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Equity by Design: A Presentation by Rosa Sheng AIA

In the first of an ongoing series exploring the issue of Equity by Design in the architecture profession and the City of Boston, Rosa T. Sheng AIA spoke on her recent work as founder of the AIA San Francisco Missing 32% Project, Equity by Architecture Survey, and Equity by Design: Knowledge, Discussion, Action! symposium held last October, and her vision of creating positive change in the profession to ensure equable opportunities at every level of architectural practice. The presentation spoke to how architects personally connect to architecture and their personal/professional balancing act that both supports our love of architecture “but also our need to thrive as humans through the stages of life.”

Influenced by Shel Silverstein’s poem “Melinda Mae,” Sheng compared breaking down the cultural barriers toward equity in architecture culture with “eating a whale”—a seemingly gigantic effort; however, she suggests with “one bite at a time,” change will come and asked the more than 100 attendees, “What can we do as individuals, as groups, as organizations such as [the] BSA to make change happen?” Introducing a new Equity by Design alliance initiative, Sheng encouraged the BSA to use the Missing 32% Project research to further explore and add to the body of work through local initiatives.

The Equity by Design early survey results were summarized. A final report will be forthcoming in the spring detailing the three survey themes: Hiring and Retention, Growth and Development, and Meaning and Influence. Through personal experience, Sheng described moments of discovering her own value and worth through negotiation and highlighted the career “pinch points” of 0 to three years and 10 to 15 years after graduation—times women are most likely to leave architecture. The survey identified a significant new-hire salary gap between men and women between 10 and 15 years of experience; licensure as a key factor in retention; and a perceived penalty by architects who take a leave of absence for personal or caregiving reasons resulting in less desirable project assignments or reduced compensation. To begin to address solutions for change, Sheng suggests the following initiatives for firms:

  • Implement a clear, transparent promotion process to make expectations and criteria overt and not subjective.
  • Be mindful of a salary gap for new hires with 10 to 15 years of experience. This is when there is a significant discrepancy between compensation between men and women.
  • Reward licensure. The survey indicated a direct connection between licensure and the likelihood of staying in the profession.
  • Work to retain midcareer women. Losing key talent has both financial and cultural effects on a firm.

Sheng reminded the audience that the Equity by Design research is “not just about equity; it’s also about valuing architecture.” Equity by Design alliance connections can help shape best practices and provide additional data to support how addressing diversity and inclusion creates a good business model, better quality of life, and professional satisfaction. As Sheng concluded, “It’s all about connections.” The conversation was lively and frank among a gender-diverse crowd. Ultimately, by creating an equitable practice that will sustain the profession and advance quality design, architects will also be able to better communicate the value of architecture to society.

The next BSA Equity by Design event this spring will focus on the business case for diversity and its impact on talent retention.