William Wong

The last three decades have seen increasingly more women in the profession of architecture, but the number of women entering the field of design technology remains disproportionately small. Statistics released by the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture show that women make up slightly more than 40 percent of architectural graduates in 2013 (up from 25 percent in 1985); 25 percent of designers in the profession; and 18 percent of major design awardees in the 2010s (up from 3 percent in the 1980s). Yet women account for only 5 percent of technology directors at American architecture firms, according to ZweigWhite’s 2013 information technology survey.

However, the more significant change—by far—to practice in this time period is not the number of women in the industry but rather the number of computers in it. In 30 years, computers have gone from unaffordable to integral. They have infiltrated almost every aspect of practice, usurping centuries of tradition, and transforming everything from the way architects draw to the way they win work. And this transformation has been led almost exclusively by men.

Historically, the design technologist has been an auxiliary position, held by the person in the backroom administering computers while the architects did the real work of designing buildings. But as the computer has come to define contemporary practice, so too has the design technologist. Most technology directors report directly to the CEO or managing partner, according to ZweigWhite. Technologists are no longer support staff working for architects: They are often the executives leading them.

“Computer-aided design is about creativity, but also about jurisdiction, about who controls the design process," says Yanni Loukissas, a lecturer at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design who has studied the adoption of technology by architecture firms. The most adept users of technology, he says, tend to become the “keepers of the geometry”: They oversee building modeling and, through this control of the design medium, often come to govern the design. But like any mechanism that gives one group power over another, technology also excludes. The technologist ends up defining how architects work and, subsequently, who will do that work.

The number of female professionals in IT is small (a statistic that is not exclusive to the building industry). A survey of 87 American architecture firms by ZweigWhite found that only 5 percent had a female IT director. This gender imbalance becomes clear when one looks at the makeup of a typical tech conference. For example, at this year’s Autodesk University (AU) conference—an event that attracts thousands of technology directors, BIM managers, and technology specialists—75 of the 82 speakers in the architectural-presentation lineup are male.

About 9,400 designers, engineers, programmers, and artists attended Autodesk University 2013 in Las Vegas. A majority of attendees are men.
Wanda Lau About 9,400 designers, engineers, programmers, and artists attended Autodesk University 2013 in Las Vegas. A majority of attendees are men.

Autodesk doesn’t gather statistics on the gender of AU’s users or attendees, according to the company’s public relations representative (which corroborates with the absence of a gender field in AU’s online registration process). But from our analysis of the guest lists for events that we at Case, Inc., held at last year’s AU, the ratio of male to female presenters is roughly representative of the overall attendees, or about eight to nine men for every woman.

But even though most specialists in architectural technology are men, men and women are equally embedded in technology. Of the 313 design professionals in our software courses this year, roughly 35 percent were women. (Firms are training their entire staff in technology, so this proportion is reflective of the makeup of the architectural offices.)

Although technology is a part of everyone’s job, very few people make it their primary job. In some respects, the lack of women specializing in design technology is unsurprising given that the field combines three jobs that have historically been lacking in diversity: management, information technology, and architecture.

In other respects, the lack of female design technologists goes against the prevailing market forces. Technologists are in short supply. As a result, architecture firms have been ratcheting salaries in an attempt to poach and retain these in-demand employees. The average salary for a technology director has increased by 42 percent in the past decade, while that for an architect has increased by 22 percent, on pace with inflation. As the talent shortage persists, firms are promoting technology specialists quickly; the vast majority of technology directors are in their 40s. Despite this demand, women are not jumping into design technology, which essentially halves the potential workforce.

Sources: ZweigWhite Information Technology Survey 2013; U.S. Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics
Case, Inc. Sources: ZweigWhite Information Technology Survey 2013; U.S. Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics

It would be premature to speculate why. Until now, technology has been categorically overlooked in studies on gender diversity in architecture. While the research often champions progressive ideas of who can be an architect, they tend to harbor conservative conceptions of what being an architect entails. Technology is still typically dismissed as infrastructure, which means that organizations such as The Missing 32% Project, Parlour, and Architexx tend to discount its influence in favor of more conventional metrics: licensure, salaries, and awards.

On the other side, technologists rarely express any interest in diversity. When ZweigWhite surveyed 87 of them about their biggest challenges, they listed file management, training, and telecommuting. Considering that technologists are employed to solve problems related to tech, we shouldn’t be surprised that cultural issues often fall outside their purview. But given how deeply technology affects office culture, this seems like a misalignment of influence and responsibility.

The common failure is that we still tend to see technology as circuits and software, and auxiliary to architecture. The fast pace of technological development sharply contrasts that of the slow progression towards gender equity. As a result, we often discuss diversity in architecture by looking backwards at accomplishments and accolades when we should be looking ahead at the future leaders and disruptors in the industry. For now, many of architecture’s most significant changes are coming from the male-dominated world of architectural technology. At a time when many people are championing equality, nearly all have failed to see that significant changes have been anything but equitable.

Daniel Davis is a senior building information specialist at Case, Inc. His technology column will appear on this website each month. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine or of the AIA.