The "right time" to pursue architecture?

Sep 16, 2019

There’s plenty of support out there for women in the AEC industry, but the stats still have to catch up to the sentiment.

Not long ago I was on Facebook and a post showed up on my newsfeed from someone in an “Architects” group. The person wrote, “I’m 30 years old and a single mom. Do you think it’s already too late for me to pursue architecture?”

I quickly read through the 131 comments. Judging by the names and pictures of most of the other members of this group, many of the people who commented were male and international. I was surprised that most of the comments were positive and supportive.

Here are a few of my favorites (some are edited slightly for ease of reading):

  • “It’s not too late. Design is mainly a personal passion. Even if you start at 50, it is still OK.”
  • “I was 42 when I got my master’s degree in architecture. You’re far younger than you even realize! Ask yourself this: Would you rather be 35 and in the same place, or 35 and an architect? Either way you’ll be 35. Might as well be an architect too, right?”
  • “You already solved the kids problem. Go for it. With your maturity and energy, you have more chances to succeed than your future classmates.”
  • “It’s never too late for anything! Considering all the s*@t building around the world, there’s plenty of room for talent ;).”
  • “Never too late ... Geoffrey Bawa, the master architect from Sri Lanka, started his architecture in his 40s ... He was a barista ... qualified in U.K. ... Hidden talent was discovered and pursued. He became an internationally acclaimed architect … with some signature designs.”
  • “30 is nothing. Think about it. Average life is 70. If you start now it can be finished by the time you are 35. That means 35 years in architecture. It’s worth it and you deserve it. Just do it.”
  • “It’s never ever too late to fulfill a dream. Go for it, dear, and teach your child what it means to be passionate. Wish you all the best.”

I’ll admit I got a little emotional reading this outpouring of support and encouragement, but one comment did sit a little uneasy with me – the one about the “kids problem.” I don’t think the AEC industry is alone in presenting a “kids problem” for young people (to generalize, women), but Zweig Group’s data does show it’s an issue that isn’t being addressed.

According to the recently released 2019 Recruitment and Retention Survey of AEC Firms, 43 percent of firms are now specifically recruiting women to ensure a diverse, non-discriminatory culture. We know firms have to recruit women, because more of them are pursuing degrees in STEM and design-related fields. More of them are entering the workforce, but the data shows they aren’t staying. More than 90 percent of firm principals are men. What’s happening to all the women?

Many women leave the industry in their late 20s and early 30s. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that only 21 percent of firms provide paid maternity leave, with an average length of time of 5.4 weeks. Nearly half, 41 percent of AEC firms, have no maternity leave (64 percent have no paternity leave). That means if someone gets pregnant and has a child, they have to use PTO or sick leave. The average number of PTO days is now 22, and the median is 16, across all AEC firm types and job roles. This means for a woman, even if you could manage to not take a single day off work all year for any reason and work until the day you gave birth, you may only have two to three weeks to recover and spend time with your newborn before having to go back to work full-time.

Just about half of all firms are subject to the Family and Medical Leave Act, which says that covered employers must grant an eligible employee up to a total of 12 work weeks of unpaid leave during any 12-month period for one or more of the following reasons: Birth and care of a newborn child of the employee; placement with the employee of a son or daughter for adoption or foster care; care for an immediate family member (spouse, child, or parent) with a serious health condition; or to take medical leave when the employee is unable to work because of a serious health condition. Of the firms which are subject to this act, the median number of employees who have taken leave over the past year is just three.

These numbers above only address the issue of becoming a parent, not even the challenges faced by single working parents who already have children.

My experience in the industry, highlighted by the comments above, is that many people working in the AEC industry are supportive of each other, encouraging to those entering the industry, and supportive of more diverse teams. However, policy doesn’t reflect these attributes. It’s time for a change and more progressive policies. The tech industry has done it, and found ways to continue to encourage productivity and profitability – the AEC industry can do it too!

Christina Zweig Niehues is director of research and e-commerce at Zweig Group. She can be reached at

About Zweig Group

Zweig Group, three times on the Inc. 500/5000 list, is the industry leader and premiere authority in AEC firm management and marketing, the go-to source for data and research, and the leading provider of customized learning and training. Zweig Group exists to help AEC firms succeed in a complicated and challenging marketplace through services that include: Mergers & Acquisitions, Strategic Planning, Valuation, Executive Search, Board of Director Services, Ownership Transition, Marketing & Branding, and Business Development Training. The firm has offices in Dallas and Fayetteville, Arkansas.