Women in Design Awards

Sally Levine

In the late 1990s, Boston Society of Architects (BSA) president Rebecca Barnes thought it was time to re-energize a focus on women. This resulted in the creation of the Women in Design (WID) Network. Concurrently, on the national level, the American Institute of Architects (AIA) decided to merge the Women in Architecture and the Minority Architects committees to form the Committee on Diversity. I was pretty sure that women’s voices would be lost in that scenario; yet in Boston a group of women wanted to give women’s voices a place to be heard.  And not just “A” (architect) women—but the broader category of “D” (design) women. I was impressed.

As the network took shape, Gretchen von Grossman stepped forward with the suggestion that the Conversations—monthly programs sponsored by the WID Network—be given a wider audience. In 2000, she put together the first Women in Design conference, and the event has grown each year since then.      

I think the last thing the architectural field needs is one more awards program. In fact, I think architecture gives out too many awards. Yet here I was, suggesting to Gretchen, Rebecca, and others that we develop a WID awards program. I wanted to accept a challenge that had been articulated five years earlier. In the introductory essay to CARY’s More than the Sum of our Body Parts exhibit catalog, Dr. Roberta Feldman, professor in the School of Architecture at the University of Illinois at Chicago, stated that architects “cannot expect architecture to become more inclusive without confronting how all architects are educated and kept informed about what is happening in the field as well as how architects receive commissions, carry out their work, evaluate its consequences, and gain recognition.” With a new awards program, I saw a framework by which to confront how architects gain recognition.

Over the next several months, I met with many women from the building professions to discuss their definitions of success, their thoughts on what made for a successful career, and what they considered worthy of recognition. Together, we analyzed the criteria used in existing awards programs to get a handle on the underlying assumptions embedded in the criteria for those awards. Was there something about the criteria that, up until that point, made the awards a better fit for men than women? These awards programs included the Pritzker Prize, the AIA Gold Medal, the Royal Institute of British Architects’ (RIBA) Gold Medal, and the AIA/ACSA Topaz Medallion for Excellence in Architectural Education. We asked: was success achieved solely through a singular body of work? Did success come as the result of a well-defined linear path?  Was success competitive or collaborative? What makes a career successful? And what makes that successful career worthy of recognition?

We identified many shared criteria; additionally, we identified notable omissions from the aforementioned awards’ listed standards: process, collaboration, inclusiveness, and ethics. We wondered if these traits were more apparent to women or more important to women; what we did know was that those concepts were important to us.

The results of our research and conversations were summarized in the four “P”sthe four criteria developed for the WID Award of Excellence.


  • A living person who works or has worked in the New England area

  • Ethical, confident, exemplifies exceptional excellence

  • Brings multiple experiences to work in the design of the built environment

Process - Celebrates the "long and winding road"

- Shares responsibilities and information and cares for others’ well-being

- Invites and encourages participation; opens doors for others


  • Demonstrates exceptional excellence and reflects process

  • Content of design and built work:

    • Formal design issues and programmatic experience in equal measure

  • Content of nondesign and nonbuilt work (i.e. writing, teaching):

    • Formal design issues and programmatic experience in equal measure


  • Success has been achieved well and then used well

  • Affects change in the design community and the public at large

  • Position/success is part of an evolving career

We wanted to be sure that we lived up to our commitment to inclusivity. We decided that the best way to assure that we met our goal was to present the award to more than one person each year. Typically, we recognize three people. Over the years, the selection committee has chosen:

  • Architects

  • Landscape architects

  • Interior designers

  • Writers

  • Educators

  • Advocates

  • Artists

  • Graphic designers

  • Engineers

  • Community Leaders

Many, if not all, of the recipients fill more than one category.

I cannot tell you how many people asked me, “Why not just give the award to one person?”  The answer was simple. This decision allowed us to celebrate the many ways individuals contribute to the built environment. What we did not anticipate was that the shared experience of each class of recipients elevated the meaning of the award. In contrast to the single-winner award, recipients of the WID award often have expressed how honored they feel to be in the company of that year’s cohort.  

The annual awards luncheon during the WID conference is joyful and inspiring. Some awardees always knew their professional goals and reached them, some were dissuaded from their goals but found their path back, some explored many avenues before discovering their direction, and others practically fell into the positions that have brought them so much satisfaction.  

Has this awards program confronted the way architects gain recognition?
Has it had an impact on the ways we think about success? Or honor success?

For me, these are the ongoing questions. I hope there has been some positive impact—I leave that for others to decide. In the meantime, I am confident that there are many women who continue to be successful and meet the criteria of the WID Award of Excellence.