Cynthia Phifer Kracauer

Cynthia Phifer Kracauer

The fight for gender equality has found its voice in architecture

Gender bias in architecture is not something conjured up out of the blue. For anyone who thinks men and women have equal footing in the field, here are some sobering facts: 42% of graduates from the nation’s architecture schools are women, but only 26% of current practitioners are; and just 17% of the principals and partners in architectural firms are women. And for those women who do persist in this male-dominated field, they make just $.76 on the dollar compared to male colleagues in equivalent positions.

Something is not right about that picture, and Cynthia Phifer Kracauer, a New York–based architect with nearly four decades of experience in the field, is working to do something about it. Formerly a principal at the New York design firm Swanke Hayden Connell, and more recently, the managing director of AIA-New York’s Center for Architecture, Kracauer became the executive director of the Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation, the profession’s premier women’s advocacy organization, this fall.

BWAF’s mission—“to change the culture of the building industry so that women’s work, in both contemporary practices and historical narratives, is acknowledged, respected, and valued”—is pursued through collaborative projects with the nation’s top design, engineering, and construction firms and institutions, including their signature annual event, the BWAF Industry Leaders Roundtable.

Shortly after accepting the position, Kracauer spoke with gb&d about her passion for raising the profile of women in architecture and improving their experience in the workplace. In the coming year, she will be launching a new BWAF initiative called Emerging Leaders, where a cohort of early career female architects will be mentored with the goal of preparing them for future “C-suite” roles.


“The leadership of firms really defines the character of the firm … The leaders of firms have to recognize that the women in their practice are not just cheaper and more hardworking, but are assets to the practice.”

Cynthia Phifer Kracauer

gb&d: What obstacles do women face in achieving equality in the field of architecture?

Kracauer: No woman my age has gone through their career without experiencing some of the numerous obstacles in this profession for women, starting with dealing with sexual harassment when you’re young. If you want to have children, there’s the difficulty of getting flexible scheduling and issues associated with that. If you don’t want to work 12-hour days, then you are not going to get promoted, you’re not going to get put on the best projects, and your career is going to stall until you can go back to that level of working. And that’s not really an option for women who have young children at home.

gb&d: And the disparity in pay certainly doesn’t help.

Kracauer: Right. It’s pretty well documented that women make about $.76 on the dollar in architecture. And as your career goes on, the compensation disparity gets wider and wider—it’s like compound interest. And you have to deal with a tremendous amount of unconscious bias in rooms full of men. I’m about to speak on this topic at a national convention of women in construction, so I’ve got my laundry list of less-than-neutral gender tropes ready to go.

gb&d: Tell us more about gender bias in the workplace.

Kracauer: There is a stereotype about how women are expected to behave. They are supposed to put relationships first, and they are supposed to be nice—that’s the biggest one.

gb&d: Whereas men are supposed to be cunning and competitive.

Kracauer: Right. Women are supposed to be nice and cooperative, not domineering. Then there are physical standards that don’t exist for men. It’s just not a level playing field for women. It doesn’t mean that women can’t be successful, but what it does mean is that…

gb&d: The cards are stacked against them?

Kracauer: Yes. It’s clear if you look at how many women are graduating from architecture schools, and then there is this huge drop-off when you look at women architects with 10 years of experience.

gb&d: What do you think happens to suck all of these women out of the pipeline?

Kracauer: We call it the leaky pipeline. If you want to be home at night with your children, you have to get assigned to a project where you don’t travel. That limits the kinds of projects you can take on. So you’re not flying to China every other week. If you can’t do all that traveling, you’re going to get stuck in your career.

gb&d: How did you navigate those challenges in your own career?

Kracauer: First I worked for a multi-state firm based in Philadelphia, and then I worked for Philip Johnson in New York, which was wonderful, but I had to do a lot of traveling. I was the project architect for the Transco Tower in Houston, a 65-story office building. And then I got pregnant and I couldn’t travel. Doctors don’t let you travel after the seventh month or so. This was in the early ’80s when there was very little accommodation for professional women having babies.

gb&d: What did you do?

Kracauer: I went back to teaching for a few years, and I had my own little practice on the side. Then I had another kid. So I got my childbearing out of the way while I was doing kitchens and family rooms—small-scale residential work. Which is typically how women stay occupied professionally when they are taking care of children. They start their own businesses.

gb&d: How did you make your way back to working in a major international firm and eventually becoming a principal?

Kracauer: After I had my own practice for about five years, my husband, who was working for a big firm, wanted to start his own office, and I was ready to do bigger scale work. So we sort of switched roles. I went and worked for a big firm, and my husband basically took over my practice. We were very lucky in that regard. We have two children—one is 34, the other is 30. We survived.

gb&d: You are living proof of what’s possible then.

Kracauer: Yes, and I want to help other women do the same, and men. Women talking to women about this is like a little echo chamber. We all remember getting fondled by the water cooler when we were 23, and what that may or may not have meant 30 years ago. But really what culture change is is having the entirety of society, men and women, understand the benefits of having healthier workplaces with flexible time for both parents. It’s also better for the children. It’s just a question of committing to some relatively simple changes.

gb&d: What specifically will it take to create more equality in architecture?

Kracauer: I think women will be more comfortable in the workplace when there are more female leaders at the top. I recently read a book called Women Don’t Ask, which talks about how women are afraid to negotiate, and that’s a big part of the problem. Part of the problem with pay disparity is that women don’t ask for more money because of a whole bunch of socially programmed behaviors. They are too invested in their relationships to be demanding, for example. There are a whole bunch of stereotypical feminine behaviors that keep women from asking for what they need.

gb&d: What is BWAF doing to support women in architecture practice?

Kracauer: The tagline for the Beverly Willis Foundation is “changing the culture of the building industry,” and that’s really what’s starting to happen. There are firms now that are really trying to make it better. One of the really wonderful things about my job is I get to see how that is playing itself out in lots of different kinds of firms. There are women’s initiatives in some firms, where women get together and they support each other. In some firms they are trying to figure out what kinds of things the firm as a whole can do from a human resources standpoint to support female employees.

gb&d: Presumably the more society moves in that direction, the more the design industry will as well.

Kracauer: Yes. Things like sharing child care responsibilities between the fathers and the mothers is good for everybody. But that’s a real culture change. When I was studying architecture in the ’70s, a lot of the schools were just starting to go coed, and there was a lot of social upheaval. Then there was a second wave of feminism, and I think now that there has been a whole generation that has cycled through in a different cultural milieu, a lot of organizations and institutions are looking at the things that have worked, and the things that haven’t worked.

gb&d: Are men typically encouraged to participate in the women’s initiatives you mentioned at certain firms?

Kracauer: Yes, men are encouraged to participate. The leadership of firms really defines the character of the firm. Architecture has always been very “great man”-centric. The leaders of firms have to recognize that the women in their practice are not just cheaper and more hardworking, but are assets to the practice.

gb&d: I understand that one of your top strategies at BWAF is to promote women as leaders, to get them into executive roles.

Kracauer: That’s exactly it. We have a number of programs that we do in order to help women get into leadership positions. Every year for the last six years we’ve had a program called the Industry Leaders Roundtable retreat, with very high-level women and men who are leaders in the industry, to discuss and make plans for how to change the culture within architecture. The studio culture that comes out of architecture schools is a gendered thing. It takes a lot of hard work, and a lot of engaged conversation between the men in the office and the women in the office in order to get everybody to understand how to get beyond their gender stereotyping.

gb&d: Sometimes even men with the right intentions don’t necessarily help when it comes to concrete changes.

Kracauer: That’s true. At the roundtable retreat we do these really interesting “disentangling your stereotype” exercises. It’s all about exposing your own unconscious biases.

gb&d: Tell us about your Emerging Leaders program.

Kracauer: Emerging Leaders is a project we’re just getting off the ground right now. It will be a selective cohort intended for women who are 5 to 10 years out of school, the time where you are ready to choose your path, if you will—either a path that’s going to lead you to a leadership position, or not. We want to try to equip women for leadership positions by doing negotiation training, public speaking and presentation training, leadership skills development, communication skills—instrumental business-oriented training to make a stronger cohort going in to those promotion decisions.

gb&d: What does the negotiation training look like?

Kracauer: When you go to business school, you take classes in the strategies of negotiating. You’re setting a goal, you’re setting a floor. And you have to research comparable situations—certainly where salary is concerned. If you don’t know how much people are making, than it’s very difficult to know what your top line could be. What’s great about these active participation programs is that you do role-playing to practice. The trainer sets up scenarios that you act through.

gb&d: Sounds invaluable!

Kracauer: It’s pretty well understood that women have a lot of anxiety around negotiation, but just by virtue of practicing you’re able to lose some of the anxiety. Women don’t have as much of a problem with negotiation on behalf of other people, but with negotiating for themselves. Women want to be nice, but negotiating and nice are two challenging ideas to hold in your head at the same time.

gb&d: What else are you working on?

Kracauer: One thing is equal pay for equal work. One would think that should be the law by now. We also do a lot of mentoring. We make ourselves available to a number of other organizations, like the AIA and an organization called Women Executives in Real Estate, which has a lot of architects. As far as changing the culture, we use the Leaders Roundtable to highlight best practices and get people exposed to firms that are using best practices.

gb&d: Any firms that you’d like to honor for their work in closing the gender gap?

Kracauer: Definitely. Firms like Perkins + Will are at the forefront of creating healthy, supportive workplaces. SOM (Skidmore Owings & Merrill) is also working on it actively. One of the firms doing a wonderful job on the engineering side is Arup. With engineering firms there are so few women—it’s not even a leaky pipeline, they just aren’t getting women into engineering schools. At the end of the day, these kinds of changes are about having a population that is sustainable. As a species, we have to be able to accommodate women having children.

gb&d: In many ways, resolving gender issues is crucial to the future viability of any business—in other words, it’s about sustainability.

Kracauer: Exactly. Historically, when men have children it’s like a bonus for them; and when women have children, it’s a detriment. That’s a pretty antiquated way of thinking. In terms of creating a better world for our children, whether one is focusing on environmental sustainability, or climate change, or whatever, the underlying value is preserving our planet for future generations. But we also have to produce those future generations!

gb&d: Which means we need to find a way for women to be good mothers and contribute professionally in a significant way.

Kracauer: Deciding to be an architect as a woman should not mean having to decide not to have children. I look at the culture change that occurred around energy efficiency and sustainability as a really wonderful example of how culture can change. The energy codes were changed, our standards of practice in terms of insulation and curtainwall construction and debris removal, and so many other things, have changed. Human resources also have to be sustainable.

gb&d: Perhaps making gender equality part and parcel to sustainability is the way forward?

Kracauer: Sustainability is one of those great cultural shift successes that gives me hope that the culture can change, and things can be better. So I’m actually very optimistic. Though the election has made me a little nervous. But one of the things that’s been very interesting about it is that it has revealed the tremendous amount of gender bias against Hillary. It has brought it to the surface and everybody is really talking about it, which I think means the culture will change. Once you peel off the nasty outer coating and start looking at the blood pumping underneath, you begin to actually affect real change.