Women reframe the conversation around equity in architecture

WLS 2019 Crowd

At biannual AIA Women's Leadership Summit, women from across the country gathered to advance equity in architecture.

The Women’s Leadership Summit 2019 gave architects and design professionals the space and tools to rethink how they approach growth in their careers.

The facts are there. Women in architecture have faced adversity throughout the profession’s history. With the ever-present (but luckily, thinning) gender gap in firm leadership to #MeToo accusations that compelled the industry to action in 2018, architects are just starting to grapple with issues pertaining to gender equity in the workforce. AIA and firms are making strides to advance ethical and equitable practice through small and large commitments, but women’s voices can’t get lost in the process.

At the AIA Women’s Leadership Summit 2019, the sixth in the association’s history, 750 architects and design professionals came together to discuss equity and advancement. Sharing remarks at what he believes to be the largest intentional assembly of women architects ever held in the U.S., AIA President William F. Bates, FAIA, said, “This event is about how we defeat obstacles and make architecture a profession that is inclusive and free of bias.”

The conference’s theme of “Reframe. Rethink. Refresh.” supported a broad approach toward forward movement. Instead of dwelling on past challenges, attendees gathered in Minneapolis in September to build momentum. During her welcome address to the crowd, AIA Minnesota’s executive director Mary-Margaret Zindren described the important role AIA plays in creating industry-wide change. “Our job is to bring a community of people together," she said, “to remove the systemic barriers that impede the achievement of individual goals.”

Leadership takes on new meanings and methods

New elements and definitions of leadership emerged over the course of the two-day event. Oft-repeated themes of empathy and generosity resonated with attendees, many of whom had never been to another event of this kind before. To them, leaders come in many forms: firm founders or principals, legislative advocates, top designers, and champions of workplace equity and inclusion. Every woman in architecture is a leader in her own right.

Demonstrating how personal connections can cultivate leadership qualities, renowned graphic designer and Design Matters podcast host Debbie Millman talked with more than a dozen women as the event’s master of ceremonies, starting with author Priya Parker. In her book, The Art of Gathering, Parker describes her theories on bringing people together to achieve collective transformation. “Gathering is an opportunity to create a different culture for a small amount of time,” Parker told attendees, encouraging them to be fully present and accepting of differences not only during their time at the summit, but in their firms, schools, and communities.

According to Parker, women should identify what they wish to emulate about others and how to differentiate themselves to define their own approach to leading. “Part of thinking about your leadership,” she said, “is to realize there are two twin forces: the desire to belong and the desire to become.” The Women’s Leadership Summit offered a space where everyone could participate in sharing and growing, a place to belong where they would start discovering who they may become.

“Part of thinking about your leadership is to realize there are two twin forces: the desire to belong and the desire to become.” - Priya Parker

A slate of trained storytellers representing a variety of design careers and backgrounds described sometimes funny, and at times, deeply moving, life events that shaped who they’ve become. Storytelling, one in a number of growing tactics architects are using to advance equity and inclusion, can be done anywhere: in the workplace, in communities, and at AIA events. “Sharing your personal stories—here and when you return home—has the power to change this profession, and by extension, to literally change the world around us,” Zindren said.

“Women need each other in order to share, understand, and support one another’s experiences,” says Emily Pierson-Brown, Assoc. AIA, a designer and planner at Perkins Eastman and first time Women’s Leadership attendee. For emerging professionals like her, challenging the male-dominated traditions of the profession is an urgent need. “Many of the decision-makers and leaders of our firms are men. We need them to be our advocates in order for women to get into those equivalent positions of power. Many men are doing this work, but change takes time,” Pierson-Brown says.

Finding the right allies to help with career advancement and pursue more equitable practice can be challenging in a male-dominated field, but it is possible, according to Toshiko Mori, FAIA, 2019 AIA/ACSA Topaz Medallion recipient. In a speech from the main stage, Mori, who serves as the Robert P. Hubbard Professor in the Practice of Architecture at the Harvard Graduate School of Design and is a founder and principal of her own firm, described how being the only woman in the room caused her to be more aware of her colleagues’ positive qualities. “Even though I never have had a woman mentor, I’ve been very happy to collaborate with men who share my values,” she told the crowd.

Taking risks and lifting others up along the way

Architects communicated their desire for practical information: tips and tools for how to change culture at their firms, how to make their next career moves, and how to keep pushing great ideas forward as designers. To meet those needs, speakers described how they found their way, offering advice in a variety of panel discussions and education sessions. “My path to leadership was taking risks and saying yes,” said 2020 AIA President-elect Jane Frederick, FAIA, whose long career has included founding and operating a small architecture firm, as well as running for Congress.

Architect Alda Ly, 2020 AIA President-elect Jane Frederick, FAIA, and Gabrielle Bullock, FAIA, discuss how starting a firm, running for office, and spearheading equity and inclusion efforts have led to their unique leadership styles.

Frederick echoed the one very clear piece of advice that most speakers gave: don’t wait for someone else to lead, do it yourself.

“You can be persuasive and aggressive. We really don’t have a lot of time to waste in what we do. We have to go directly to the issues at hand,” said Julie Snow, FAIA, principal at 2018 AIA Firm Award recipient Snow Kreilich Architects in a conversation with Mori, where they discussed challenges in starting and running their firms.  

Presenters and attendees alike addressed the fact while there is still a long way to go before the industry is equally supportive of men and women, underrepresentation of women of color in the field is a problem that can’t be ignored. Especially when it comes to strengthening diversity, advocating for yourself is crucial, but so is advocating for others who aren’t even in the room.

“I’m a black woman in a traditionally white man’s world. There was always going to be a barrier, but I didn’t see it as something I couldn’t get beyond,” said Gabrielle Bullock, FAIA, principal and director of global diversity at Perkins + Will. After working at the firm for more than 25 years, she says she was ready to take a big risk and pitch her current position to senior leaders. “I wrote up the business case and I said, ‘We will be irrelevant if we don’t address this issue of equity, diversity, and inclusion,’” she recounted.

Particularly when it comes to compensation, intersections of equity and diversity get even more critical to explore. When asked what it will take to achieve pay equity—and equity for women of color—in architecture, Bolanle Williams-Olley, CFO of Mancini Duffy, reiterated the primary purpose of the summit. “We just need more women in leadership,” she said.

“When talking about money, you’re never talking about money. Money is about power,” said Millman, who described being routinely disrespected and undervalued despite holding senior positions. She made the choice to speak up and encouraged other designers to do the same. “Inhabiting our own power is courageous when talking about what we’re worth,” she said.

Taking up the mantle to address inequities can be a daunting—if not exhausting—endeavor. Job satisfaction often depends on how supported you feel by your employer. The onus falls on firm leaders to make decisions, but those decisions shouldn’t come at a high cost for those who simply want a fair shot at success. “If your firm leaders are coming to you to broaden equity, diversity, and inclusion initiatives, get them to tell you why it’s important to them,” said Michelle Mongeon Allen, AIA, CEO of JLG Architects. “Don’t feel like you have to be the one pitching the case.”

To that end, another common piece of advice architects gave one another throughout the conference: know when it’s time to make a change. If you don’t feel supported or aren’t doing fulfilling work, taking a risk—switching firms, starting your own business, or shifting your role—may be the only way to find out if you can be happier. Speaking of her younger self, Bullock said, “If I worked for a firm where I didn’t see myself, I moved on.”

A greater built environment depends on taking ideas into action

It’s leaders like those who gathered in Minneapolis that will continue to shift firm culture, and in turn, the profession as a whole. Pierson-Brown, who was promoted to associate at Perkins Eastman the same week of the Women’s Leadership Summit, intends to work with other women she met there. “We have plans to use this network to increase female presences at architecture school review panels this semester, support one another’s artistic pursuits, and hold one another accountable for setting and achieving our professional goals within the next year,” she says. “The tendrils extending out from the conference are already having a tangible impact on building equity across our profession.”

“The tendrils extending out from the conference are already having a tangible impact on building equity across our profession.” -Emily Pierson-Brown, Assoc. AIA

The need for a bigger professional network is one of the main reasons Carole Wedge, FAIA, said that she and a group of New England-based architects founded the Women’s Leadership Summit a decade ago. “The fact that we’re 750 is inspiring,” said Wedge, who along with Heather H. Taylor, AIA, honored friend and colleague Sho-Ping Chin, FAIA, whose namesake Architects Foundation grant provides funding for future leaders like Pierson-Brown to attend the summit at little or no cost. “I come to be inspired and see the power of women who are going to change the profession and the world,” said Taylor, describing how the network of women in architecture has expanded and continues to grow.

Women left the summit with new perspectives on how to do their best work. “One thing I came away with,” said Karen Lu, AIA, 2020 AIA Minnesota president, “is that our shared collective experience is to create a better built environment.”

The same is true for Pierson-Brown. “As I look to advance in my career, I hope to bring as many women and people of diverse backgrounds with me as I can,” she says. “We are building the world future generations will live in; it needs to include all of us.”

Learn how to make your workplace better for all with AIA’s Guides for Equitable Practice and read about our equity, diversity, and inclusion initiatives.  

Kathleen M. O’Donnell is a writer/editor at AIA, specializing in practice and professional development topics and Institute coverage.

Image credits

WLS 2019 Crowd

Joe Szurszewski

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