Architecture in Arkansas lacks diversity, but efforts to make the field more inclusive, mostly of women, are underway.
The Arkansas chapter of the American Institute of Architects and the Fay Jones School of Architecture & Design are working to expose more young people to the profession and to expose more young people to successful professionals who look like them and who come from similar backgrounds.
Both efforts address barriers for women and people of color cited by Arkansas professionals.
Ngozi Brown is one of the professionals who spoke to a reporter recently. Just three years ago, she became only the second black woman to be licensed as an architect in Arkansas.
The first was one of her mentors, Brinda Jackson, who was licensed in 1991 and has been inducted into the Arkansas Women’s Hall of Fame. She declined to be interviewed for this article.
Brown is a design principal at Woods Group Architects in Little Rock and owns her own firm, NOB Architecture & Design. She also serves on AIA Arkansas’ diversity committee, which was formed as part of the organization’s strategic plan for 2016-2018.
Brown said the committee has focused on women and is making headway in that regard.
AIA Arkansas President Lori Yazwinski Santa-Rita agreed. “We’ve been focusing, really, on women in architecture,” she said. “We realize that each demographic has its own challenges and that we need to form a strategy for each.” Santa-Rita is a partner in Jennings + Santa-Rita PLLC of Fayetteville.
The strategic plan is due to be revamped this year, and encouraging diversity in the field will remain a priority for AIA Arkansas, she said.
The Fay Jones School at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville has re-energized existing inclusion initiatives as well, according to Associate Dean Ethel Goodstein-Murphree. It’s been working on this issue for at least a decade.
“I can pull up off of my desktop [computer] school and department diversity plans dating back to about 2009, and they are not dead pieces of paper. We have been mindful,” she said.
Goodstein-Murphree said the school has done a good job of:
- Promoting professions like architecture as being for a variety of “thinkers, doers and makers,” no matter their race or gender;
- Explaining the many different paths there are for those with a degree in architecture;
- Reaching young people in underserved areas with its summer design camps (see Fay Jones School Adding Design Camps This Summer); and
- Bringing in lecturers who are women and of different races as well as speakers who are doing different things in the industry.
The school also has a new National Organization of Minority Architects student chapter, and it is working to develop a student ambassador program to help expose underrepresented populations to architecture as a career.
Meanwhile, AIA Arkansas provides its committee with about $4,000 per year to fund programs like Women in Architecture, Santa-Rita said. That program brings in women architects from all over the country to have “casual” and “intimate” conversations with AIA Arkansas members and to speak at the Fay Jones School and at Architectural Design Network events in Little Rock.
In addition, there are networking events for women, women and people of color are being actively recruited to join the chapter, speakers with different backgrounds are being invited to the organization’s annual convention, and events are being held that recognize successful Arkansas women and people of color who are working in architecture.
“You know, you see people who look like you, who have similar backgrounds, and that attracts and encourages people to be involved,” Santa-Rita said of the efforts to put women and people of color front and center.
Goodstein-Murphree agrees. “It is critically important for young people, regardless of what career they are contemplating, to see people who look like them on the other side of the desk,” she said.
In addition, AIA Arkansas has added women to its board. In fact, Santa-Rita is one of only two women in the chapter’s history to have led its board.
The organization is beginning to track its membership demographics as well.
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According to a 2018 report, AIA Arkansas had 109 women as members compared with 544 men. In addition, 14 percent of its members who were licensed as architects were women. And 31 percent of the organization’s associate members, members who don’t hold licenses yet but work in architecture, were women.
As for people of color, of the 466 licensed architects who are AIA members, 85 percent identified themselves as white, as did 76 percent of associate members.
‘Inclusion’ vs. ‘Diversity’
Goodstein-Murphree believes there should be less focus on numbers like this and more focus on the success of individuals. She emphasized that there are many women in Arkansas and elsewhere who are in leadership roles at architecture firms.
“I prefer the term ‘inclusion’ to ‘diversity.’ Diversity, I think, has led to an enormous amount of bean-counting,” Goodstein-Murphree said. “Diversity certainly has [generated] awareness in terms of numbers, but unless there is consideration of qualitative change and critical assessment in qualitative terms, as a culture, as a society, as a profession, we get nowhere.”
She argued that diversity is ultimately a cultural problem. When girls can have an erector set or microscope and boys can have dolls and when people don’t have a preconceived notion of who has to be the breadwinner in families, that’s when things will change, Goodstein-Murphree said.
Still, the numbers show that the Fay Jones School is doing well. According to the 11th-day enrollment report for spring 2019, 50.8 percent of architecture students were male and 49.2 percent were female.
That female population has grown over the last 10 years, the associate dean said, and 14 percent of the entire school’s student body is black, Asian, Hispanic or Native American. International students account for 20 percent of the student body. So the school is more diverse than it’s ever been, Goodstein-Murphree said.
Many students leave the state when they graduate, she added, so that may account for its numbers not aligning with AIA Arkansas’ numbers.
Also, some graduates are working in the field but don’t join the AIA chapter. The chapter had 466 licensed members last year. As of last week, there were 643 licensed architects in Arkansas.
Santa-Rita acknowledged that there is more work to be done and said diversity is a challenge for the industry nationally, though the state chapter’s figures fell slightly short of the national trend.
“I’m not naive enough to know that we even really understand some of the challenges that other folks face, that minorities might face, so we’re in the process of learning and gathering more information at this point,” she said.
Anecdotal information abounds though.
Brown, the second black woman licensed as an architect in the state, said barriers to the profession for black people include:
- Not being served well enough by the public school system;
- The exams for licensure being expensive and designed to have a high rate of failure;
- Disproportionate recognition by peers;
- Lack of access to architects early on in life because most clients are older, affluent white men; and
- A shortage of black professionals who serve as mentors to others.
James Sullivan, an African-American working for AMR Architects in Little Rock and in the process of obtaining his license, agreed that access and education are important components in confronting the issue of diversity. He also said architecture is a difficult field and is designed to have a low retention rate.
Brown said her white male counterparts play golf with the bosses and are taken to more events, but she likes to look on the bright side. Brown said she stands out more because she is black.
Most firms interview for projects with all-white, all-male teams, and she has had the opportunity to interview more often because she adds diversity to her firm’s team.
“You can look at it as a curse or you could look at it as a blessing,” Brown said. “When I walk into a room, in an architectural setting, I am the only black person in the room. Now, I don’t like that. I would love to see more black people in my profession, but I will say, ‘Might as well work with it.’”
Do Good Work
Two other women in the profession, Laura Ramirez and Suzana Annable, were surprised to discover that it is male-dominated in the United States. They both work for Modus Studio in Fayetteville and hail from the Dominican Republic and Brazil, respectively. In their home countries, men are pushed to pursue engineering while architecture is more women-dominated.
“Coming to America was definitely a huge shock,” said Annable, a licensed architect. “The first day of architecture school, a lot of people are questioning, ‘You’re going to be an architect? Are you sure?’ … For me, there was never, before I came to America, a question that ‘Oh my gosh, you want to be an architect, are you sure?’”
Both women cited cultural norms as being challenges.
Annable has two children, a 3-year-old and a 7-month-old. She’s also married to an architect. She feels that she’s fallen behind due to taking maternity leave and that her husband sometimes receives more recognition for his work. She also said most of her friends are stay-at-home moms.
But there is a group of women at her office who discuss these issues, so Modus Studio has been supportive, Annable noted.
In Arkansas in particular, she added, that usually positive “Southern gentlemen” mentality can be a negative attitude in a professional setting.
“Listen, I can hold my own. Stop trying to take care of me. You take my voice away when you try to take care of me or protect me. I can take care of myself. I can speak to contractors,” she explained.
Both Annable and Ramirez, who is not licensed yet, said encouraging diversity and inclusiveness has to start in school with a diverse faculty and diverse professionals critiquing students’ work. At the Fay Jones School, according to its website, six out of 15 architecture professors are women.
Ramirez added that it can be difficult for women to stick with the profession because the years someone spends becoming an architect are the same years during which a lot of people start their families. In addition, child care is prohibitively expensive, she noted.
But how do individuals overcome the challenges they face, either as women, as people of color or both, and succeed as professionals? Brown said they need to focus on doing good work.
“I went to school to be an architect and that’s what I’m going to do. I’m not going to become a civil rights activist,” she said. “I think I’m an activist by walking into a room, demanding that you talk to me the same way that you talk to the white men, demanding that all the contractors do what I put in the drawings, [and by] whenever a contractor tries to talk over me and talk to someone else about my project, interjecting myself and being very assertive. Not to be mean, and not to prove a point, but I can’t let you hinder me from doing my job.”