In Architecture, African-Americans Stuck on Ground Floor in Terms of Numbers

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by Lekan Oguntoyinbo

Architecture remains overwhelmingly dominated by White males.

Fewer than 2 percent of the 105,000 licensed architects in the United States are African-American, according to the National Association of Minority Architects (NOMA). Minority architects are rare at blue chip architectural firms and seldom seen in senior management positions at these firms.

Many observers attribute the dearth of minority architects to a lack of visibility and awareness of the profession, the recent downturn in the economy that hit the construction industry particularly hard, as well as a hard-to-shake image that architecture is the preserve of White males.

“People don’t realize it’s a career option,” says Kathy Dixon, president of the NOMA and proprietor of KDixon Architecture, LLC. “Maybe they haven’t met a Black architect or met an architect at all. They are not aware of what architects do. It’s also a very expensive major, and it is expensive to take the exam to get licensed.”

In addition, “most architecture programs are five-year degrees, which means an extra year in college,” says Bradford Grant, a professor and director of the Howard University School of Architecture and co-founder of the Directory of African-American Architects.

Dixon estimates that as many as 30 percent of architects lost their job during the Great Recession. Many, she says, abandoned the profession.

In the last decade, the American Institute of Architects (AIA) has teamed up with NOMA, other minority architectural groups and schools of architecture at HBCUs. It recently partnered with the Girl Scouts to broaden the visibility of the profession and to attract more people of diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds.

These efforts are a big series of steps to add more color to a profession that remains largely off the radar of many college-bound minorities.

“There are more minorities in architectural firms and in higher positions than there were before and there are more firms of women and minorities,” says Dixon. “But our profession still lags behind law and medicine in numbers.”

Sherry Snipes, director of diversity and inclusion at the AIA, says these days a diverse workforce of architects is critically important for business development.

“When you think of the client base, it’s more diverse than it has been,” she says. “Clients want to work with diverse vendors and diverse businesses, whether it’s age, race, gender or disability.”

Snipes says the AIA has worked to build strong relationships with groups like NOMA and the American Indian Council of Architects and Engineers. She says the organization’s diversity efforts are primarily focused on three areas: multiculturalism, getting more women into the profession and pipeline development. She says that, in addition to Girl Scouts USA, AIA recently signed a memorandum of understanding with the National Urban League Black Professional Exchange in an effort to introduce more young people to architecture.

She says AIA’s efforts to diversify the profession have been paying off. In the six-year period from 2006 to 2012, the number of AIA women architects rose from 12.1 percent to 16 percent while the number of minority architects climbed from 7.9 percent to 10 percent, according to data supplied by the AIA. The AIA also reports that 23.8 percent of graduates of the nation’s architecture programs in 2011 were minorities. But these figures are not broken down by ethnicity so it’s hard to gauge the impact on underrepresented minorities.

Snipes says AIA is also pushing hard to better position architecture as a key member of the STEM fields.

“STEM is moving forward and architecture is not part of that dialogue,” she says.

In order to become an architect, she says, you need to have a background in all four of those areas.

Experts say attracting more minorities to architecture would require shoring up foundations in math and science at an early age. The poor quality of math and science education in predominantly minority public school systems has been cited as a major reason for the low number of minorities in the STEM fields.

“Architecture insists on both math and science,” says Grant. “A sound STEM early education in middle and high school is very important to architecture.”

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