Blog %

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?

I’ve seen glimpses of the future….and I can’t wait to see it arrive!

By Renée Cheng, FAIA, Professor and Director of the MS in Research Practices, University of Minnesota

Imagine a building industry that is lean, efficient and widely recognized for its valuable contributions to society. This industry would use research to identify and build upon best practices to create a more effective built environment. In this ideal future, leaders are diverse, so the industry reaps the benefit of creativity and innovation that comes from diversity while also reflecting the demographics of the communities it serves. This future will only be possible if we establish a vibrant culture of research and increase the number of women and people of color leading the industry. Over time, a long time, global population change may address the demographic issue, but we prefer not to wait.

At the University of Minnesota, we have developed the only program in the country that combines research, leadership and professional  licensure. Students conduct research projects that connect faculty and firm leaders, and along the way architecture students earn their license before graduating,shortening the time to license after graduation with a professional degree from an average of 7.6 years to 1 year. The Masters of Science in Architecture with a concentration in Research Practices (MSRP) is a three semester program that provides graduates of B. Arch and M. Arch programs with a structured path to licensure. The MSRP program has created the Consortium for Research practices, a group of AEC firms dedicated to pursuing new research and ideas. In addition to coursework on research methods and analysis, students within the program spend 25 hours a week working with a host firm from within the consortium and a faculty mentor to tackle a research topic, and the research is then shared with the entire consortium. Since the research is practice-based, the hours meet AXP requirements. Students’ AXP progress is complemented with coursework covering topics related to the ARE exams and students complete all exams during the academic program.

After four years of running the MSRP, we realised its greatest value to the profession is not licensure. The program’s largest impact is how it identifies future leaders and gives them opportunities to succeed. Students contribute to their firms by addressing emerging areas that are typically unexplored in traditional practice. Anecdotally, we have heard that our graduates receive responsibilities typically given to those who graduated five years before them. This suggests that, if a typical trajectory brings a graduate to partnership in 10-15 years, MSRP graduates could reach partnership in 5-10 years. We understand that if our graduates are predominantly women and people currently underrepresented in our industry, our program’s accelerated path to firm leadership could help change the face of the architectural profession, pushing it to look significantly more like the diversity of the communities we serve. For this reason, we have prioritized recruiting a diverse student body. Currently, our small cohort is 80% women of color.

Equity by Design’s research findings indicate that connection to senior leaders is one of the most important predictors of various attributes of success early in one’s career. MSRP students directly collaborate with senior partners and faculty experts on projects that typically focus on areas of innovation and emerging practices. From this work, students are not only networked into leadership circles, but also have the opportunity to demonstrate expertise in ways most interns are never asked to do. We believe students are capable of far more than we ask them to do in a traditional professional setting. This program provides the opportunity for students to shine.

Many strategic plans for firms and schools set goals to increase diversity and change demographics, but as the saying goes, “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” There is no easy way to achieve these goals because it’s not about changing numbers but changing culture. Culture change is hard but can be achieved with big goals and small steps. We’ve started to see this with the firms that are part of the Consortium for Research Practices, the essential base to the MSRP program. Some have developed internal interdisciplinary groups to identify research priorities, others adapted their previous practices to include more research in more areas. We’ve also seen firms shift how they communicate internally and externally about research and the work of the students.

Our program is new and growing, so measuring our broader impact is yet to come, but we believe that we provide a model linking practice with academy in order to change the culture of the industry through small projects that lead to massive change. We are impatient for the future of our industry and are doing everything we can to accelerate its arrival.

For more information about MSRP see <>. We have full fellowships to award by April 15; to nominate a student who has graduated or will be graduating with a B.Arch or M.Arch professional degree, please email Associate Director Andrea J. Johnson, <>

About our guest blog writer - 

Renée Cheng, FAIA

Professor, Associate Dean for Research and Engagement, University of Minnesota.  

Renée Cheng is a nationally renowned Professor and Associate Dean at the University of Minnesota.  Educated at Harvard College and Harvard Graduate School of Design, Cheng has been recognized for education excellence with numerous teaching awards at the school, state and national level. Most recently, Cheng was twice honored as one of the top 25 most admired design educators in the United States by Design Intelligence.  She led a team of faculty from the University of Minnesota who won the American Institute of Architects (AIA) Education Honor Award for a transformative professional curriculum and developed a professional practice course, Building Stories, that won the first Practice Leadership Award from AIA and ACSA. Cheng served as 2009 President of AIA Minnesota and is a former member of AIA National Board advisory group on Integrated Practice (IPDiG) and the AIA National Board Knowledge Committee, AIA Center for Integrated Practice and currently AIA Culture Collective leading a group on Firm Culture.

When Working Hard Hardly Works

by Morgan Maiolie

I killed it in college. I worked hard and late and I loved every moment of my six-year master’s program. When I walked through the door to my first job I was energized. I thought I’d excel.

I was wrong.

It took time to see it, in part because I’d been warned about the life of an intern. I was ready to work humbly over many years to prove myself and transition without complaint from engaging academic work with a flexible schedule to less creative work that demanded inhabitation of a single chair for 8 contiguous hours, often many more. I willingly sacrificed personal goals and health for my job. During these first years, I didn’t let many things divide my focus, least among them a discussion of women in architecture. I was confident in my ability to overcome any lingering sexist barriers simply by being good at my job and working well with my peers. I would be awesome. People would like me.

 /* Style Definitions */
	{mso-style-name:"Table Normal";
	mso-padding-alt:0in 5.4pt 0in 5.4pt;
     Morgan studying daylight design in college, analyzing famous buildings, learning construction skills, and working late into the night.

Morgan studying daylight design in college, analyzing famous buildings, learning construction skills, and working late into the night.

The author studying daylight design in college, analyzing famous buildings, learning construction skills, and working late into the night.

I began to reassess my worldview when I noticed the few older women around me occasionally excluded and too often the victims of veiled disrespect. Closer in career development to me, I saw young mothers ceding their part-time schedules, fired, or exhausted by overwork. I began to realize that, to keep my career on track while raising a family, I would need exactly what these women were denied.

It looked like every office operated this way, so I started to float a few questions, “are there other firms with more flexible schedules? more female leadership? less overtime?”

Resoundingly, the answer was No.

There was a bit of shame in my asking as well; why would I think of my needs when I should focus on the design of sustainable, resilient buildings that improve my community? My answer is that, as I write this, young women like me are training very hard to become architects. We deserve a work culture that supports us in achieving our sustainable, resilient, community-minded goals, not the culture of today where only 17% of our female peers hold an architecture license. I don’t believe our profession can afford to lose us.

I was interested in the Equity by Design mission enough that I wrote a scholarship essay and spent another 8 contiguous hours in a single seat (this one in my car) to travel to Atlanta. There, I found what I was looking for. Gathered in conference room B304 were a group of men and women committed to a new model of work, supportive of female architects and unafraid to speak frankly about the specific issues they face. Our organizers employed a hackathon structure where participants created solutions in a fast-moving, stream-of-thought design process; an activity for which we were well-trained and enthusiastic. Our work product showed the structure’s success; each team’s hack added more to the understanding and rehabilitation of architectural culture than many years of single conversations in quiet offices could have.

Breaking the 9am-5pm cycle.

Our team, Phil Bernstein, Melissa Daniel, Ashley L. Dunn, Shawna Hammon and I, addressed the flexible work week. Our goal was to make it possible for any architect to work non-contiguous hours or part-time while remaining a valuable part of their team. We identified barriers and designed “hacks” that we organized into the pillars Culture, Infrastructure, and Process. We crafted our design pitch as a kit of parts. Our intent was that an architecture firm would combine specific hacks from our kit to customize a plan for their unique work style. The Kit of Parts is divided into three categories, each with specific hacks.

Phil Bernstein, Melissa Daniel, Ashley L. Dunn, Morgan Maiolie and&nbsp;Shawna Hammon present to the EQxD &nbsp;Hackathon judges

Phil Bernstein, Melissa Daniel, Ashley L. Dunn, Morgan Maiolie and Shawna Hammon present to the EQxD  Hackathon judges

Our team defined the current architecture system as one that prioritizes long days and the ability to work fluidly, communicating with team members the moment a need arises. To change it, we introduced hacks like core meeting hours, hourly pay to incentivize strategic project planning, and the use of technology to ensure that communication remains fluid when a team member is not physically in the office. We repurposed a technique prevalent in the technology design industry called Agile Development, which allows for independent work followed by quick, strategic critique sessions. Finally, we identified systems for employees to share project responsibilities; increasing communication, flexibility, and trust amongst project teams.

We did it from 1-5pm.

A key strength of the Equity by Design Hackathon was that we focused on these issues with people of equal passion -  our tribe. Working with the Equity by Design group for one day gave me the tools to talk about equity for a year. I don’t float questions anymore. I make statements. I hack.

Read more of Morgan's captivating experiences  from excerpts of her EQxD Hackathon scholarship essay below. Her strong and articulate words encompass frustrations and ambitions many feel about the inequity in the architecture field today.  

In both of my first design positions I experienced institutional practices that negatively and and disproportionally affected women. It was a hard thing for me to talk about in each case because I was just learning the ropes of each job, because I had a lot of respect for my superiors who seemed oblivious to or unconcerned with the negative impact of these practices, and, finally, because architects, myself included, hold a worldview that puts helping our communities above all else. It seemed selfish to talk about my own needs when everyone around me was working so hard for so important a goal.
— Morgan Maiolie
It’s hard for me to believe I could train so hard and end up in and antiquated system that’s as ready to push me out as it is to demand my health and future family in exchange for the ability to improve my community. The way we structure work hasn’t changed since men worked and women stayed home, but it should.
— Morgan Maiolie

What's next for EQxD?

Join us in San Francisco at AIASF on June 11th for our next EQxD "U" Workshop "What's Flex got to do with Success?" (Win Win Strategies for Work/Life Flexibility) Meet the panelists, and participate in small group break-outs to "hack" what works for flexibility in the modern workplace. This event is relevant to all AEC professionals! 6pm-8:30pm.