Why are women so rare in the influential field of architectural technology? Ceilidh Higgins considers the tech gender divide and the impact of this on women’s careers.

Women in BIM copy

Photo courtesy of BrisBIM.

In my writing and research I have questioned if architects will be replaced by robots or computers, and come to the conclusion that while computers are taking over the architectural office, we still have humans to tell them what to do. As Achim Menges, professor at Stuttgart Institute of Computational Design, comments, “this process can bring out the best in both humans and computers”. But is this going to be humans or is this going to be men?

Why are more women in our professions not embracing the possibilities technology can offer architectural (or interior design, or engineering) practice today? With rapid advances in technology and their increasing importance across the industry, it’s a question worth pondering.

The accidental techie

I fell into the world of design technology almost by accident. While I have always been pretty good with computers and was super-fast at drafting with CAD, I was never particularly focused on architectural computing and technology in the way some of my peers were. My university skills in Photoshop, 3D Studio Max and Rhino never advanced beyond beginner level. When I was first introduced to BIM by means of Revit in 2005, I could see its value as a tool, but figured I didn’t have time to learn it. I thought I’d better make sure I hired some people for my team who could really do this BIM thing. Fast forward to 2014 and I was presenting at BIM conferences in Melbourne and Chicago, and attending others in Sydney and Perth. How did that happen? Particularly as I still don’t primarily work in design technology – in fact, I lead a team of interior designers, one of the areas of architecture that has been the slowest to take up BIM.

I became passionate about BIM when I recognised how this technology could improve and change our practice. In particular, I loved the way it lets us focus on design rather than routine checking or documentation. I quickly became a key driver of Revit implementation in the Sydney office of my employer, a large multidisciplinary company. (At the time, the practice was a leader in implementing Revit in other locations.) My enthusiasm led to my being selected to attend the 2009 Revit Technology Conference (RTC) in Melbourne, and my involvement with the BIM community in Australia and worldwide grew from there.

I discovered the male-dominated nature of the BIM world on my first morning at RTC. Until then, I hadn’t thought about the gender divide one way or the other. My company BIM team was male-dominated, but this was no surprise – the company was primarily engineers. But, as I was standing chatting with my only female colleague, a guy came up to us and said, “It’s great to see there are women here this year!” As he walked away, we asked each other what kind of conference we had come to. Over the following days, it became clear that, although there were other women delegates (and a very few presenting), men dominated this technology space already – and this was in the days before there really was such a thing as BIM management.

The tech gender gap

While much has been written about the gender gap in architecture generally, there is very little about the gender gap in digital technology in the profession. In late 2014, Daniel Davis wrote an article for Architect, the journal of the American Institute of Architects on the subject. While Davis’s article is about gender inequity across all levels, the introductory paragraph references the ZeigWhite 2013 Information Technology Survey, which found that only 5% of technology directors in American architecture firms were women.

Recently I raised the question of the gender gap in architectural technology to a panel of female architects at the University of Sydney. They replied that in their offices women are actively engaged with BIM and suggested that the gap existed at the management level. However, I see this divide occurring at a deeper level.

The gender divide in architectural technology is not simply a reflection of gender equity issues in middle to upper management of the profession. It existed before there were management roles and super salaries at stake. (On that note, it is worth remembering that today a BIM manager or even BIM project lead will likely be on a higher salary than the project architects. Is this another contributor to women’s lower salaries across architecture?)

It is quite possible that around half of the day-to-day software users in your average architectural practice are women, but there is a big gap between people who are simply using the software as they are taught and those who push the boundaries of what it can do and become implementers of change within their practices. And yes, many of these people become BIM managers – but there are many more of them who are not yet or, like me, who are not interested in following this career path (clearly stupid of me given the salaries!). These are the people who are at BIM conferences, events and social get-togethers alongside the BIM managers – and very few of these people are women.

One day when I was scrolling though the speaker list for an event I was attending, a director passing behind my screen asked me if I was on a dating website – all these male mugshots! This year the speakers’ page for RTC Australia lists eight women from a total of around 80 speakers. This ratio is consistent with figures quoted in Daniel Davis’s article. While most of my anecdotal experience is within Australia, my connections in the UK and Europe suggest that the situation is similar there.

The future in code

Even more frightening for the future of women in architecture is their lack of participation in coding and programming. It’s quite possible that in the not-so-distant future, large-scale architectural design will be driven by code. As Daniel Davis says, “Technologists are no longer support staff working for architects: They are often the executives leading them.” Many designers will also soon be coders. At the moment there are very few women making their mark in the world of Dynamo, a visual programming language used with Revit. Whilst there are certainly women out there using Dynamo, at the more advanced and more public, level of teaching and blogging or they become even harder to find. At the various RTC events around the world this year, only one woman taught a Dynamo class, and she was an employee of Autodesk the software company, not an industry practitioner.

Why is this gender inequity in technology so prevalent and why is it important? Do women dislike computers and technology? I know it’s not because women are inferior when it comes to using technology. So why the disparity in interest and participation? It’s an important subject for discussion, because the future of architecture, and construction (certainly at the larger scale, beyond the single boutique house) will be firmly embedded in technology. Women’s lack of participation now could see them locked out of key roles in the future, and the salaries that go with them. Will the situation change as a younger, more tech-savvy generation enters the workforce?  It seems any change is at least a generation away, as female university students involved in the world of technology are still a clear minority. Will this entrench the gender imbalance already prevalent in architecture for generations to come?

If you are a woman working in architectural technology (particularly in Sydney) and want to increase your profile or share your knowledge by speaking at events or meeting up with others in practice, please get in touch with me and I would be happy to help facilitate this.


Ceilidh Higgins is a Senior Associate at Daryl Jackson Robin Dyke Architects where she leads their interior design team. She is an interior designer, GreenStar accredited professional and BIM specialist with a background in architecture. Ceilidh blogs at The Midnight Lunch and tweets at @ceilidhhiggins.