my own firm.”
Step 1: Becoming an Architect
Half of architectural students and graduates are women but only 23% of registered architects are female. A discrepancy more significant than law (55% students, 36% lawyers) or medicine (53% students, 41% physicians and surgeons). What’s happening to the female graduates who are not pursuing licensure?
Academic architecture programs skew male and white both in the educators and the content they teach, which could dissuade women from pursuing architecture as a career.
Ashley Pinkard, NOMA with DNK Architects
“My third year I was in a history and theory course it dawned on me that I hadn’t seen a single Black architect and barely any female architects,” said Ashley Pinkard, NOMA with DNK Architects. “It made me wonder where I fit here.”
The typical path to becoming an architect is attending an undergraduate program that is accredited by the National Architectural Accrediting Board (NAAB), followed by graduate school, and work experience (nearly 4,000 hours) before taking the licensure exams (ARE) and becoming a registered architect.
The licensure process has changed over the years, from a full-week of in-person exams in Columbus one time each year to being able to take the ARE online at a local testing center or virtually proctored from home. Until 2023, there was a “rolling clock” that required the completion of all six ARE exams within five years of passing the first exam. While that might not sound unreasonable, for women in their 20s and 30s who are likely to be having children and taking time away from work, that rolling clock could prevent licensure.
“As a woman, its necessary to be licensed to be treated seriously,” said Heather Wehby, AIA. “I got licensed as fast as possible right out of school.”
Balancing the time to study for and take the ARE exams while earning the professional experience required for licensure, and the salary to pay the exam fees and student loans, is a challenge. Minority architects are especially impacted by the high cost of pursuing architecture as a career. Only 5.4% of architects are women of color (2022 NCARB), of those, 566 are Black women.
“I’m still working on licensure,” said Pinkard. “I’m determined I’m going to finish it. It’s important to be that 600th licensed Black woman. For representation, for me personally, and for my growth in the profession.”
Step 2: Staying in the Field
The American Institute of Architects (AIA) study on bias in the profession
confirms the pervasiveness of gender bias in the workplace, which for architects includes not just firm offices, but also construction sites that are even less diverse than the architecture profession (construction is 9.9% women according to the National Association of Women in Construction).
“Anytime you’re a female in a male dominated industry, especially young and female, it takes a lot of guts to walk in the room where you’re literally the only one,” said Lubbers. “Especially when you have to tell a bunch of men what to do or how to solve a problem. My college program was close to 50/50 male/female. It was kind of a bubble, you were treated equally, so when I had to go onto a jobsite that’s when it hit me how the lack of diversity is still prevalent.”
Motherhood presents a challenge for women in most fields – balancing parenting with work or taking time away from work to raise children can derail a career. In architecture that issue is compounded by the scarcity of women in the field.
“When I started at my company, they didn’t even have a maternity leave policy,” said Lubbers. “I’m the first woman in the firm in 25 years to have a child and my company has bent over backwards to help me.”
Childcare is an issue for any working woman – especially when work hours fall outside of the 9-5 workday, like the public hearings architects are expected to attend. In architecture, remote work wasn’t common until the COVID pandemic. As firms continue to offer some flexibility in work schedules, it may help mothers stay in the work force.
Heather Wehby, AIA
“We need to challenge this notion that working over 40 hours every week is required to be an architect,” said Wehby. “When it’s a competition of who is willing to stay all night, work on the weekends, why would you choose to be an architect? It even crossed my mind to not have children because I was an architect. Why would anyone have to make a choice about whether to be a mom or not because of that?”
The gender disparity increases with experience, as women make up even smaller numbers of firm leaders and owners.
“There are so many situations where there’s one seat at a table for a woman, so you have to compete for the one seat,” said Wehby. “When you’re allowed one female department head, when you’re marginalized like that, there’s going to be competition for that space.”
That scarcity can create an environment where it’s challenging for women who’ve made it to support the next generation of professionals.
“I’ve encountered women who experienced misogyny and discriminatory behavior but had to take on some of those tendencies from a survival standpoint,” said Pinkard. “They’ve had to mentally train themselves to carry themselves in a certain way. We shouldn’t have to go through that if our work and the skills are there.”
How do we fix this?
Building a community of women at the national and local levels for networking and to support each other has proven successful by creating opportunities for mentorship, leadership, and career guidance.
At the national level, AIA hosts an annual Women’s Leadership Summit which has grown from 150 attendees in 2009 to 900 in 2023. The National Organization of Minority Architects (NOMA) offers a nationwide mentorship program connecting established design practitioners with young professionals to support them as they work toward licensure and provide guidance as they navigate their career. A local NOMA chapter
was established in Cincinnati this summer.
“Ohio Valley NOMA is actively reaching out to University of Cincinnati student chapter (NOMAS) to provide avenues for those students to be mentored and let them know that we’re here and accessible,” said Pinkard.
In Cincinnati, The Boyer Guild of Women in Architecture formed in the early 1990s. Named after India Boyer, the first woman registered architect in the state of Ohio and AIA Cincinnati’s first female member, The Boyer Guild filled a need the AIA was lacking.
Neena Jud, AIA with Harmony Architecture
“AIA meetings at that time were filled with older white men in suits who didn’t seem to want to talk to us,” said Jud. “A few women architects in Cincinnati had heard about a group of women engineers and architects in Columbus that was separate from the AIA, not to diss the AIA but to focus on women’s issues. They felt freer to talk about things that they were experiencing in the profession, doing their work, and living their lives. Some of us went up to Columbus at various times to join them but decided we couldn’t keep driving up once a month, so we should start a group down here.”
The women of The Boyer Guild were able to connect with other women architects, see their work, learn about their practices, share their challenges and the solutions they found. Discussions ranged from harassment to childcare to balancing responsibilities between spouses. They also had programs on architectural topics and offered continuing education sessions.
“‘Guild’ was chosen specifically to refer to a group of equals, a group of people working together to help each other improve the profession,” said Jud. “We supported each other. Longstanding friendships were formed.”
AIA Cincinnati now has a Women in Architecture committee that organizes regular programs including dining circles, borrowed from AIA Columbus, to connect women at different career stages outside the office.
Access to networks of women at the national and regional level is important for women in the profession. But changing the culture of a firm to be more inclusive requires an effort at the micro level.
“Having someone who’s going to have your back is huge,” said Lubbers. “It’s easy to be ignored when you’re just one person. I found a female ally at our company in another department who had more experience and could share what other industries and companies are doing. Having another person also talking about hiring, recruitment, employee retention, and policies helps.”
Women also need the support of firm leaders, both men and women, to pursue licensure, stay in the field, and advance their careers.
“If you’re a young person and this is your first job, you’re trying to get experience for licensure, or just trying to do the job, you have to have sponsors,” said Wehby. “Not just someone to sign the papers but a real active participant to make sure you’re learning what you need to learn.”
Changing firm culture is slow, but improving policies, offering mentorship, and providing career support are progress.
Progress has been made: 35 years ago, only 4% of registered architects were women. That’s up to 23% and over 40% of people taking the ARE exams are women. This year all of AIA’s top leaders are women: Lakisha Ann Woods, CAE is the EVP/CEO, Emily Grandstaff-Rice, FAIA is the 2023 President, Kimberly Dowdell, AIA, NOMA is the 2024 President-elect, and Evelyn Lee, FAIA, NOMA was elected 2025 President-elect. Is this a sign that the tide has turned, and women are going to surge into the field? Is the work done?
Continue this discussion in person:
When: Wednesday, November 15, 2023
Where: Contemporary Arts Center, 44 East 6th Street, Cincinnati, OH, 45202
“It’s not done until there is honest to goodness equity, until 50% of the big firms are headed by women architects, there’s 50% representation all the way down the line, and equal pay irrelevant of what your genitals are,” Jud.
It might take a couple of decades to get there, but women will persist and change a field where they’ve made a big impact despite underrepresentation.
To learn more about women in architecture historically and today, visit:
Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation
International Archive of Women in Architecture
Profiles of local women architects are featured on AIA Cincinnati’s website
. The Contemporary Arts Center
is celebrating the 20th
anniversary of their Zaha Hadid-designed building with an exhibit examining her work and legacy.
The series, Architecture Matters, is supported by AIA Cincinnati. Learn more at aiacincinnati.org.
The views expressed herein do not necessarily represent those of the American Institute of Architects or the members of AIA Cincinnati.