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Women Inspiring Emerging Leaders in Design: Key Lessons from the Conference

Female leaders “wielded” stories of empowerment, encouraging young architects to strive for equity & pay it forward

Live reporting by Stephen Parker, a D.C.-based architect with Smith Group JJR, and the AIA’s Young Architects Forum Advocacy Director.

“We stand on the shoulders of those that came before us, and that motivates me to fight for others after us,” Cheryl McAfee, FAIA, told a crowd of architects who gathered in Washington D.C. this fall to address the advancement of women in the field. The need to boost equity in design and architecture has recently emerged as a hot button topic – it took center stage during former first lady Michelle Obama’s keynote at AIA. And yet, this event, “Women Inspiring Emerging Leaders in Design” or WIELD, was truly the first of its kind. The Sept. 16th conference marked the first outreach event hosted by AIA’s Women’s Leadership Summit’s emerging professionals. WIELD marked a day fully dedicated to inspiring both women and men to push for change in the workplace.

Being first is a familiar feeling for McAfee, CEO and principal of McAfee3 whose projects included planning and designing for the $7 billion Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport expansion and a new 25,000-sq.-ft. South Fulton, Ga. library. The trailblazer was the first African-American woman in Kansas to become a licensed architect. Her firm represents the first (and only) in AIA history that includes a father and his two daughters, all of whom are AIA Fellows. She was the first African-American to chair AIA’s Conference in Architecture in 2008, and was the first woman to be elected president of the National Organization of Minority Architects. McAfee joined a roundup of other inspiring female leaders who “wielded” stories of empowerment, encouraging young architects to strive for equity and pay it forward for the next generation.

Call to Action

Stephen Parker, AIA, LEED, AP, architect with Smith Group JJR in D.C., said his biggest takeaway was “a call to action.” At the District Architecture Center, there was “an overarching theme as the young women there were interested in doing more than discussing the issues,” and wanted to act on them. While dialogues on gender and racial disparities in design can push new ideas forward, the message at WIELD was that architects need to do less talking and more implementing policy changes.

At WIELD, speakers shared personal experiences as well as statistics that illustrated the difference between the number of young female designers and experienced female leaders. “Data drives change,” reflected Girl UNinterrupted project founders, Juliet Chun and Zhanina Boyadzhieva. The organization’s mission is to reveal gaps in design “when it comes to young women and negotiation, career growth, work-life balance” through surveys and interviews, and then help young designers build the skills they need to become leaders. “As a leader, it’s our job to open the door for others,” they said.

Attendees were asked to write down what policies they wanted to change in the design field. Some answers included paid leave, stigmas of being young, and flexible hours. There were numerous narratives of women having to give up licensure to raise children or struggling to move up the ladder while balancing work and home life. One female designer with six to 10 years of experience explained, “My firm suffers from a lack of female design leadership. There are plenty of individuals who should be in design leadership, but aren’t. Having to leave early to take care of children seems to hold them back, as they can’t work the 60+ hours a week to be taken seriously.”

She elaborated, “My office is friendly enough, but as a vocal, outspoken woman I’ve been talked over in many meetings. I want to succeed here, but I can’t imagine that happening here once I have children. They are supportive of taking care of families, but you won’t see big promotions typically if you’re your child’s primary caregiver, as many women are. I’ve considered leaving the profession if I can’t get the balance I want.”

Others, like Sara Lappano, PE, LC, LEED AP, an electrical engineer with a penchant for sustainability, took time to acknowledge when firms do get it right. The managing principal at Integral Group says her first firm, Smith Group JJR, “valued my accomplishments and what I brought to the table” through her unique perspective, allowing her to grow.

From Mentorship to Sponsorship

More experienced speakers reflected on the need to propel young women forward. Parker says this means “going beyond mentorship to sponsorship as a responsibility of the older generation of women leaders.”

Kimberly Lewis, SVP of the U.S. Green Building Council, works to integrate and diversify USGBC’s global network of volunteers, chapters and emerging professionals. She emphasized the need for sponsorship in order to put your money where your mouth is. “There is still hope,” Lewis said, adding, “we lead when we find our voice and our direction.”

To offer genuine support, you should “be a mentor, not a tor-mentor,” quipped McAfee, “and don’t follow a rabbit down the hole.” Several WIELD speakers echoed the idea that to create a healthy workplace, you have to invest in “your people” and it’ll pay off. The AIA’s Equity in Architecture Commission has measured how productivity and profitability increase as diversity does too.

Zena Howard, AIA, managing director of Perkins+Will’s North Carolina offices, offered her listeners an acronym: “HAVE.” Her key to success relies on “Helping” others, “Associating” with great people, “Valuing” work, and “Engaging” in the moment. Howard also highlighted what inspires her and her experience working as the lead architect behind the National Museum of African American History and Culture. She’s passionate about helping emerging leaders transform the profession and believes in the power of sharing experiences with peers as examples of accomplishments.

Men Must Join the Dialogue

“Only when women wield power in significant numbers will we create a society that genuinely works for all women… that will be a society that works for everyone,” read a quote by lawyer and political scientist Anne-Marie Slaughter, during one presentation.

Parker acknowledged men also need to be involved in participating in creating environmental and structural changes. He said, “as one of the few men there, they emphasized engaging men more so as to make it a two-way conversation with a male workforce that may be blissfully unaware of the issues women face.”

Attendees were posed with the question, “What challenges have you faced in [the] architecture field?” Some answers, scribbled on Post-Its on display, included: “gender bias,” “motherhood,” “being dismissed or underappreciated,” “being the only female in the room,” and feedback like “you are too young,” “you want too much,” and “you don’t have experience.” Many comments reflected shared negative experiences, and emphasized the need to go back to the drawing board and design workplace environments that prize equity for all.

Hilda Espinal, AIA, LEED AP, and chief technology officer for CannonDesign, urged the crowd away from timid politeness, to “ask for what you want, go for that raise and know your value.”

She continued, “take pride in your achievements, don’t let others get you down,” and reminded listeners to always pay it forward.



To learn more about obstacles keepings women from becoming principal architects, click here.

According to the Equity by Design committee, among those at firms with 11 to 13 years of experience, 60% of white men were likely to hold a titled leadership role, while it dropped to 43% for white women and 42% for non-white women.

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