Norma Sklarek – The first African-American woman licensed to practice Architecture in the U.S.
The untimely death of prolific architect Zaha Hadid has spurred a new conversation about the massive gender disparity in the field of architecture.
While the field remains male dominated, the number of women who receive accredited architecture degrees continues to climb each year. The overall growth, however, remains fairly slow. Women now make up over 40% of the total number of individuals who complete architecture programs, but only about 25% of the total number of licensed architects.
Women architects face challenges on a social level, in particular. They report often being mistaken for subordinates or are met with disbelief when they state their occupation as an architect.
“For a woman to go out alone in architecture is still very, very hard,” Zaha Hadid once said. “It’s still a man’s world.” Hadid was always candid about the adversity that women architects face. She even resisted being held up as a marker of progress in her field, but the title was still attached to her.
The challenges for African-American women architects are even greater, with black women representing less than 1% of the field.
Atlanta-based architect Farida Abu-Bakare tells The New York Times,
“African-American women make up less than 0.3 percent of the architecture industry. There are approximately 300 licensed African-American women architects in the whole of the United States. I am a rarity in the field. It’s overwhelming being in an industry that doesn’t see your demographic enough to correlate it with the occupation you love.”
These surprising figures come over 60 years after Norma Sklarek became the first African-American woman licensed to practice Architecture in the United States. Sklarek, who made history by becoming the first black woman director of Gruen Associates, a prestigious firm based in Los Angeles, talked about the challenges she faced,
According to the Los Angeles Times,
After graduating, she applied for jobs but was turned down 19 times. “They weren’t hiring women or African Americans, and I didn’t know which it was [working against me,]” she told the Palisadian-Post in 2004.
She finally found a position with the city’s engineering department. On her first try, she passed the four-day state licensing exam and, in 1955, was hired at Skidmore, Owings, Merrill, a leading architectural and engineering firm.
During her time with Gruen, Sklarek oversaw several high-profile projects, including the California Mart, Pacific Design Center, Fox Hills Mall, San Bernardino City Hall, Leo Baeck Temple and the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo.
After Sklarek’s 2012 passing, her life and career were memorialized and a new series of discussions about diversity in architecture turned the focus to African-American women.