GAME CHANGERS: Rosa Sheng and Equity by Design Are Using Data to Make Architecture More Equitable

Equity by Design’s work—which includes architects like Lilian Asperin, Julia Mandell, and Annelise Pitts—is collaborative and cumulative, rooted in feminist activism and building on work by multiple groups.
rosa sheng equity by design game changers

Rosa Sheng founded Equity by Design, which is also led by Lilian Asperin, Julia Mandell, and Annelise Pitts. Courtesy John Lee


Rosa Sheng had been an architect at Bohlin Cywinski Jackson’s San Francisco office for nearly 20 years when she thought about leaving the field. While pregnant with her first child, she worked on a number of high-profile projects—among them the patented design for Apple’s retail stores. Then, as the Great Recession hit, she had her second child. Architecture work ground to a halt, and she realized she was struggling with postpartum depression, an experience she likens to “swimming upstream.”

“I felt like I couldn’t be a good parent or a good architect,” she recalls. “People say there are barriers, but you don’t believe it until you experience them.”

Now Sheng has just completed her term as 2018 president of the American Institute of Architects San Francisco (AIASF), the first Asian-American woman to hold that title. Equity by Design (EQxD), the AIASF committee she founded in 2013, released findings from its 2018 survey of career experiences—its largest data set to date—at a packed symposium at the San Francisco Art Institute in November. And she is looking ahead to initiatives at SmithGroup, which she joined as principal in 2017 and where she directs the ambitious Equity, Diversity & Inclusion program—in addition to leading the higher education studio at SmithGroup San Francisco.

In short, Sheng has become a leader in the deepening movement to achieve equity in a historically unequal field. She emphasizes that EQxD’s work—which she shares with architects Lilian Asperin, Julia Mandell, and Annelise Pitts—is collaborative and cumulative, rooted in feminist activism and building on work by groups like the Architecture Lobby, the National Organization of Minority Architects, and the AIA itself. Meanwhile, the 2016 election and #MeToo have fostered a sense of urgency and ushered in new voices.

EQxD’s origins go back to 2009, as Sheng was considering leaving her chosen field. AIASF had been hosting a series of discussions, dubbed “The Missing 32%,” referring to the rate of attrition between women who graduate with architecture degrees and who become licensed. “We could discuss things,” she recalls of the events. “Why are women leaving the profession? Why is the profession stuck in its old ways and bad habits of long hours, low pay, and non-supportive male-dominated environments?”

One topic that drew particular attention was a 2013 Change.org petition— launched by Caroline Amory James and Arielle Assouline-Lichten of Harvard’s Women in Design group—to retroactively name Denise Scott Brown co–Pritzker laureate with Robert Venturi, who was awarded the prize in 1991.

The Pritzker board rejected the petition. Soon after, critic Alexandra Lange wrote a piece in this magazine titled “Has [the] Pritzker Controversy Brought About Architecture’s Lean In Moment?” In it, Lange called for a “new set of best practices”—a “design project in itself, based on data, shared examples, and interpretations”—to address the profession’s stark gender problem.

Sheng, ready for a spark, lit up. “People react differently to data versus anecdotes,” she explains. “What if there were a way to find out what was truly happening, and through that diagnostic create solutions to these challenges?”

rosa sheng equity by design game changers

Equity by Design cochairs Asperin (left) and Mandell (right) addressed the symposium in November 2018. Courtesy Rosa Sheng


In July 2013 Sheng founded what would become EQxD and assembled a team that included Asperin, Mandell, Pitts, and Saskia Dennis-van Dijl. By 2015, it had expanded its focus to encompass career stages, race, sexual orientation, and gender identity.

To date, EQxD has conducted the largest U.S. survey on equity in the architecture field, and its data set is growing; in 2018, 14,360 individuals weighed in, from all 50 states, compared with 8,864 people in 2016. Besides promising an evolving demographic snapshot of the industry, the analysis—led by Pitts, who is EQxD’s chair of research—provides a shared vocabulary to describe key challenges, like “pinch points,” or times (like having a child) when individuals most often leave the field. (Part of the discussion EQxD has generated centers on how firms can support employees at those vulnerable times, instead of losing them.)

EQxD’s leaders have worked to turn EQxD’s data trove toward institutional change—as in 2015, when, with the help of architects Francis Pitts and Julia Donoho, Sheng drafted AIA Resolution 15-1, which called for a task force on actively advancing equity. Approved by the AIA board at its national convention, the task force (on which Sheng served) helped create the more lasting Equity and Future of Architecture Committee and the AIA’s Guides for Equitable Practice, which started rolling out in November.

Certainly, this is no sweeping revolution, but incremental and bureaucratic. For Sheng, though, such advances show that data does shift culture at the top in ways individual stories have not. Lange, writing in 2013, called data “ideal for both the age of the infographic and for sharing on social media. Numbers take the discussion away from the individual case…and toward the wider problem.” In 2019, social media is inarguably individualistic, powerful precisely as a personalized platform. #MeToo, which affirms survivors’ personal experiences on a collective scale, became possible precisely because of this culture.

In this sense, EQxD is well positioned as a platform for an evolving, labor-intensive conversation in which non-patriarchal narratives have reclaimed cultural currency, while still drawing on the authority that data provides. It has hosted five symposia for such conversations, building, for some attendees, a sense of community solidarity in the process. The November event, which Asperin and Mandell cochaired, lifted up more stories thanks to an increasingly detailed data set. Because of its more robust data on race, for example, there is now evidence that in the past two years, the gap in career advancement between white men and white women has narrowed, while the gap between white men and all respondents of color has widened. There is much work ahead.

Sheng, a self-proclaimed “work in progress,” is glad she stayed in architecture: “It’s that feeling of being swept away by the excitement, like, ‘Wow! There’s something here we can influence and help to change.’”

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Categories: Architecture