The Push to Bring More Women into Architecture and Keep Them There

Feb 24, 2016

We hear a great deal about attempts to recruit young women into the so-called STEM fields of science, technology, engineering and math. Well, there’s another profession with a relatively small number of females, one that combines science with art. There's currently an effort to draw more women into architecture, and keep them in the profession.

When Barbara Welander enrolled in the architecture program at Iowa State in 1962, she was one of eleven women in the freshman class. When she graduated five years later, she was the only female remaining.

Barbara Welander with the architectural certificate stating she has shown excellence in "his" qualifications (left) and the update to "her" sent years later.
Credit Rob Dillard, Iowa Public Radio

“Two of the young women had been disowned by their families, which amazed me," she says. "I could not believe they did not have support.”

Welander of Mount Pleasant is credited with being the first woman to complete the long examination process to become a licensed architect in Iowa. That was not long ago, 1975. The field wasn’t exactly ready for her.

“They have a beautiful registration certificate as an architect and it read, Barbara T. Welander, having shown excellence in his qualifications,” she recalls.

Women architectural students at Iowa State these days have more company. Forty-two percent of the in-coming class to the program last fall were females. And yet, the Iowa chapter of the American Institute of Architects reports only 15 percent of its members are women. Many don’t stay in the profession. The low numbers prompted Ann Sobiech-Munson to help launch the non-profit Iowa Women in Architecture. She re-entered the practice after teaching architecture at Iowa State as a way to encourage young women.

Ann Sobiech-Munson at Substance Architecture in Des Moines, where she's an associate.
Credit Rob Dillard, Iowa Public Radio

“I felt like I was one of the people that could be a role model with maybe a little more impact in practice than in academia,” she says.

She says women abandon the field because the demands outside the office as they start families take a toll in a profession that requires long days and stressful deadlines. Sobiech-Munson is an associate at Substance Architecture in Des Moines. She says a goal of Iowa Women in Architecture is to convince firms to be more flexible with their work schedules.

“You don’t have to be in your seat from eight-to-six or eight-to-midnight," she says. "You can have some say in how you’re getting your work done. I think that’s important.”

The low number of women in architecture is even more pronounced at the management levels of architectural firms. Danielle Hermann was recently promoted to associate principle at OPN Architects in Des Moines. She says she’s just one of a handful of women to reach that position in the state.

“And a lot of those are sole proprietors, so they own their own firm or they may own a firm with their husband,” she says.

Hermann says it’s important to include more women in architecture for the same reason it’s important to promote diversity of all kinds in the workplace.

Danielle Hermann, an associate principle with OPN Architects in Des Moines (left), and intern Eli Goll.
Credit Rob Dillard, Iowa Public Radio

“We always like to say, if you’re reflective of your clients and you’re reflective of the population, then you’re probably producing a better, well-rounded design,” she says.

Hermann says the opportunities for women in architecture have improved since she earned her license 15 years ago. A woman now leads the architecture program at Iowa State. Deborah Hauptmann says the question of gender in the industry is a complex problem, but it’s working itself out as attitudes change.

“I think as the numbers shift and society shifts that some of this will balance itself in terms of gender distribution in the profession,” she says.

For the upcoming generation of female architects, such as Eli Goll, an intern at OPN, the topic is quickly becoming a non-issue.

“Hopefully in 20 years we won’t even have to have this conversation,” she says.

Goll says at present, there is nothing standing in her way to the career she’s always wanted, to be an architect.