Women in Architecture: The Shift to a Culture of Inclusivity

Architecture in Canada is witnessing a cultural shift towards gender equality. But while there's progress, challenges persist. Elevating women to prominent positions is crucial for fostering diversity and innovation in architectural design.

January 26, 2024

Over the last two decades, the field of architecture has made huge strides towards achieving gender balance. The industry continues to evolve on this front, and there is a growing recognition of diverse talents and voices across architecture and design disciplines. For Kristin Schreiner, Design Lead and an Associate at Martin Simmons Sweers (MSS), it is heartening to observe that gender equality in architecture is becoming the norm, reflecting the positive shifts in our profession.

A sizable cultural shift is already pushing the industry closer to equal representation. In this time of flux, with more women enrolled in architecture schools and entering the profession, how will the industry keep women at the table once they’re there?

We chatted with Kristin to explore how MSS is creating a culture of inclusivity, discuss the barriers to entry that still exist for women, and celebrate women’s progress in architecture. Here are some highlights of our conversation.

While it's still common for Kristin to be the only woman in a project meeting, this is happening less and less with each passing year.

“Gender representation in architecture is not really an issue I have spent much time thinking about, to be honest. But it is true that over my career, I am seeing less and less disparity there.”

Recent statistics bolster our optimism that gender disparity is likely an issue of the past. Representation of women in architecture has increased by ten percent over the past decade, bringing the national total to 38 percent (with close to 60 and 49 percent representation in P.E.I. and Quebec, respectively). Women constitute more than half of the class at nine of Canada’s 12 architectural schools, two of which are two-thirds women.

“There’s something interesting happening with enrollment. In the twelve architecture schools across Canada, the last few cohorts to graduate have been female dominated—as high as 60 percent.”

Early indicators of the cultural shift are an upward trend in enrolment and a wave of women entering the profession. When women graduate and join the workforce as architects, the industry will have to meet their needs at the same level that it meets the expectations of its male graduates.

In 2023, 60 percent of architects under the age of 30 were women. The challenge is to support these younger generations with effective communications, mentorship programs, succession planning, and leadership opportunities. Successful women role models can also play a vital role. For Kristin, it is strong mentorship and the ability to build on the strengths of each individual that is most critical, irrespective of gender.

“Recognizing the unique strengths and perspectives of each team member is what allows us to cultivate a strong design culture and to build dynamic project teams that can innovate and problem-solve at the highest level.”

A multi-disciplinary lens is also part of Kristin’s design philosophy. With a background in sociology and architecture, she received her Bachelor in Sociology from the University of Saskatchewan and a Master of Architecture from the University of Calgary, where she received the Henry Adams AIA Certificate and the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada Medal. Kristin is particularly focused on the sociocultural impact of architecture with experience developing design projects in Canada, the U.S., Europe, and Asia.

Before joining MSS, Kristin was Project Leader and Architect in Practice at Knippers Helbig Advanced Engineering in Germany, where she served as a Façade Consultant for the design offices of Steven Holl, Renzo Piano, and Diller Scofidio Renfro. Her work in Canada has included a number of projects in the public and social realms as well as a teaching role as an Adjunct Faculty at Waterloo Architecture.

“I have been very fortunate, as my own career path has really been an exploration of my own design interests—when I see someone doing great work, I really want to be a part of it and try to contribute. For me, it is less about who was doing that work and more about the work itself.”

While Kristin has not had the opportunity to work for female architects directly, there are women in the industry who have really inspired her along the way.

“Two women that I really admire in the profession are Patricia Patkau and Bridgette Shim. Patricia and her husband, John, run an award-winning architecture and design studio in Vancouver. Brigitte Shim is a principal at Shim-Sutcliffe Architects in Toronto. Each of them are able to skillfully choreograph really unique spatial experiences, selecting and composing materials to create rich and memorable spaces—and their ability to get things built with such a high level of craft, I really admire a lot!”

The elevation of women into prominent positions within the field can help contribute to greater diversity and vibrancy in architectural design. At MSS we believe that every individual has the capacity to bring distinctive and innovative design perspectives that beautifully mirror the multiplicities inherent in our society.

Achieving equal representation necessitates dismantling barriers that hinder women, such as addressing challenges related to raising a family, ensuring equal pay for equal work, and expanding leadership opportunities. Like in numerous professions, the struggle to balance family and work can be an obstacle.

“Architecture can be a difficult career to do part-time. A lot of women and men who want to have children may need that option at certain times in their careers. I think more pressure to accommodate these needs will naturally shift the culture.”

As Kristin points out, some aspects of the cultural shift will be organic. For true progress to be achieved, significant work is required at both industry and office levels.

“MSS is very aware of the importance of a culture of respect that values each individual. The studio is looking to attract more women and talent of all backgrounds into the practice based on these values. Their objective is to support a well-rounded team that brings diverse perspectives to each project.”

Kristin was attracted to working at MSS because of its intimate size and broad range of projects. She started her career at a design firm in the Yukon with five employees and was exposed to many different project types. MSS’s wide range of projects such as adaptive reuse and historic restoration work, single family homes, and the opportunity to design a community centre for a nonprofit organization appealed greatly to Kristin.

The rich local talent pool in the Waterloo Region was also a draw, and is appreciated by our team as well.

“The talent in Kitchener-Waterloo is outstanding. Isabel Ochoa and James Clarke Hicks, for example, are doing absolutely beautiful work in architectural ceramics and 3D printing with clay. Isabel and her partner, James, run a design company in Kitchener called OCH. The more we support and attract people like them, the more enticing it is for other creative professionals to live here, which allows a culture of collaboration and conversation to grow.”

To help create an inclusive design culture at MSS, Kristin initiated and spearheaded the MSS Design Exchange. This is a chance for the whole office to come together on a monthly basis to discuss a broad range of design topics. Recent topics have included “Affordable Housing”, “AI Tools in Architecture”, and the “Psychology of Urban Design”. While the sessions were initially geared toward architects and designers, it has since flourished into a forum that is open to everyone in the firm—which makes good sense to Kristin.

“Design isn’t something that’s contained in one part of the office; it’s woven throughout everyone’s workday and through each stage of a project. With our Design Exchange, we take turns choosing the topics and presenting; everyone in the office is welcome to lead a session and I am always looking for new ideas! We give you a voice at the table and we value you as an individual. Period. That’s the culture at MSS and I’m proud of how our Design Exchange has helped to build that.”

Interested in working for Martin Simmons Sweers? Check out our Culture and Careers Page to find out more about our studio and available positions.

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