Being elevated to the College of Fellows is AIA’s highest membership honor. It recognizes contributions in one of six areas of the profession: design, practice, leadership in the institute or a related profession, public service, alternative careers and volunteerism, and education. Only three percent of AIA architect members are members of the College of Fellows, and applicants go through a rigorous application and jury process. In my role as a writer and consultant, I have worked with more than 120 successful FAIA candidates since 2001 and have seen first-hand the important and impressive contributions these exceptional architects have made to the profession they love. Fellowship is a hard-earned accolade that is well deserved by all who attain it.
But like the profession it celebrates, fellowship in the AIA has a diversity problem. In 2021, only 23 percent of candidates applying for fellowship identified as women, according to AIA’s FAIA statistics. AIA does not clearly quantify FAIA classes by race, but people of color were similarly underrepresented (limited information is available on the AIA’s Fellowship Demographics web page). In my experience, this condition has stubbornly remained unchanged for a long time, despite efforts to diversify the profession, retain women and minority architects, and attract more students from diverse communities and backgrounds to architecture schools.
So, how to address the problem? One place to start is by looking at what fellowship recognizes: individual achievement, leadership, and innovation in a range of professional categories. The AIA commissioned the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California Hastings College of the Law to conduct a study on workplace experiences in the architecture profession. This report, titled “The Elephant in the (Well-Designed) Room” and published in December 2021, examined the profession’s ingrained biases on gender and race/ethnicity, how they play out in daily practice, and how they affect the advancement of women and people of color. Not surprisingly, the report found the following: “White men were more likely than any other group to report that people expect them to play a leadership role. Latina women, women of Asian descent, and Native American, Alaska Native, Indigenous, and other underrepresented people were more than 20 percentage points less likely than white men to report this expectation of leadership.” In addition, the report states: “These expectations make office politics harder for women and people of color because they have to find a balance between authoritativeness and approachability, and an ‘appropriate’ way to demand career-enhancing work. White men just have to be ambitious and authoritative.”
This confirms many women’s and people’s of color lived experience of the profession: Their leadership is less encouraged, recognized, and rewarded than that of their white male colleagues. It also makes sense that the well-documented challenges of retaining women and people of color in the profession as careers advance would result in a less diverse cohort achieving qualification for FAIA — the highest level of membership, often seen as the culmination of a career.
Therefore, it isn’t surprising that women make of up only around 20 percent of AIA Fellows in any given class (overall demographics of the College of Fellows are not currently available, and the AIA generally has not, to date, published demographic data on members who identify as LGBTQ+). With only 33 percent of AIA architect members identifying as women and people of color, the numbers of FAIA applicants align with demographics of the profession nationally. In Texas, 25 percent of Texas Society of Architects members are women, but only 12 percent of AIA Fellows are.
Women who do apply are typically very well qualified. In fact, women candidates tend to be elevated at a higher rate than men. In 2022, 54 women applied for fellowship, representing 24.6 percent of all candidates. Of those, 24 were elevated, representing 27 percent of all fellows in this cohort, a percentage slightly higher than recent years. Overall, 44 percent of women candidates were elevated, which is higher than the total elevation rate of 40 percent. This is not unusual; women tend to surpass average elevation rates in any given year.
The stated requirement for applying for FAIA is 10 years of AIA membership at the architect level, at which point any gains made in diversity tend to be in decline due to attrition from the profession. In reality, the additional, often unrecognized, requirements are time, money, and support. Achieving work-life balance in a profession that still fosters a culture of working long hours for little pay is tough on a good day, so finding the time to craft and design a 40-page argument for career recognition in your “spare” time presents a significant challenge. Women of all races and men of color also tend to have less support from their employers in both financial and talent resources, given that they are less likely to be in a position to have a say in how the firm’s resources are used. This lack of agency often leads them to start their own firms to give themselves more ownership over the trajectory of their careers. But doing so can also result in “starting over” on the ladder to FAIA. And the collision of the loss of childcare with a shift to remote work during the pandemic further exacerbated all these challenges, more so for women, causing many to sit out yet another year.
To support candidates, some of the larger AIA components step in with FAIA committees that have different ways of identifying, encouraging, and buttressing applicants. Traditionally, these committees nominate candidates whose work has achieved the success and recognition worthy of FAIA. Since these committees are typically made up of current AIA Fellows, the demographics naturally skew along the demographics of the College of Fellows. And architects in small and unstaffed chapters don’t even have access to this kind of support. As a result, in Texas, no one from chapters that aren’t Fort Worth, Dallas, Houston, San Antonio, or Austin has been named a fellow since 2018.
Mentorship, a crucial part of career development, tends also to shape young architects in an established understanding of what a successful architect is and what one looks like. So it follows that the profession’s role models are not representative of the world we live in. If “you can’t be what you can’t see,” and if the FAIA college doesn’t have many people who look like them in it, is it even a group that people of color and women can imagine themselves wanting to join? As a result, some younger architects share anecdotally that FAIA holds no value in their own career path or their sense of accomplishment. For others, it does represent a desired sense of arrival and a form of shorthand validation to themselves, their peers, and clients. For others still, the answer seems to be some form of “yes, but….” Being accepted widens the crack in the college’s door, through which they can reach back and help others. In the end, the club will only diversify based on who applies and who is admitted. And that will only happen once the conditions of practice are more equitable.
To be sure, significant efforts have been made and succeeded in supporting and mentoring people of color and women, encouraging workplace flexibility and work-life balance, attracting more diverse students, and reducing harassment and prejudice as well as barriers to education and registration. Much has been chipped away from these very real obstacles, thanks to the hard work and determination of committed practice leaders and educators. But eliminating bias and its structural enablers requires persistent challenges to and reinventions of the frameworks and foundations that govern the profession.
The Center for WorkLife Law study identifies areas in which metric-driven and evidence-based actions must happen. These include hiring, yes, but also assignments, evaluations, interactions, and roles in meetings. In practice, this looks like women and people of color leading high-profile work in visible, client-facing roles; firms nurturing their thought leadership and allowing time for community and professional service; and their inclusion in the informal networking and team-building interactions where relationships are solidified. Small steps consistently taken and measured are the backbone of any effort to build more diversity.
To accomplish this, AIA components can step in as allies and disruptors and deliberately identify a more diverse pool of applicants earlier in their careers to nurture and support them on a path towards fellowship. The younger generation of fellows can advocate for changes from within the college, pushing for reprioritizing the focus of its mentoring and service efforts to position fellows as the future-oriented vanguard of the profession. AIA could better promote new fellows individually within the profession as well as to the public, to further elevate its status, celebrate the best of the profession, and inspire the next generation.
At AIA Austin for example, the Fellows Committee is re-examining how it tracks potential fellowship applicants and is intentionally providing guidance on developing their applications. The chapter is assisting that effort by keeping an eye out for speaking and leadership opportunities that will help candidates build the FAIA-required “national ripple effect,” which can be a stumbling block for many candidates. While these efforts are already underway, AIA Austin is working to create a formal framework that could create a model for other components.
Many more ideas are burgeoning at the local and state levels to build equity and inclusivity in this most revered of professional groups. These can re-energize fellowship’s status and make AIA Fellows visible as the leaders and visionaries they are in addressing the problems of our time, from the climate crisis and inequities in access to healthcare, housing, and education to restitching torn communities together and improving quality of life.
Architecture is an amazing profession, filled with smart, dedicated, and creative individuals who set out to literally build a better world. Establishing a robust FAIA pipeline and making the process more accessible — and thereby inclusive — while maintaining the integrity and the rigor it demands would truly celebrate all the people making significant contributions to the multifaceted, collaborative practice of architecture. It would also inspire many more sharp minds with unique perspectives to join in and contribute their energy to the profession’s essential and consequential work at a time when it’s needed more than ever.
Canan Yetmen, Hon. TxA, is a writer based in Austin. Since 2001, she has worked on 123 successful FAIA applications. Of those, 22 (or 18 percent) have been for women candidates.