Op-ed: Women in architecture are taking small steps toward big changes

Stepping Forward

Op-ed: Women in architecture are taking small steps toward big changes

Artwork by AWAF fellow Ashley Margo (Ashley Margo)

I’ve never considered myself an activist, but serving in leadership roles for the Association for Women in Architecture + Design (AWA+D) and most recently as the vice president of the AWA Foundation (AWAF) has taught me that activism doesn’t necessarily mean shouting from the rooftops. Sometimes, it is steady, incremental, and determined steps that bring about permanent and meaningful change.

AWA’s story began in 1918 when four women attending Washington University in St. Louis were denied entry into the architectural fraternity. Their reaction was to begin their own society. As interest from other campuses grew, these trailblazers established a national student association in 1922. This was a time when women could not have their own name on a passport (they were issued jointly with their husband’s name), hold jobs like working the night shift or being a taxi driver, serve on a jury, or legally hold a job while pregnant—let alone contribute freely or with appropriate attribution to the built environment.

Serving as an organization promoting the skills of women has been the driving mission of the AWA. Our organizations serve a unique purpose to support and promote women in design fields. In the ’20s, it was a means to push back against the restrictive societal norms and labor laws that continued after the 19th Amendment was passed; in the ’50s and ’60s, it was ensuring a transition into a profession where only two women typically graduated from an architectural class. Today it is exciting that more than half of graduating design classes are women, but we still have unique challenges and major strides towards equity, diversity, recognition, and parity. For young women, they found and stayed involved with AWA because it provided shelter and support within the “hey doll, can you go make coffee” professional environments of the day. AWA was bold for its time and continues to advocate for women in design industries.

Equally important to the longevity of AWA has been our ongoing advocacy for the diversity of design. Yes, AWA was founded by women in architecture, but even at that time it was apparent that women in similar fields were experiencing the same professional challenges. A name change in 1948 at the National Conference in San Francisco to “The Association of Women in Architecture and Allied Arts (AWA)” formally acknowledged a membership made up of traditional and non-traditional design professionals—architects, landscape architects, urban planners, interior designers, as well as artists, administrators, managers, and craftswomen. The 1950’s also saw the organization formally establish a scholarship program to embrace and nurture younger generations as the motivators of change.

Through reorganizations, name changes, and eventual dissolution of the national status of AWA, the AWA+D (the professional networking group) and AWAF (entity tasked with fundraising and awarding scholarships and the mid-career fellowship), are both now based in Los Angeles and continue now as ever to be places of safety, empowerment and growth. Our longevity—and creating a place where some members often say it’s “safe to be nervous while you’re gaining confidence”—has meant that young leaders are given ample opportunities to shine, that intergenerational support abounds, and events can often feel more personal than formal. These attributes have served as an attractive differentiator of the organization.

AWAF’s mission is to support women in architecture and the allied design fields through the annual award of scholarships. Within the last decade that support has grown to include a mid-career fellowship for more seasoned professionals with ten or more years of experience. The organization recently received a transformative bequest from longtime member and architect Sarah Hays, who had a strong belief in the importance of women in design. Given that AWA is celebrating 100 years of service and AWAF is celebrating 25 years in 2022, it is auspicious that we mark this year’s Women’s History month on the verge of awarding the largest quantity and value of scholarships and fellowships in its history, made possible by that bequest and the generosity of individuals and firms across the design spectrum. This year’s milestone is also an important moment of reflection and acknowledgment of the underlying framework that has fostered our longevity.

The continued support of the next generation is the key to gaining parity not just for women, but for all underrepresented individuals in our profession. AWAF has a critical role to play in supporting and propelling emerging talent with the expectation that they can incrementally overcome the challenges our profession still faces. Cultivating this support has been an underlying characteristic of the keys to our longevity, and a consistent and deliberate, albeit quiet, way to advance an underrepresented cohort to move beyond existing inequities.

Applications for scholarships and the mid-career fellowship are open through April 15, with awards announced during a June 11 symposium in Los Angeles. Join us in this important work and follow our steadfast efforts at Contributions from firms and individuals are essential to our ongoing work.

Christina Monti, owner of CDM Consulting, started her career in landscape architecture after graduating from Texas A&M University. A self-proclaimed non-designer, Christina became an expert in marketing and business development. She has served on the board as Communications Director and then president for the Association for Women in Architecture + Design (AWA+D), and currently serves as vice president on the board of the Association for Women in Architecture Foundation (AWAF), AWA+D’s sister organization that provides scholarships and fellowships to female students and practitioners.