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There has been much discussion raised about "Why are women leaving Architecture? and more broadly, Why is the profession losing key talent?"  Both women and men practitioners are disillusioned by the myth of work/life balance: Women are grappling with "have it all" expectations of juggling family time with the demands of full-time work.  Men are struggling to support their families solely on an architect's salary and fall back on asking spouses to maintain their jobs. The lack of affordable childcare and high cost of living only magnifies the challenges.  How did we end up in this modern family dilemma? What can we do to improve the situation?

EQxD Get Real: Be Willing to Listen | Recognizing our Privilege & Bias

by Katherine Williams, AIA, NOMA

To most people privilege is unseen advantage. If you don’t recognize that you may be privileged, I encourage you to view the privilege walk demonstration in the video “What is Privilege?”,.  The 400 million+ living in the US are privileged just by the rights we have here that are not part of the DNA of other nations. We are taught, from an early age, that we have the right for our voice to be heard and to pursue paths of our choosing. However, our country does not fully acknowledge that at times our privilege will open doors and at other times bias will keep doors closed.

  Katherine Williams at construction site

Katherine Williams at construction site

For me, privilege or luck or maybe just God’s favor, has been on my side since I first was introduced to architecture. The first day I began to think of architecture as a career option was at a Girl Scout career fair in elementary school. I was privileged to be in a place with active Girl Scout leaders who had networks that included a woman architect. However, this was only a first step. Next, I was privileged to have a mother who sought out resources when she recognized her children were interested in something. Because of that, I was in an Explorer program for architecture and attended a two week Girl Scout camp on architecture and construction. In those programs, I was building small projects, getting introduced to CAD, and visiting firms and college campuses. As adults we know that we should do these things to find out more about our potential careers, but do we ever consider how many kids do not have access to these avenues to get a taste of the architecture path?
 

  Katherine's daughter celebrates competition at the 2012 San Francisco NAWIC/Girl Scout Building Block day

Katherine's daughter celebrates competition at the 2012 San Francisco NAWIC/Girl Scout Building Block day

To juxtapose all of the privileges I was blessed with, as a black woman in a predominantly white, male profession, I think about bias on almost a daily basis. Everyday prejudices and bias about who can be an architect have limited the exposure at early ages to the profession, have made it difficult for people to succeed in our education system, and has hindered progression in firms. I think about it when I walk into a professional gathering, whether AIA, USGBC or other, and see no other person of color. I wonder who does not get invited when there are events to build their network or earn continuing education credits. I think about it when I walk on job sites and see no women workers on a project team. I wonder how many people are trying to get into a union but did not because they did not have the right connections. I wonder which small, minority or woman, contractor did not get the project because they were left off a bid list. I think about bias whenever I tell someone that I am only the 251st black woman licensed in the US. I wonder who is trying to get their boss to give them experience to finish their IDP, or help pay for exam, or time off to study. Without time and funds to prepare and take exams, we will not build a pipeline of future architects.  African-American, women architects number only 337 out of the, approximately, one hundred thousand licensed architects. We are currently less than half of one percent.
 

I think about bias whenever I tell someone that I am only the 251st black woman licensed in the US... African-American, women architects number only 337 out of the, approximately, one hundred thousand licensed architects. We are currently less than half of one percent.
— Katherine Williams, AIA, NOMA
  Students chatting with architect at the 2012 San Francisco NOMA student firm crawl. 

Students chatting with architect at the 2012 San Francisco NOMA student firm crawl. 

For a profession that affects almost every person in the country, the lack of diverse voices at the table remains a problem that leads to perspectives being left out of decisions that get made.

If we held up a mirror to the architecture profession it would expose how we are the privileged, providing services to other privileged. It is only once we step out of our boxes to see the world from a different view that we can recognize our own privilege and bias enough to start dismantling the structures that hold them in place.

Because a lot my work has centered on community improvement and development in underserved neighborhoods, many of the people who would be considered my clients lacked privilege. For example, they may not have finished college, have lived with poverty level wages, or were elderly or disabled. An alternative to the privilege walk mentioned above, is the privilege circle. By moving to or away from the center of a circle, based on the questions, one can see who has more privilege, which usually equates to more influence in that particular community or group. “What would be different if people in communities most impacted by inequality were seen as the center of, or as experts on, their communities’ needs and situations?” The notion of community input gets misunderstood by architects as we look for community members to buy into our plans instead of giving them the tools to create their own.

In order to truly create the best solutions, we must be willing to listen, walk around, and allow people who have been living in the communities to have the privilege of being the leading voice. Likewise, in order to create the best design practices, we must invite and listen to those who have not traditionally been at the table.


1. BuzzFeedYellow. (2015 July 4) “What is Priviledge?” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hD5f8GuNuGQ
2. University of Michigan, Edward Ginsberg Student Life Center. Privilege Walk Activity.
3. 
Grant, Brad and Dennis Mann. The Directory of African-American Architects. http://blackarch.uc.edu
4. Brown, Adrienne Maree. (2013 August 17) Take the Privilege Walk. https://indypendent.org/2013/08/17/take-privilege-walk