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Toby Israel Ph.D.

The Multi-Story Brains of Female Architects

Women can shift their identity through transformational conversation.

Where are so many women architects?1 In 2017, 400 of them gathered for the American Institute of Architects (AIA) Women’s Leadership Summit in Washington, DC. Two years later, almost double that number assembled in Minneapolis for the 2019 Summit, the largest meeting of women architects ever held in the U.S.

They weren’t there to strut their starchitecture stuff. Unlike the ‘show and tell’ talks traditionally delivered by their male counterparts, these designing women were there to share stories. Speaking from the heart, not just the head, they described their personal as well as professional journeys—ways they’ve constructed their careers, their buildings, and their ‘selves.’

Although in a huge meeting room, it was as if this Summit’s female architects—born anywhere from Siberia to Nigeria—were sitting around a glowing campfire bonding over-familiar tales of women struggling to ‘fit’ in a profession long-colonized by white men. Pay inequality, unconscious bias, the need for flex time, the burden of working “three times as hard as male architects to get noticed” were among their smoldering grievances.

Courtesy AIA
AIA Leadership Summit Architects
Source: Courtesy AIA

Yet the Summit was not simply a forum for airing grievances. Instead keynote Priya Parker, author of The Art of Gathering,2 set the tone by speaking with verve and emotion about her own mixed-heritage, multi-national journey. Through participatory exercises and her willingness to share her own story, she encouraged these architects to remove their masks. “Close your eyes and remember back to the first time you wanted to be an architect,” she prompted them. The aim of such deeper reflection was to enable the women to “shift their identity through transformational conversation.”3 Why do that?

“To be integrated [people] is what we should all be striving for,” remarked Julia Gamolina, another Summit speaker and editor of Madame Since founding Madam Architect in 2018, Gamolina has interviewed over ninety female architects to give women a voice and a platform.4

It’s no wonder women architects need to find their voice and tend to their self-integration. As one Summit participant commented, female architects are “constantly navigating our double-bind between likeability [maintaining a smiley face under that hard hat?] and authority.” For example, when asked at the Summit if anyone in the room had ever been called “intimidating,” almost all the women present raised their hand.

It’s an old, exhausting story that women in architecture have had to overcome such stereotyping. For years theorists have posited, for example, that “on average, men perform better in spatial recognition and that’s why girls don’t do science” or that “the female brain is good at empathy and can’t read maps” – the reverse being true for the male brain.5

Gina Rippon, author of the new book, The Gendered Brain: How New Neuroscience Explodes the Myth of the Female Brain,6 calls literature that thus misuses neuroscience “neurotrash.”7 She critiques such an 'essentialist' belief that the brain possesses a gendered biological essence that is “fixed, inevitable and invariant.”8 In her research she’s found very little difference between male and female brains.

While ‘nature’ isn't the key, ‘nurture’—the context in which architects work, may be stymieing authentic personal and even architectural expression. I asked one Summit attendee, a design principal, “Do you think women are more able to express their emotions than men when it comes to design?” She replied, “Everyone’s different. Some women are sensitive, some more linear. Some men are more sensitive.” Yet when it comes to design firms she observed:

Women do have to repress that ‘feeling’ sensibility to be taken seriously. Men on the other hand, often draw upon/express their emotions with clients or at meetings in a calculated way for effect. Since men don’t usually express their emotions, when they do, people take notice, listen and take them seriously. Women can’t do that and be taken seriously.

Of course, such male posturing extinguishes authenticity. Such an environment signals to women to put on rather than remove their masks. Despite talk of “equity, diversity and inclusion,”9 unless the profession undergoes both deep individual and cultural change, myths not stories continue to spread.

When it comes to affecting real change, author Elena Ferrante declares “Power Is a Story Told by Women.”10 She writes:

There is one form of power that has fascinated me ever since I was a girl, even though it has been widely colonized by men: the power of storytelling. Telling stories really is a kind of power and not an insignificant one . . . Storytelling . . . gives us the power to bring order to the chaos of the real under our own sign, and in this, it isn’t very far from political power . . . The female story, told with increasing skill, increasingly widespread and unapologetic, is what must now assume power.

Copyright Toby Israel 2019


1. In 2016 AIA NYC hosted a book launch for Despina Stratigakos’ book, Where Are All the Woman Architects? An architectural historian/professor, she spoke about the importance of creating change since, she pointed out:

"It seems like a case of historical or professional amnesia. The question of women’s under-representation in architecture would be raised, followed by discussions about the challenges they faced and how to address them, and then the whole thing would be forgotten again. Then the cycle would be repeated, again and again, through the decades."

Stratigakos suggested ending the cycle, “By knowing our history, finding allies to broaden the struggle, and using the power of new tools to raise and maintain awareness.”

2. Priya Parker, The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why it Matters (New York: Riverhead Books, 2018).

3. Comment by Priya Parker, Women’s Leadership Summit 2019, September 13, 2019.

4. About, Madam Architect

5. Gina Rippon, ‘Gender and Our Brains’ lecture: Princeton Public Library, Princeton, NJ, September 15, 2019.

6. Gina Rippon, Gender and Our Brains (New York: Pantheon Books, 2019).

7. Gina Rippon comments, Princeton, NJ, Sept 15, 2019.

8. Ibid.

9. The AIA’s ‘Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Commission’ (composed mostly of females) produced a 2017 report recommending “expanding and strengthening the profession’s commitment to equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) in every practice” and prioritized recommendations for action.

10. Elena Ferrante, “Power is a Story Told by Women” The New York Times May 19, 2019.

About the Author

Toby Israel is an environmental psychologist who studies design psychology.