MEGAN ZEIEN Women in Architecture Academia: Technology and Leadership

Today, Architecture is a field where the architect carves out space into an experiential place, a field that requires intelligence, creativity, technology, communication, and tactile awareness, among other virtues that allow for great design. In order for these strong character traits to work in congruence, a diverse team with different and unique talents is needed. These unique aptitudes are developed in the academic world, where strong forms of professional and personal development happen parallel to academic work and new social, interpersonal interactions. The question to be asked, however, is where women work into these categories of talent and skill in the academic world. Do women and men develop the same traits in academia? Or are there differences in the way they create and lead? This collection of observations and reflections attempts to become an examination of the role of women in architecture’s studio culture, digging into different aspects of technology and leadership specifically, where the male and female genders may be represented differently because of stereotypes, differing leadership styles, and distinctive opportunities.

In both the past and present, Architecture has been a primarily male-dominated profession, with only 16% of the American Institute of Architects currently female, a statistic that has been near stagnant in recent decades. As Architecture progresses as a trade, it is becoming increasingly important that it changes for and with women, a trend that will hopefully ripple from Architecture Academia, where currently about 30 students in my 77-person class are female, about 40% representation. Using this class and our most recent studio project, Two x Two, a collaborative design-build project completed as an entire class, one can see certain aspects of studio “belonging” more traditionally to males than females, and vice versa, as per social and traditional means of Architecture. This encourages us to ask how these perceptions could be developed. We must look at the bigger picture and ask if the processes of design truly differ between men and women, and if so, why? What are the observable differences between men and women in Architecture, and what are the engrained unobservable differences?


Architecture is developing fiercely by way of new technologies. The fact that men dominate the field of technology (70+% of tech companies are men ( doesn’t bode well for the future of the 16% demographic of women in Architecture, as the new positions opening up in Architecture tend to be based around the development and use of technology. This begs the question to all women aspiring to join the architecture workforce: “How can women further their education and passion for software and technology in a way that lets them continue to emerge into the new era of technological architecture?” To ask this question is to challenge how the field of Architecture currently develops around women. Is the field progressing with women by providing them with access to the technology they need to develop as architects? Perhaps it is a situation that requires a lot of give and take between the women involved and the professional and academic worlds of Architecture.

The field of Architecture has been rapidly changing since its conception, and today, a new era is being ushered in through the use of advanced software and technologies. As new technology has worked its way into our studio’s curriculum, stereotypes of technology being an inherently male field have been both supported and challenged. This observation compelled me as a student to ask, “do students feel that technological interests and the use of software in the design process are especially male concerns?” and “Is it a natural inclination for men to lean more towards technology in this concern?”. It is interesting to see how this subtle inclination of men towards technology and tools developed in our studio project, Two x Two. The project relied significantly on 3D modeling software to design and integrate the form, programs like AutoCAD to document pieces, Grasshopper to calculate and compute, and Adobe Photoshop to render and produce marketing materials. I had the experience of working with a team of eight people on the 3D modeling and some computation for the final project model, which happened to be made up of entirely men except for myself. Does this mean that technology in our particular studio relies primarily on men? Absolutely not. But it does beg the question as to why women might have been drawn away from this aspect of the project.

This discourse brings up a notion that men might naturally have a more computational way of thinking and a more logic-based rationality that is more adherent to software. This revolves back to the elusive question of design differences between genders, a question that becomes increasingly convoluted and hard to answer. If you were to look at two designs or buildings side by side, one designed by a man and one by a woman, could you tell which gender designed it? Immediately, most would say no. But it is valid to cogitate, based on my personal observances in our studio along with studies and articles, that men and women have different aptitudes to technology and software. Women are definitely just as competent in using technology, leading to one impression that women prefer to not use as much computation in design work, not their lack of ability. This is one theory, which seems to support the idea that men may design differently from women. Another could be that men are more likely to emanate a sort of dominance and ownership over the concepts of software and computation, following the history of men in software and technology. Of course, it is much more difficult to differentiate styles of thinking by simply observing because they are inherently harder to trace, unlike traits of leadership or other physical aptitudes.


Looking at the participation of women in different types of technology, one could even see some reflections of parameters in women’s leadership styles. Observing my male co-leader and I for our recent studio project, we had distinctly different managing styles, and alternating aptitudes for aspects of the project. From the male leadership, there was a strong aspect of confrontation and delegation, a sense of getting things done methodically. From my perspective, I dealt a lot more with individuals and with communicating between different groups and people to make the process more holistic. Besides these skills, there are many other traits usually associated with men and women that can make them different types of leaders. Both dimensions of traits are advantageous and effective in leadership, but it must be recognized that the combination of traits are what makes a great leader, and that one aspect is not more effective than the other.

Architecture values leadership highly, as the field requires direction and strong management to create complex shapes and spaces in the real world. To get a glimpse of what project leadership is like in school was a very unique experience for our studio; an experience less often seen in academia than in the professional dimension. In an academic setting it is recognized that about 40% of students are female, which means that within that larger pool, there is marginally more room for females to develop leadership skills within the larger pool of constituents. The opportunity for me to serve as a project manager, as well as the opportunity to serve on the predominantly male design team, provided me with profound means to further my personal leadership skills. I have found great opportunities in academia to step up as a leader, as both of these positions became available either because of need or because of the amount of work and leadership I had presumably shown. That doesn’t mean I developed my leadership skills in the same way males did, or felt pressured to lead with more male personality traits to get things done. In the real world it seems as if male traits are considered more desirable in the terms of leadership, as females in leadership positions are proportionately underrepresented as opposed to their male counterparts. There were specific occurrences where I did feel that more singular dominance from my male co-leader was needed, but it didn’t feel like this type of leadership was recognized or appreciated more.

An aspect of the project that I worked heavily with was talking with individual people about how they felt about the project and their levels of participation and engagement, as some people didn’t feel fulfilled in their roles in the project. This turned out to be a stronger reflection of my leadership style versus my co-leader’s than it would have seemed to be. Specifically, I had conversations with several individual students about how they didn’t appreciate the more direct and commanding styles of leadership they saw from project leaders. They felt that such a style was too demanding and they even thought that I was being overpowered as a co-leader because I wasn’t as outwardly vocal or confrontational. In reflection, it might have seemed like I wasn’t as strong of a leader which is plausible when working with another strong personality, in reality this was absolutely not true. Just because the more dominant leadership traits are heard more vocal and observable, it does not mean that there are not quieter or more implanted traits that shouldn’t be valued as much.

These observations from the group studio project add to the ongoing list of gender differences in the field of Architecture, but can also be applied to a more universal outlook, with a continuous list of questions. Does it currently seem like society rewards the male leadership styles because they are the ones that are more vocal and observable? How can school and the professional world adapt to accept and listen to the subtler leadership styles like interpersonal skills, communication, and delegation? Women in studio shouldn’t have to feel like they must develop traits like dominance or competitiveness to fit in when they join the professional world of architecture. In fact, an article from University of Pennsylvania’s School of Wharton discovers that even when women and men display those same traits of assertion and leadership, the men were ranked as having higher level of effectiveness. Therefore, it simply cannot be asked of women to become more like men in styles of leadership or in their Architecture. It seems that for women to become even partners in the field of architecture, society must develop in a way where traits like conflict resolution and interpersonal development are accepted to be equally effective as vocal, confrontational leadership styles.

It now remains: what can be done in our Architecture studio and culture to cultivate fuller participation and excellence from our talented women designers? To start, we must encourage men and women to use whatever tools and technology is available, as it is technology and tactile innovation that can provide evolution of the field and progress our design and thinking. It is important that we recognize how to use such tools along with encourage exploration of alternate apparatuses when designing, and encourage all students to be pioneers and explore rather than refine only one or two facets of work. In leadership, it must be recognized that women can lead in a balanced way, without sacrificing their communication skills or disposition. It is important for woman to develop the same traits of leadership as men, but men also must develop traits that were previously assumed to be more feminine. These are a few of the ideas to cultivate within Architecture Academia, through a more active engagement with women in leadership positions and in technology. Globally, our society will not progress if women do not develop as equal partners in their professional fields. Architects, both men and women, are the future problem-solvers and thinkers of this era, a responsibility that cannot be abstracted by a glaringly large absence of representation within the field’s infrastructure.

Datum ISU