Esther Liu: Photographed by Shannon Korta

Architects Offer Solutions to Gender Bias in the Industry

2019-06-28 | 5 min. read

Uncertainty about what to be when she grew up wasn’t something that ever plagued Esther Cho Liu. As a child, Liu spent her time studying buildings and falling in love with their details. “By fourth grade, I had a strong conviction to be an architect,” she said. “I always knew what I wanted to be because I loved [buildings] from the get-go.”

It is a weekday in late autumn, and we are sitting in a small conference room at LSW Architects, a firm in Vancouver, Wash, where Liu serves as a principal architect. Through the window, the leaves have turned to colors of saffron and sangria. It’s beautiful, and it’s also busy. Liu has recently been named principal, the first woman to earn this position at the firm, and her roster of responsibilities (which were many even before she was named principal) are increasing. 

Esther Liu: Photographed by Shannon Korta

We are meeting to talk about the current state of women in architecture. The 2018 Equity in Architecture Survey has just been released by AIA San Francisco’s Equity by Design Committee. The survey shows that on average, white men earn more than white women and that pay gap only increases between white men and people of color. Women become disproportionately sidetracked or even eliminated from the industry altogether due to factors such as childrearing and student debt.

Liu understands those factors all too well. Her own path to principal architect was littered with hurdles that were only overcome with sacrifice and innumerable hours of hard work. Liu studied architecture at Andrews University, a rural college in Michigan. She describes the architecture program as grueling. “We started [the program] with 100 people and ended with less than 10.” She told me of semesters spent pouring everything she had into her coursework, only for it to be torn apart by the visiting architects from Chicago who were brought in to review and assign credit. “Students would be bawling their eyes out over the level of criticism and they wouldn’t come back.” But Liu took the criticism on board. “It made me tougher and my skin so thick...so that I could take being challenged in a room full of people,” she said. 

After graduation, Liu worked at several firms in Michigan and Portland, Ore. where she was normally one of the only female architects. 

“You could count the female architects on one hand and then once they had kids, one by one they would leave...because it wasn’t practical for them to stay.” 

According to the results of the 2016 Women in Architecture survey conducted by The Architects' Journal and The Architectural Review, out of the 1,152 female architects surveyed worldwide, 82 percent said that having children put women at a disadvantage in the industry. The long and often unsocial working hours accounts for 56 percent of women citing a lack of work and home life balance. 

Lori Brown is a professor at the Syracuse University School of Architecture and co-founder of ArchiteXX, a group focused on raising awareness of the issues that women in architecture face. Brown makes the case that while motherhood certainly compounds the career problems of women, there is an unequal playing field from the start. During our interview, Brown recounted how a group of her former female students came back to her and said, “why didn’t you tell us what we were going to experience [upon graduation]?” What they had experienced, according to Brown, was pay inequality right from the onset of their career. The women told Brown that they weren’t given the same amount of responsibility as their male counterparts, nor were they promoted at the same rate. 

“It is a structure of inequality that is the norm [in the architecture industry today]” Brown declared. “Succeeding [for women] is a challenge.” 

As a single parent, just starting her career in architecture, Liu faced that challenge too. In order to spend time with her two young daughters, she worked “flex hours”, a system that meant working a full workweek of 50 to 80 hours in just four days. To make this possible, she arrived in the office early in the morning and stayed late into the evening (and past her children's bedtime). 

“It was the only way I felt I could be on par the with men. It was a competition that drove me to feel like I had to do more because I wasn’t about to be mediocre and so I put everything I had into [my career]. I did it to survive,” Liu explains.

On Fridays Liu would use her day off to spend time with her children and volunteer in their classrooms. She felt like she was balancing her work and family life. But in reality, she didn’t see her children as much as she or they wanted. “I wasn’t a present mother,” she said with tears pooling in her eyes. 

It was when her children came to her and said, “We never see you. Are you [our] mother?” that Liu knew she had to take drastic action. She went into work the next day and broke down. “I knew I was going to lose my children and so I told my boss that in order to save my children I had to take time off.”

Her two-year sabbatical converged with 2007 recession. When she went back to work her once-large firm of 350 people had dwindled to 69. The fact that she was asked to return after so many had been laid off was a testament to the quality of her work and as Liu said, the fact that her bosses knew she “worked hard.” 

Liu eventually left her Portland-based firm to join LSW Architects, which offered the lifestyle balance she was seeking. “I was coming to [LSW Architects] saying I am only going to work 4 days and I want to work 32 hours. I can’t say that I actually only work 32 hours but even if I only work 45 hours or 50 that is good for me and is a big improvement from where I was.”

Brown believes that the “me too” movement against sexual harassment in the workplace, which came in 2017, is proving to be beneficial to the architecture industry by pushing the discipline to be reflective and look at the conditions that keep women from being paid equally and promoted at the same rate as men. When asked what the industry should do to get more women into positions of power, Brown answers in two parts. First, she wants clients to demand a more diverse architectural team. “Diversity can only help [a design project] because it brings broader perspectives and those perspectives enhance design.” 

Second, Brown says men need to be thought of as “allies” in the face of inequality. “Radical and significant change can happen if the other half of the equation understands how bias influences decisions and that our experience [as women] has been so different from theirs.” 

Liu found her “allies” at LSW Architects. When Liu partnered with Casey Wyckoff, a principal and one of LSW’s owners, to form the firm’s hiring team, they noticed that the majority of their new hires were women. Liu says that targeting female hires wasn’t a conscious decision.

A larger factor contributing to diversity within the firm, she said, is that the LSW’s leadership has instituted an environment where employees are able to explore their natural talents or find “their unique abilities.” By doing so, employees can learn how they work best, what their motivations are and what makes their co-workers tick. Liu believes that LSW’s environment of celebrating what makes each individual unique has organically fostered diversity and inclusion.

In an article written for Fast Company, Architect Jeanne Gang revealed how her firm Studio Gang had closed their own gender pay gap. When Gang discovered that a small pay gap existed between women and men in her office she quickly closed the gap through a series of raises. It is a simple step that Gang is encouraging other firms to do as well. “Those of us privileged to hold positions of power...have a particular responsibility and capability to enact change,” she wrote. 

Enacting change publicly at large institutions in combination with small grassroots steps like having a diverse hiring team, promoting women to leadership roles and ensuring that when you join a firm, leadership will ally with women is the type of collaboration that Brown believes the industry needs in order to end inequality. “We all have to take responsibility to help the generation behind us have more diversity than our own generation” she concludes.

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