• Credit: James Steinberg

Susan Maxman, FAIA, started her architectural practice in 1980—an era she calls the Dark Ages for women. On one project for a Dayton, Ohio, couple, the husband refused to believe she was an architect until he saw the registration credentials in her office. Jobsite dynamics were tricky too. “Contractors used to call me a ‘lady architect'; these guys couldn't get over it,” recalls Maxman, 68, founder and president of Philadelphia-based Susan Maxman & Partners. “They used to sweet-talk me, thinking they could get away with murder. Then I'd see something that I made them change, and they'd get huffy. I'm sure I reminded them of their mothers.”

Nearly every female architect has a story about making it in a male-dominated profession. We've come a long way since the mid-1970s, but in this postfeminist era, it's clear that social change doesn't happen overnight. Accomplished architects such as Maxman—the first female president of The American Institute of Architects—and Zaha Hadid, Hon. AIA—the only woman to win a Pritzker Architecture Prize in the program's 28-year history—have helped pave the way. But when you ask women in the trenches if they still face gender-related obstacles, the debate becomes complex. Although women rarely encounter blatant sexism, many agree there's a lingering lack of parity, ranging from cheap shots on construction sites to discrimination in the boardrooms of old-boy institutions. The lack of role models is a gaping disparity too. Whereas men can look to a linear history of work for inspiration, there's a shortage of precedents for women. And, more profoundly, the way women prioritize their lives to raise families often keeps them from competing equally with men.

“You're multitasking every second if you're a woman,” says Laurinda Spear, FAIA, a mother of eight and a founding partner of Arquitectonica in Miami. “Somebody didn't write a permission slip; somebody was late getting into the car because they couldn't get their hair done. If I were a man I'd have had a whole different career. But I don't resent it.” Despite the uneven playing field, women architects appear to be optimistic about their careers. Most, it seems, are finding ways to work around the inevitable barriers and play to their strengths.

in the trenches

Trailblazing veteran architects have the best vantage point from which to view the status of women in the profession. Denise Scott Brown, Int FRIBA, a principal of Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates, Philadelphia, says that ambitious women often hit the glass ceiling on multimillion-dollar projects because the traditional client group is white men who don't believe women can be trusted with a lot of money. However, she sees the situation improving as women infiltrate other professions. “Clients hire architects very much like themselves; they even look like them,” Scott Brown says. When client groups are a mixture of races, genders, and ages, women-owned firms have a better chance to be hired. Her advice? Seek out people who you think are more sophisticated and get a feel for which client groups will regard you favorably.

Maxman agrees that because women are popping up in more capacities now, it's easier to get work from a variety of sources. “I compete against really tough firms all the time, and what I find now is that most of my clients are women,” she says. While generally positive about her track record landing plum projects, she notes that one large, well-known university has short-listed her firm many times. “All the professionals who work for the university like us,” she says. “But we don't get the jobs because it's the three board-of-trustees members who make the decisions. They're all establishment-type men and are not knowledgeable about architecture.” Although commercial projects remain elusive, that's fine with Maxman. She prefers to work for institutions and nonprofits, partly because they typically share her interest in sustainability.

Maxman started practicing in 1980 at age 40, having gone back to school at the University of Pennsylvania when the youngest of her six children entered first grade. “I had a lot of energy and still do,” she says, “but it was pretty stressful. I felt like I was running every minute.” In 1993, she ran for AIA president “because women were very depressed about their lot in architecture. I wanted to show them they could do anything if they put their minds to it.” As president, she pursued her interest in sustainability, overseeing the AIA's first green-themed annual convention. “The AIA thought I was nuts, but to this day, people come up to me and talk about it,” she says. “I went to a girls' school and an all-girls college; I think that gave me a lot of guts. That's not to belittle the fact that it's still somewhat tough for me. But if you complain about it, you'll never get anywhere.”

By contrast, the career experiences of some long-time women architects have been nothing but empowering, thanks in part to the attitudes of the men around them. “I think it's a complex question to ask why certain architects get certain kinds of work,” says Merrill Elam, AIA, a principal of Mack Scogin Merrill Elam Architects, an Atlanta firm whose projects run the gamut from residential to institutional and public. Elam and her husband, Mack Scogin, AIA, founded the firm in 1984, after they served as division heads at what is now Heery International in Atlanta. The only woman in her class at Georgia Tech in the 1970s, Elam says professors and fellow students were completely supportive. “If the men had decided they didn't want a woman, I would never have made it,” she says. “They were so supportive that it never occurred to me to seek a partner on gender-specific terms, and I have never felt like I was in Mack's shadow.”