Why diversity in architecture matters for communities—and the bottom line

DEI experts from top architecture firms and organizations across the globe discuss why diversity in architecture is vital and benefits everyone.

an illustration of diverse workers at an architecture firm standing behind a building model

Taz Khatri

February 2, 2024

min read
  • The architecture profession still lags behind changing demographics, with lower percentages of nonwhite and women architects.

  • Diversity, equity, and enclusion (DEI) efforts are underway as firms and professional organizations address barriers to entry and other issues.

  • Concrete strategies to increase diversity include outreach and programs to attract the next generation to architecture, which will also benefit the industry as a whole.

In the US population, the percentage of non-Hispanic white people is expected to drop below 50% by 2045, according to demographer Dudley L. Poston, Jr., with corresponding increases in the Black, Latino, and Asian American populations. Yet the field of architecture, a key player in creating and maintaining the built environment for all communities, doesn’t come close to reflecting the current or projected demographics of the country.

In 2022, white males comprised 69% of all architects in the United States while only 10.2% were Latino, 15% were Asian, and 3% were Black according to the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB). Men also continue to outnumber women in the profession, with only two out of five licensed architects being women.

Although there is still a significant disparity in the profession, many would agree strides have been made in diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). Jason Pugh, global director of DEI and principal at Gensler, cautions that “the industry is striving to become more diverse and inclusive but still has a long way to go.”

Expanding DEI in architecture

illustration of a diverse workforce at an architecture firm celebrating the promotion of a Black female architect
Although some historically marginalized people are beginning to receive long-overdue promotions, the industry still has a lot of work ahead of it.

The recent appointment of Black women at the highest levels of national design-related professional associations shows expanded DEI efforts, including Kim Dowdell, the 2024 national president of the American Institute of Architects (AIA); alumna Angela Brooks, the current president of the American Planning Association (APA); and Tiffany D. Brown, the executive director of the National Organization of Minority Architects (NOMA). Gary J. Nelson, vice president of the West Region of NOMA, says that “marginalized people have gotten long-overdue promotions” and that “we’re getting better at exposing young people to the profession.”

However, there is still a lot of work to be done. One area that has not improved despite increased awareness and DEI efforts is the number of licensed Black architects, which has hovered around 2.5%–3% for decades, a significantly lower figure than the 13% Black population of the US. And despite Black women being appointed to visible leadership roles, the total number of US licensed architects who are Black women is 593.

“Between attempts to politicize critical race theory, protective legislation for marginalized groups being rolled back, and cease-and-desist letters being sent to companies that have strong DEI policies, DEI seems to be under attack,” Pugh says. “And, unfortunately, we are starting to see some architecture companies pull back from the strong, bold stands and commitments they made in 2020.”

Nelson agrees that there is much work to be done and that although there have been changes in areas of the profession, there has not been much change in opportunities for senior leadership roles (for example, principal or partner) and addressing the gender and/or race pay gap that continues to plague the architecture profession.

Global barriers to entry

The UK faces similar issues with DEI in architecture. “Architecture in the UK is not representative of the society it is here to serve,” says Robbie Turner, director of inclusion and diversity at the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA). “We have a significant underrepresentation of women across the profession and a significant overrepresentation of white people.” According to Turner, only 31% of architects in the UK are women, 2% are Black (compared to a general population of 4%), and architects with disabilities represent only 1% of architects in the UK (compared to a general population of 21%).

One reason that architecture does not accurately reflect the society it serves in the US and UK is that, historically, it has been “a privileged white male profession,” Turner says. Pugh agrees, adding that in the past, architects likely came from higher socioeconomic households or well-to-do families with connections in the industry. Students of color, women, and other marginalized groups rarely saw themselves represented in the field or on academic campuses with university faculty and staff.

Another reason the profession has been largely privileged, white, and male is the expense of becoming an architect, with skyrocketing tuition fees and cost of supplies compared to relatively low starting salaries. Average tuition fees to get a degree in architecture range from $50,000 to $175,000 according to US News and World Report. An entry-level salary for an architectural designer can be as low as $35,000 a year in some areas of the US, according to Indeed.com.

An additional barrier to becoming a licensed architect, which disproportionately impacts marginalized communities, is that the path to becoming a licensed architect is long and arduous. That path starts with a five- to six-year college education, followed by an internship period when prospective architects have to log their experience in various aspects of the industry, and culminating in a series of rigorous licensing exams. In part to address this and the licensing exams being a barrier to entering the profession, the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB) recently eliminated the rolling clock policy—a policy that, after analysis, showed it disproportionally impacted women and people of color.

The benefits of a diverse workforce

an illustration of an architecture firm seeing profits rise because the diverse workforce built a thriving community
DEI is a win-win: Communities thrive from more inclusive architecture, and firms see better business outcomes and have an edge over the competition.

Diversity and inclusion in architecture isn’t just a moral ideal to strive for; it directly impacts the bottom line of firms: A diverse pool of employees produces better outcomes and can give firms a competitive edge, according to Ramona Blake, vice president of diversity, equity, inclusion, and sustainability at Mozilla.

A 2020 survey by McKinsey & Company shows organizations that embrace diversity tend to foster innovation, challenge ingrained thought patterns, and enhance financial performance. Its true benefits emerge when leaders and employees cultivate a sense of inclusion. Inclusion, defined as the extent to which individuals feel their authentic selves are valued at work, empowers them to contribute meaningfully and intentionally.

The survey also showed that respondents who feel a true sense of belonging are almost three times more likely than their peers to be excited by and committed to their company. Participants from all demographics report considering an organization’s inclusiveness in their career choices and want their company to foster more diversity and inclusion.

A diverse and inclusive profession would represent society more accurately, more effectively serve various communities, and ultimately make the built environment better for everyone. “We need to develop a profession that is better able to have conversations [with a variety of communities],” Turner says. “Then, we’ll have a profession that is able to better meet the needs of a changing society.”

Bringing in the next generations

illustration of kids learning about architecture in grade school, going on a field trip and making models
Some architecture firms participate in outreach programs and partnerships with schools in their communities, getting kids interested in architecture, engineering, and construction at an early age.

With demographics shifting to becoming more diverse in the US, professional organizations and architecture firms are taking concrete steps toward becoming more inclusive. One of the most effective steps is exposing a wider range of young people to the profession. Renee Byng Yancey—the former chief external equity, diversity, and inclusion officer with the AIA—says the organization has recently become involved with the Girl Scouts, thanks to former AIA President Emily Grandstaff-Rice, who spearheaded the effort.

Representatives of the AIA attended the 2023 Girl Scouts Conference, met with Girl Scouts and troop leaders, and engaged in mentorship and design-related activities with them. Along the same lines, NOMA is proud of its Project Pipeline program, which comprises camps held by local chapters to introduce a wider range of students to the architecture field, with the long-term goal of increasing the number of underprivileged licensed architects.

Candice Harrison, director of DEI for the SSOE Group, a global engineering and architecture firm, says that elementary and middle school is the best age group to introduce engineering and architecture. For example, SSOE has a partnership with Toledo Public Schools’ Hawkins STEMM Academy, where the team helps implement hands-on learning and exposes students to careers in engineering, design, and construction.

“We have a team of people from our firm that gets involved in the programs of elementary and middle schools,” Harrison says. “Elementary and middle school is a critical time for exposure to engineering and architecture so that the kids formulate an interest in the industry before high school. That way, they can take the right classes that create the pathway to admission into an engineering program.” Harrison adds that this program also played a role in the academy obtaining its state STEMM designation. SSOE also participates in a Corporate Work Study program with De La Salle North Catholic High School in Portland, OR.

Pugh says that at Gensler, one of the key strategies to foster DEI is finding ways to connect with K-12 schools and universities. The firm is running a unique pilot called GAP (Gensler Apprentice Program), which looks to leverage a nontraditional path into the profession that doesn’t require a college degree and invites young people to work and learn in real time on the job. After two years, they can decide if they want to work for Gensler full-time, pursue a traditional degree, or do something entirely different. “There’s a lot of reasons why college simply isn’t in the cards for some students—financial hardships, pressure to graduate, enter the workforce and bring money back to their household, family dynamics, and not having the grades or test scores, which we know are not indications of a person’s intelligence, aptitude, or predictor for future success,” Pugh says.

A vision for the future

With concrete steps that increase DEI in architecture, the profession is moving toward being more representative and more effective. Professional organizations and many architecture firms have visions for what is possible for true diversity and inclusion. Yancey says she wants the AIA to ultimately ensure that the barriers to the profession are completely removed, including cost, exposure, and income.

Lienkie Diedericks, an inclusion and diversity specialist at RIBA, says she wants “to have people feel when they enter a building that it was created for them, that the person who designed the building also looks like them and has some shared experiences with them.” She would like to see the field move away from just being a “beauty creator” to being more of a “social good.”

Harrison envisions that the SSOE Group will be a place where everyone feels welcome and like they belong when they come to work as their whole self. Pugh sees a future when everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed and when the makeup of Gensler is reflective of the communities it serves. Nelson says he would like to see a profession where, in the entirety of their careers and beyond, “people are judged by their work and not their identity, where people don’t have to leave their culture at the door, and where people can use their diverse background to improve the building environment.”

This article has been updated. It was originally published in March 2017.

Taz Khatri

About Taz Khatri

Taz Khatri is a licensed architect and she has her own firm, Taz Khatri Studios. The firm specializes in small multifamily, historic preservation, and small commercial work. Taz is passionate about equity, urban design, and sustainability. She lives and works in Phoenix, AZ.

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