Climbing the Ladder

New research from the VELA Project looks at gender equity in landscape architecture education.

By Zach Mortice

Research by Samantha Solano, ASLA, and TJ Marston from the VELA Project.

Samantha Solano, ASLA, and TJ Marston have peeked under the hood of gender equity in landscape architecture once again. After their groundbreaking (and 2021 ASLA Professional Award of Excellence–winning) research initiative the VELA (Visualizing Equity in Landscape Architecture) Project, in which the team aggregated 17,000 data points on women in leadership roles, they’ve turned their lens to the pipeline for women educators.

In their original research project, Marston and Solano found that while 55 percent of landscape architecture graduates are women, only 15 percent of firms identify as women-led. “I kept hearing, ‘Yeah, we just need more women in the pipeline,’” says Marston, a visiting instructor at Florida International University’s landscape architecture school. Pulling data from professional associations and schools, this research initiative first examined professional practice (licensure, ASLA leadership, professional awards, and career phase) and created data visualizations that made their findings vividly and instantly clear. “We were surprised that the data showed that it wasn’t a pipeline issue,” Marston says. “There are plenty of women going in. We’re just losing them.”

In the academic realm, Marston and Solano saw many of the same dynamics at play. Just as licensure became a point of attrition for women in professional practice, gaining tenure in academia is also a restrictive hurdle for women, with fewer and fewer women represented in the upper echelons of academic leadership.

Research by Samantha Solano, ASLA, and TJ Marston from the VELA Project.

Before they enter the job market, women do more than hold their own: VELA research showed that women earned 55 percent of ASLA Student Awards from 2004 to 2018. But there’s a steady drop-off after they graduate, with 10 percent of women leaving their field as they become eligible for the LARE exam, 15 percent departing during licensure and midcareer leadership, and another 15 percent attrition of women in advanced firm leadership. The VELA study also cataloged that from 1981 to 2018, less than 10 percent of ASLA Professional Awards have gone to women-led firms. Forty-five percent of tenure-track assistant professors identify as women, putting gender equity in striking distance. But from there, the rate of women represented drops down to 28 percent of full professors.

Research by Samantha Solano, ASLA, and TJ Marston from the VELA Project.

There’s reason to believe that at least some corners of academia might be a more equitable environment for women than professional practice. With their survey limited to public schools, which are often subject to regulations on equal representation, pay equity, and pay transparency, these metrics (especially academic salaries, which are comparable for men and women in landscape architecture on average) are more equitable. “You can see that reflected in the data,” says Marston. “Those regulations and transparencies have an effect on the opportunities for women.”

In private practice, younger staff, with fresher experiences of such academic environments, have a strong desire to see equity modeled in their workplaces, Marston says. Absent the regulations that schools must address, “in private practice, it’s really up to practitioners to see the demand in the workforce for these kinds of practices,” she says.

Research by Samantha Solano, ASLA, and TJ Marston from the VELA Project.

In March 2021, VELA presented their new research on equity in academia, examining graduation rates, faculty rank and salary, and research and teaching awards at the 2021 Council of Educators in Landscape Architecture conference, and last month they shared their graphics on the WxLA Instagram feed. Even in a relatively more equitable environment, Marston and Solano found plenty of room for improvement. Notably, only five women in 21 years have won ASLA’s prestigious Jot D. Carpenter Teaching Medal, which honors exceptional landscape architecture educators, and only 18 percent of emeritus faculty members (the highest level of academic leadership surveyed) identify as women. But there are bright spots. In 1975, there were only six tenure-track women landscape architecture professors. Now there are approximately 388 women throughout the United States teaching landscape architecture at universities across all faculty ranks. And there have been solid strides in junior faculty members, where parity is within reach. Forty-three percent of instructors and lecturers are women.

Research by Samantha Solano, ASLA, and TJ Marston from the VELA Project.

Across all faculty levels, more women are nontenured than tenured (43 percent vs. 39 percent respectively). Marston attributes this discrepancy to women’s need for career flexibility to balance often heavier loads of domestic responsibilities: a balance more amenable to adjunct roles. The emphasis on sole authorship of scholarly research demanded by academic tenure, she says, runs counter to the way landscape architecture is practiced collaboratively in firms, and becomes an additional barrier that inhibits women’s full participation as they balance commitments to their families. “I find that to be a problem in the academic track,” Marston says. “Women, at certain points in their lives, tend to have larger hurdles to overcome in terms of taking care of family. That sort of flexibility and the ability to work together with other people more and to find different ways of recognizing achievement not just based on sole authorship would help women to be more empowered.”

Research by Samantha Solano, ASLA, and TJ Marston from the VELA Project.

The first inquiry into gender equality in landscape architecture happened in the 1970s, with a 1973 study on women in the profession by Darwina Neal, who eventually became ASLA’s first woman president and recently received the 2021 ASLA Medal posthumously. Her study revealed that ASLA’s membership at that time was only 5 percent women. A report in 1975 by Miriam Rutz focused on the role of women in landscape architecture education.

Solano and Marston want to address minority representation next, and to illustrate the experiential dimensions of pervasive inequality as well. “There’s a connection between the data and those lived experiences,” Marston says. “That’s really important for these conversations, too, because that [can] help us understand why certain things happen, because that’s how you can pinpoint and problem-solve.”

One thought on “Climbing the Ladder”

  1. “Emeritus” does not necessarily refer to “…highest level of academic achievement…”,I think it is a term for a full professor who has retired. As more women move up the ranks and retire, let’s hope we will see more with that label…which is “emerita” for a woman !

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