Architecture’s great injustice, according to Jeanne Gang

Pay equity enables creativity to flourish. Architect Jeanne Gang closed the gender wage gap at her firm–and calls on other architecture firms to do the same.

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Jeanne Gang [Photo: courtesy Studio Gang]
At the end of May, I stood with other women architects and allies in a flash mob at the International Venice Architecture Biennale to denounce discrimination and prejudice within our field. The organizers’ manifesto recognized the intersectionality and urgency of the present situation, calling the exhibition “a crucial moment of awakening to promote equitable and respectful treatment of all members of the architectural community irrespective of gender, race, nationality, sexuality, and religion.”

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It was powerful to witness how the Architecture Biennale—sometimes criticized as an insular event within an insular field—became a site of solidarity and community that day, explicitly tying the challenges faced by women in architecture into the greater #MeToo movement. It also prompted me to reflect more deeply on how the collective—and needed—catharsis of bringing harassment to the fore can translate into collective action that dissolves inequity and raises respect for women and other marginalized groups in the workplace.

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These issues have special resonance in architecture, in which the profession’s notable lack of diversity (for example, just 2% of registered architects in the United States are African American and only 3% are Latino) and prevalence of gender discrimination (72% of women in architecture offices worldwide have reported experiencing sexual discrimination, harassment, or victimization) has and will continue to discourage much-needed young talent. Institutional and grassroots initiatives are underway to address these challenges, but those of us privileged to hold positions of power—from design firm owners to corporate leaders to academic administrators and professors—have a particular responsibility and capability to enact change. What would constitute an authentic show of support for women and other minorities in architecture and all fields, and even a substantial move toward redemption for past discriminatory behaviors? What can we do, immediately, to promote gender equality?

It’s obvious: We can start by looking to the fundamental issue of respect in the workplace—pay. Unlike other measures of value, pay is a number. It’s tangible and objective.

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In the U.S., the numbers are clearly unjust. Across all industries women are making 80¢ for every dollar made by their male counterparts. The disparity is no better in architecture; in fact it appears to be slightly worse. Breaking these statistics down by race reveals further inequality, with the average black or Latina woman in the U.S. paid 63¢ and 54¢, respectively, for every dollar paid to a white, non-Hispanic man. Survey results reveal a similar trend in architecture. Pay inequity signals a basic lack of respect and value for the contributions of women, and women of color in particular. No doubt this lack translates to negative attitudes and behaviors toward women as well.

Many excuses have been made for the continuing gender pay gap, but the truth—and the good news!—is that it’s the simplest component of workplace inequality to fix: It’s a math problem. Furthermore, I know gender pay equity is possible because my architecture office recently achieved it.

At Studio Gang, hiring the best architects and designers has meant that our team has always included nearly equal numbers of women and men. This consistent impartiality with respect to gender reflects our focus on excellence. It is reinforced by the collaborative culture we have cultivated that elevates the strongest ideas regardless of their source.

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The United Kingdom’s Government Equalities Office recently released a comprehensive report on gender pay gaps that included specific instructions on calculations and accounted for all aspects of compensation, unlike the American method of polling firms to determine the gap. This report included large architectural offices, and we were keen to use their tools to see how our firm of roughly 100 measured up. The specific analysis enabled us to see if we had a pay gap and where we needed to correct course—urgent information to know from an ethical and a practical point of view, as pay equity becomes more difficult to achieve the longer the incremental differences add up.

What we discovered was that, despite our ideological commitment to equality (and though our numbers were significantly better than all the U.K. architecture firms reporting, in all categories), a small pay gap nevertheless existed between the women and men in my office. We fixed that with this year’s raises and now have no wage gap as an organization.

I call on my colleagues in architecture and other creative industries to do the same, and to do so immediately. Use the assessment tools, determine where you are, and make the needed adjustments.

For those on the fence, perhaps it’s important to underscore that the push to achieve pay equity is both idealistic and pragmatic. In fields dedicated to creative problem-solving, it is critical to bring diverse people and ideas to the table and create a supportive environment in which varied skills and voices can develop. Achieving pay equity is a foundational act of building an environment in which creativity can flourish. Taking the first step toward equality via pay empowers us to move forward, together, to address the more complex challenges that await. Comprehensive, math-based tools are available to assess the problem. Let’s put them to work. Follow the money (or lack thereof), and fix pay inequity now.

Jeanne Gang is an architect, MacArthur fellow, and professor in practice at the Harvard Graduate School of Design.