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Where did all the women go?

New organization hopes to stop the exodus of women from design fields


Ann Sobiech Munson is an architect who wants to design a better future for women in the profession.

Sobiech Munson was teaching young architects and designers at Iowa State University until June, when she left the university and took a position with Substance LLC, an architectural and design practice in Des Moines.

“I realized about a year ago that I wanted to be a stronger advocate for women in architecture – the discipline, the profession,” she said. “It’s difficult to advocate for change in academia. I needed to do something more to make young women see that you can have a life in architecture.”

That interest dovetailed with efforts by three other women to address issues facing women in the profession.

In August, she joined with Erin Olson-Douglas, an urban designer with the city of Des Moines, Danielle Hermann, an architect with OPN Architects Inc., and LaDan Omidvar, a full-time lecturer in Iowa State’s architecture department, to form Iowa Women in Architecture.

All four women are or have been lecturers at Iowa State. Hermann, Olson-Douglas and Sobiech Munson all worked together at Herbert Lewis Kruse Blunck (HLKB) Architecture Ltd.

Olson-Douglas and Sobiech Munson had worked on a task force created in 2006 by the Iowa chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) that recommended changes that could benefit women in the profession.

“That didn’t go very far,” Hermann said, though it did lead to the creation in 2009 of a diversity committee that she heads.

Among the issues facing women in architecture is that few make it to leadership and ownership positions. The chief obstacle is that the studio culture centers on long hours and tends to reward the rainmakers who bring the most business.

Traditionally, the title has fallen to men who trade a family life for a professional life.

To the women of Iowa Women in Architecture, that isn’t a reasonable trade-off.

Women tend to fall out of the profession after leaving college. In 1997, women made up 31 percent of students enrolled in architectural programs in the United States. That same year, 9.6 percent of licensed architects were women. In 1975, 1 percent of licensed architects were women.

“It seems to be kind of a stagnant challenge to raise the percentage of the involvement of women in our profession,” Olson-Douglas said. “What has always been interesting to me, and the surprise that sparks my interest in the issue, is the disparity between the number of women in school and the number of women in the profession.

“My experience in school was that it was relatively balanced. I knew it was more male-oriented, but it didn’t seem to be an overwhelming disparity. But once entering the profession, that was a completely different story. It was not an overtly negative experience; it was more of a curiosity of where did all of these women go.”

In Iowa, the number of women in architectural schools has increased.

“But they hit the work force and then leave it,” Hermann said. “We’ve kind of hit the critical mass point.”

Marriage and motherhood are among the factors driving women out of the profession, Hermann said.

Women leave college and believe that benefits for maternity leave at architectural firms might mirror those offered by large corporations. In most situations, they do not.

“They come out of college and get frustrated, especially when they get married and have children,” Hermann said.

On Sept. 30, Iowa Women In Architecture held an informational meeting at the annual fall convention of the Iowa chapter of the AIA.

Sobiech Munson said about 26 people attended, a number that encouraged the founders of the women’s organization, and represented a range of ages and interests.

“The interesting thing to me was that it was at all experience levels,” Olson-Douglas said.

Iowa Women in Architecture and the larger, statewide organization are separate entities.

One reason is that not all firms belong to the statewide group and younger members might not be able to afford its dues structure. Hermann said the women’s organization plans to keep dues affordable.

“Younger architects might not see the value of belonging to a large organization, such as the AIA, but a smaller organization, where they get to know people from other firms, might have some appeal,” she said.

In addition, Iowa Women in Architecture can invite speakers and discuss topics that specifically address concerns of women in the profession, Hermann said. The organization has included a spot on its board for the Iowa AIA chapter.

The Iowa group is one of few in the country, although the American Institute of Architects and its Iowa chapter have recognized the need to focus on diversity issues.

“Individual firms have made great strides, but overall, the profession has been very slow to change,” Hermann said.

The women said the nearly all-male face of architecture has little to do with discrimination, although a handful of women who attended the information session at the state convention and filled out survey cards did claim they have been discriminated against.

“Most firms recognize that there are a lot of talented women in the profession,” Hermann said. “We just have to figure out a way to keep them.”

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