Female Architects Vying for Equal Footing

The Bike House at Millennium Park
The Bike House at Millennium Park

CWA Celebrates Their 40-Year Anniversary with an Exhibit Exploring Women’s Contributions to Architecture in Chicago

VIATechnik interviewed Gail Cavanagh, current CWA (Chicago Women in Architecture) President, about partnering with the Chicago Architecture Foundation for their current exhibit, and the progress the CWA has made in the last four decades.

The most surprising fact we learned from the CWA is about 33% of female architects drop out of their profession two years after graduation. What is causing this dropout rate? And how does the CWA help to reverse these numbers? Gail showed us that it begins with supporting members of the CWA, and showcasing the design work of women architects in a city known worldwide for its art and architecture.

VT: Gail, you’re celebrating with an exhibit at the Chicago Architecture Foundation. Can you tell us a little about the exhibit?

CWA: Our group, the Chicago Women In Architecture, has been functioning as a support and mentorship organization for 40 successive years.  In the beginning, as women architects, we had nothing to show off as our own work since there were so few of us practicing.  Over these last 40 years, women have become fixtures in the profession at all levels of the field of construction, from developers to contractors.  We wanted to illustrate this fact and bring this information to a public forum.  Many people don’t think of women as being the designers of the buildings they use.

VT: The CWA consists of only volunteers. What does volunteerism involve at the CWA?

CWA: Mainly, individuals can pick something they would like to get involved in and run with it.  We have a website that needs constant revising, plan member events, have two lecture series at the MCA and AIC, we run a scholarship program and we have a large fundraiser at the end of the year for the scholarship.  The CWA is an amazing group of women, handling the myriad of responsibilities that arise over these events with grace and friendship.

VT: Do you feel the visibility of female architects has stagnated, declined, or is on the rise?

CWA: I personally believe that the visibility of the female architect has a long way to go before being recognized.  One of the projects in the 40th Anniversary was  designed by Cindy Muller (The Bike House at Millennium Park) and I didn’t know this until the project got into the exhibit!  Even women IN the profession still don’t see the built environment as their own.

VT: We read in an article about your anniversary a quote from CWA Chairwoman, Marcia Spencer: “Even though in [architecture] schools, men and women are about equal 50-50, by the time you get a few years out the ratio drops to only 17 percent women.” Can you tell me why this number drops so significantly?

CWA: We tend to blame the profession on this; the long hours, the need to commit to putting in those hours on a weekly basis, not enough mentorship… and then if you have a family, a significant need to be more flexible arises. We blame the still chauvinistic organization of the firms. We blame the low salaries.  

We blame the process of becoming licensed also. It is extremely time consuming on top of the work we do. These reasons all inform people’s decisions to stay or leave the field. I don’t think any one reason can be the final answer.

VT: Is it difficult for female architects to stay in the workforce as an architect? Are they choosing other vocations or having hybrid careers, say, getting into design?

CWA: This is hard to quantify. The AIA keeps statistics but the numbers are not broken out into male/female categories. It is a difficult profession, very demanding. But the desire to create has to be the main factor that influences a determination to stay in the field. For me, there is no other career that could be as rewarding. This desire to create is the drive that will keep you here.

VT: How does the CWA help to equalize the problem – equalize this gender gap? How are the tactics different today than in the 80s?

CWA: Basically, our very existence is a sore spot for the profession. We equalize the problem by being independent of any other group (AIA) and doing the best we can to be found when people get tired of being the only female in the room. The tactics today are less radical, but in your face nonetheless. How many male architects will take the time to go through our exhibit and acknowledge those women’s achievements? At least now, we have something to show.

VT: How did the CWA do at the American Institute of Architects National convention in June? Any good takeaways you can share with us?

CWA: We had a CWA section at the AIA Chicago booth and the boards and projects looked great.  I hope lots of people saw them. We also had a presence at the AIA Diversity group dinner where I MC’d the event and delivered a short speech on Chicago lore. Marsha Spencer, one of our most recent past presidents, spoke of CWA and our goals. We were very happy to participate, and I hope this opens the door to other events where we can highlight our group and mission.

VT: How do you increase the visibility of female architects, besides the current exhibition?

CWA: There is so much work and expense for an exhibit like this. We don’t usually do them.  We did one this time because we just lost one of our founding members, Natalie de Blois, and we wanted to have everyone around to celebrate with us. If we waited for the 50th anniversary, they might not be able to participate, so we went ahead and got this exhibit together. It is a good way to get the word out, but it would be nice to see even more of an impact.

VT: How does the CWA provide mentorship?

CWA: First, we provide peer to peer mentorship, introducing them to other female architects so they can interact socially. There is a lot to be said about sharing stories over the meeting table once a month.  

Our biggest effort at mentorship is the scholarship program. We give an annual scholarship to women in the final year of attaining their degree in architecture. We give them an opportunity to present their work at the Spring Brunch, which is when we present the award.

VT: Do you have an example of how CWA has advocated for professional issues for women architects?

CWA: We could be doing more here, but as a volunteer organization we have our hands full with the things we are already executing.  If we were able to fund a staff, we could get into this subject more deeply, but for now we rely solely on volunteers.

VT: What would you say is the hot button topic for female architects (and those women who have careers that parallel with architecture) today?

CWA:  For young women, the hot button is family and career juggling. For older women such as myself, it is rising in the ranks and finding that there is still a need for mentorship – finding it is STILL lacking at these higher levels. Worse yet, there are so few women at the top it’s hard to believe that one is being taken seriously at all!

About Gail Cavanagh:

Gail is a registered architect and is Leed AP certified. She is a corporate architect with 25 years of experience in realizing noteworthy, world-class architectural undertakings as both designer and project architect.


About the CWA:

Chicago Women in Architecture is a not-for-profit, volunteer organization that exists as a forum for women in Architecture and related professions. The primary goal of CWA is to advance the status of women in these profession by:

  • [increasing] the visibility of women in architecture
  • [guiding & encouraging] women to consider a career in architecture
  • [establishing liaisons] with other professional organizations
  • [networking] for job placement and career advancement
  • [advocating] for issues of concern to women within the profession

Every year, CWA accomplishes these goals through planning educational, professional, and social networking events, a lecture series in connection with the Art and Design Society of the Art Institute of Chicago and Museum of Contemporary Art, and an annual scholarship awarded to an architecture student in her last year of study. Our membership includes architects, designers, planners, engineers, educators, landscape architects, students and many other professionals whose careers parallel the field of architecture.

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