Three Generations of Women at the Univerity of Virginia Who Have Worked to Shrink the Gender Gap in Architecture

The University of Virginia has recently celebrated the work of three generations of women at the university who have been pioneers in their efforts to shrink the gender gap in architecture. Currently, only 18 percent of practicing architects are women, despite women representing 50 percent of architecture students.

In 1959, Linda Harris Michael was the second woman to graduate from the University of Virginia’s School of Architecture. In order to gain admittance to the school, she had to earn two years worth of academic credit and be at least 20 years of age. At the age of 17, she managed to take 60 credits over the course of one academic year and two summers and was admitted to the school at age 18, due to her strong academic record. She was the only woman in her class. She went on to practice architecture for 30 years, focusing on historic buildings, renovations, and remodelings. Throughout her career, she mentored many young women architects and was an enthusiastic supporter of the women’s rights movement during the 1970s.

Of her time at UVA, Michael stated, “I think it was good training for me, living in that male-dominated world, because when I got into the profession, it was still a man’s world.”

Ila Berman has served as dean of the School of Architecture at the University of Virginia since 2016. Throughout her career as an academic in architecture, she has done extensive scholarly work on feminism, architecture, and the challenges facing women in her profession. She has served on the Women’s Leadership Council, a group of women in leadership positions in architecture schools. Additionally, she worked on the American Institute of Architects’ “The missing 32 Percent” campaign, hoping to close the gap between women architecture students and practicing women architects.

Dr. Berman believes that correcting the gender gap in architecture will require changes in perceptions about the field as a male-dominated profession, building diverse and flexible company cultures, and encouraging and supporting young women architects.

“We are continually making progress. It is not a straight line, but rather an undulation between smaller incremental changes and more significant advances toward equity,” Dr. Berman said. “Today’s students have a different set of expectations than those of the women that preceded them, simply because of when they started out. I want them to be aware of all the pioneers whose struggles enabled their opportunities, but I also want to let them lead and write their own material futures, without having to mine the same territory that my generation has.”

Zazu Swistel a master’s student at the UVA School of Architecture, is a member of that next generation. She has established the student organization, manifestA, which focuses on women in architecture and design. The organization is open to both men and women and addresses the gender gap issue in multiple ways by working with faculty to create a syllabus that highlights the architectural work and scholarship of women, creating a spring exhibition of work by alumnae of the School of Architecture, and building the organization’s outreach by connecting students with mentors in the field.

“We are trying to advance the agency of women in architecture, to challenge implicit and explicit biases that have been perpetuated in the discipline,” Swistel said. “There has been a ton of progress, and there is always more to be done.”

Filed Under: Gender Gap


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