Alex Williamson

Melissa Daniel, Assoc. AIA, got jazzed about the architecture profession during a summer high school enrichment program. But once she started studying architecture in college, she felt disconnected from what she was learning and how it was taught. “I struggled with being culturally different,” Daniel wrote in a blog for the National Organization of Minority Architects. “I was confronted with unforeseen obstacles, such as stereotypic attitudes and stigmas, unfamiliar values in the studio culture, and ineffective teaching methods, especially during crits.”

In the end, Daniel transferred schools and earned her architecture degree at a historically black university. Daniel now serves on an AIA committee on promoting diversity in the architecture profession. Despite widespread intellectual support for the idea of diversity, studies show that minority groups—based on gender, race, physical ability, or sexual orientation—are still grossly underrepresented in the field. Only about 3 percent of executives in major American corporations—including architecture firms—are women (according to McKinsey & Co.), and only about 2 percent of registered architects are black (according to the Directory of African American Architects).

This represents a vacuum of talent and perspective that could benefit the profession, diversity advocates say. The AIA is devoting several sessions to diversity at the upcoming National Convention (May 17–19 in Washington, D.C.). These sessions are designed to showcase successful local and corporate programs, and also demonstrate the business benefits of embracing diversity practices.

“I like to put a business spin on the programming,” says AIA Diversity Director Sherry Snipes, “so there’s relevancy beyond hiring practices. These sessions are for business owners.”

One session,“Leveraging Diversity to Build Connections,” will focus on creating inclusive opportunities for employees, associates, suppliers, or subcontractors. Speakers include Phil Giorgianni, manager for supplier diversity and outreach for the National Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce (NGLCC); Sam McClure, director of affiliate and external relations for NGLCC; and Ernesto Santalla, a Cuban-born architect now based in Washington, D.C.

Another session, “Connecting Diversity and Design: Award-Winning Diversity Strategies and How You Can Implement Them,” will feature Mortimer Marshall Jr., FAIA, recipient of the 2012 AIA Whitney M. Young Jr. Award, which honors an architect who demonstrates a commitment to social issues; and the AIA Diversity Recognition Program, which acknowledges those engaging underrepresented groups. A one-day “Shadow an Architect” workshop at the convention will allow area youths, including some from inner-city schools, to spend a day with architects and learn about the field.

The absence of women architects in executive positions is the focus of another session, “Labyrinth to the Top: Women in Design Firm Leadership.” Session organizer Rena Klein, FAIA, executive editor of the AIA Architect’s Handbook of Professional Practice, 15th edition, says that studies have shown that fully half of women in science and technology fields leave their profession between the ages of 35 and 40, a statistic that anecdotal evidence suggests is comparable in architecture.

“There’s a real brain drain going on,” Klein says, whose workshop will focus on techniques that firms can use to retain women who demonstrate leadership potential. “We all have the same goal of trying to improve our practices.”