As a young adult I had a wide range of interests and an inherent desire to explore and experience spaces of all kinds. I enrolled in an Introduction to Architecture course my freshman year and recognized that this multifaceted profession presented an opportunity to combine my varied interests. I began my professional career working as an intern at Russo & Sonder Architects on hospital and education projects. As a graduate, I worked on higher education projects and later in hospitality design at WBTL Architects.

I enjoy the process of working collaboratively with a team to create architecture that can inspire a wide range of experiences and emotions. Developing the program of requirements and transforming conceptual ideas into a physical representation that meets the client’s objectives is rewarding. Each project’s unique conditions and characteristics continually challenge me to push the limits of thinking about design.

Back in the 1980s, it was considered social suicide for a female to voluntarily take calculus and physics in high school. In a graduating class of 360 students, there were two of us who did. My parents had instilled in me the belief that my dreams were limitless, so I never gave this decision a second’s thought as I began my journey in the world of men.

This sheltered view of the world was shattered my first semester in the School of Architecture when a studio professor told me “Women shouldn’t be architects.” This sparked an anger in me that drove me to involve myself in every aspect of this male dominated major. One of five women in a class of 50, I was the only woman who worked in studio, engaged in late night debates on design, and became “one of the guys.” This immersion prepared me for the male dominated profession I was about to enter. 

For many of us the “Me Too” moments began in college and continued into the workplace. As appalling as these experiences were, I refused to feel intimidated and instead responded with disgust and outrage. These few outliers did not represent the many supportive men in my life, and I would not allow them to intimate or derail my career path. 

With my career in full gear, I was unable to fight the calling of motherhood. I had my first child, convinced my career would only be diverted for a few weeks, but my daughter was born with a congenital heart defect and for the next two years I was homebound. Architecture as well as my identity seemed long lost. The introduction to motherhood “set back” my career for two years, but the lessons learned would forever influence my outlook of work as a privilege.

In 1998 I was offered a position at a 40+ year old firm as its first woman Principal, but I was pregnant. Convinced the offer would be rescinded, I was shocked when my future business partner suggested converting an office to a nursery. This gesture affirmed that my contributions were recognized and could not be compromised because I was a woman. At two weeks old, my youngest child became the youngest commuter on the railroad, and I was able to step into motherhood for the last time, while at the same time jumping into my new position as principal. Over these last few decades, I have seen how these small advances have brought us to a time where men are now able to take paternity leave, and where it is acceptable and encouraged for men to be involved in daily responsibilities at home.

I believe the true indicator that women are unquestionably equal partners in the AEC Industry is the moment when a woman introduces herself as an architect and the response is no longer, “So you’re the interior designer?”

The path for women will never be linear or direct, and it is because of this that women bring a different perspective to the profession. Architecture is a complex problem-solving exercise with each project having its own unique set of variables. Women have learned to multi-task and are able to collect, analyze and process a wide range of variables and information. Women learn to persevere, be patient, and develop a “can do” attitude. Their resources are often spread thin between responsibilities at work and home, so out of necessity women become masters of time management and delegating duties. Being a daughter/wife/mother/caregiver exposes us to conditions where we understand and see firsthand how children, families, the elderly react, find joy, and utilize the spaces we occupy. These lessons are not easily taught and are often underestimated in their relationship to design.

Often lost in the AEC profession is the value of family and balance between work and home. As a satellite communications engineer, my father built a 600-person firm based on integrity and hard work without compromising the needs of his family. He showed compassion and respect to his employees, rewarding employees for their abilities, not their gender. Long before flex hours were commonplace, he recognized the need for both men and women to have flexibility in their work schedule to attend to the needs of their family. Having faced many challenges as a business owner, I often hear his voice telling me, “Move forward” and “What’s next.” These simple messages have empowered me to meet the many challenges in this industry without looking back.

My main advice: be fearless! Recognize that you have qualities as a woman that make your contributions unique and valuable. Choose your life partner wisely. Without the support and encouragement of my husband, I could not have achieved the personal and career goals I set out for myself.

Never before have there been more role models of women in the AEC Community that enjoy both a career and a family. Be a role model not just to your daughters, but to your sons. Teach your boys that women add value and men must be committed to contributing to the successful outcome for all their peers and family members.

Building Enclosure Celebrates International Women's Day

Part 2 of a 2 part series

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Jacqueline Beckingham Melvalean McLemore Lisa Haude Erin McDannald Ashley Smith Samantha McCormack Rachael Lewis Taylor Starr Stephanie Lafontaine Christine Faverio Erin Carlisle Melissa Strickland Lisbeth Jimenez Ula Bochinska