Women Working in Architecture: Taking Steps Towards Inclusivity

Mar 09 2023

It is no secret that the architecture industry has a diversity problem.  

The architecture industry is dominated by white men, particularly those who are of good socioeconomic standing. According to the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB), white men make up 66% of the architecture population. White women are the next most represented group, making up 19% of the population of architects, with every other gender and racial/ethnic group making up less than 4% of NCARB-certified population.  

There are a lot of factors contributing to the lack of diversity in architecture. There are many barriers of entry to the field, such as: 

  • Costs of education, testing, and certifications 
  • Lack of exposure to role models or mentorships 
  • Considerable time commitments 
  • Unwelcoming and discriminatory working environments  

In honor of Women’s History Month, we interviewed three women architects who are currently shaping their profession and their communities. These women talk about the successes and challenges they have met in the industry, ways in which the industry can become more accessible to women, and their advice for women looking to break into the industry.  


Yi Luo has more than 15 years of experience in the field of architecture and design with a focus on life science, commercial, multifamily, mixed-use projects, and renovations. Since graduating with her Master of Architecture from Tulane University, she has gained a wealth of experience and has worked in Florida, Louisiana, and New York before joining MHAworks more than 5 years ago. During her time at MHAworks, she has worked on many new construction and renovations projects. 

Q: When did you first realize you wanted to become an architect?

I took a drafting class when I was in high school and was fascinated by the drafting sets that we used in class. We had these drafting sets that were made in the early 1900s that were basically metal, tweezer-like tools that you would dip in ink and adjust the size in order to make anything appear on the page. I was fascinated by the amount of precision, thought, and physical skill that had to go into each line, and the fact that you had to master such a simple tool before even getting any thoughts or ideas down

Q: What pieces of advice do you have for women looking to break into the architecture industry?

I would tell anyone looking to break into this industry to keep an open mind. Forget everything you thought you knew about architecture and start from scratch. Start your career off with a student mindset and learn from those around you and your various experiences. Once you stop thinking you always know better, you’ll grow. And once you’ve gained some experience, learn to trust your own judgement. It’s a delicate balancing game to keep your mind open and to trust yourself.

Q: What is your proudest career-related accomplishment?  

Rebuilding and renovating sites in New Orleans following hurricane Katrina were some of the most rewarding projects I’ve worked on throughout my career. It was amazing to see these different buildings restored and become used again by the community.  

Q: What steps should the A/E/C industry take to be more accessible to women? 

Taking a more collaborative approach to the design process to ensure that all team members have a voice while working on projects instead of a top-down approach. It is important that every member of the team feels like their voices are heard and that their creativity is encouraged.   

Q: How has the industry changed since you first started?

Since I’ve started, architectural design seems a lot more corporate and branded these days. For a long time people explored interesting ideas and put them out there in the public sphere. Some were outlandish and some were pretty amazing, but they were projects that made people respond. It seems like in recent years design has taken a back seat, and now it’s more about implementing or maintaining a brand as design in order to sell an image.  

Julia Brewer, AIA, NCARB 

Since beginning her career in architecture after graduating from NC State University more than 10 years ago, Julia Brewer has worked in a variety of different areas of design ranging from residential interiors to commercial, medical, and historic renovations. Julia has experience in every project stage from predesign to construction administration. 

Q: When did you first realize you wanted to become an architect? 

For me it was a gradual process. Growing up, I always knew I wanted to do something artistic, but it wasn’t until high school that I realized that I wanted to become an architect. After high school, I went to NC State for architecture, and it was sort of a love at first sight kind of situation. I’m very lucky in that not everybody goes to college and knows what they want to do and sticks with the same major. 

Q: What pieces of advice do you have for women looking to break into the architecture industry?  

Don’t let people talk you out of it. The process to become an architect and to become licensed is long and hard, and you really must be your own cheerleader throughout that process.  

Q: What is your proudest career-related accomplishment?  

Completing the Eastowne Medical Office Building in Chapel Hill for UNC Health was one of my favorite moments. The process of designing this project took several years, we first started working on it in 2017 and didn’t finish it until 2020. It’s amazing to drive past the building and see people using it and know that I played a role in making that place possible.  

Q: What women in the industry have you been inspired by?  

I love history and I listen to a lot of podcasts about historical events and figures and it’s so interesting to hear stories about women in the industry who don’t necessarily get highlighted often. Julia Morgan was the first woman to pass the entrance exam in architecture for the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts. Other famous women architects like Denise Scott Brown and Jeanne Gang are also very inspiring.  

However, I’m even more inspired by the women I work with locally that are in the industry and all the amazing women who work with me at MHAworks.   

Q: What steps should the A/E/C industry take to be more accessible to women?  

Everyone always talks about the importance of visibility, and it sounds cheesy but it’s true. It is important to highlight the women in the industry through featuring them in articles and other forms of media because we are here. There are lots of women in the industry currently, and there haven’t always been, but now when you walk into an architecture class it’s about a 50/50 split between men and women.  

Emily Burleson, AIA 

Emily Burleson began her career in architecture in 2015 after receiving her Bachelor of Architecture at UT Knoxville. While at MHAworks, she has honed her expertise while working on many multifamily and mixed-use projects. Emily is a well-rounded designer with strengths in both concept and technical design.  

Q: When did you first realize you wanted to become an architect? 

I went straight to architecture school after high school. What I knew about the career seemed to be a good fit for my aptitudes and I was fortunate to be able to shadow a few architects as I made that decision. I didn’t attend NC State, but I remember going on a tour there where the dean made a remark that “you are in the right place if you just have to make things.”  

Q: Did you have a mentor to help you become an architect? If so, what advice did they give you that helped you the most?  

I’ve been very fortunate to have had some strong mentors along the way. I think looking back, their most significant impact has been in inspiring my own confidence. Mentorship is such a critical aspect of coming up in this industry, I would add that to my list of advice for those younger than I am – choose a firm based on mentorship opportunities.  

Q: What pieces of advice do you have for women looking to break into the architecture industry?  

Don’t be intimidated by joining a career that has a historic reputation for being male dominated. Be confident in what you have to offer as an individual. I can’t say you won’t face barriers that men do not, and while it is taxing and unfortunate, I will say that it is possible to advocate for your individual access to opportunity and growth. Seeking out women mentors, and even role models, is very helpful.  

Q: What women in the industry have you been inspired by?  

First and foremost, I am inspired by the large group of women that I am fortunate to work with at MHAworks. Their friendship and camaraderie are a source of support in the day to day that allows for inspiration and creativity.  

Some well-known female architects that come to mind as inspiring to me in their design work and achievements are Annabelle Selldorf and Billie Tsien.  

Q: What steps should the A/E/C industry take to be more accessible to women?  

Not all women are or will become mothers, but removing barriers to women is absolutely dependent on an industry shift towards more family friendly workplace policies and maternity support from employers.  

Taking Steps Towards Inclusivity 

The architecture industry still has a long way to go to be more inclusive, but there are many ways firms around the world can work together to help make the industry more accessible for anyone who wants to be a part of it.  

A few ways architecture firms can help encourage others to join the industry:  

  1. Uplifting the voices and experiences of women and minorities in the industry.  
  1. Visibility in the community and in schools.  
  1. Providing internships and mentorship opportunities.  
  1. Shifting towards more family friendly workplace policies to empower working parents.