What It’s Like to Be a Woman in Architecture, Two Perspectives

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Model Building © Chad Ziemendorf

Part One — School and Workplace

As part of an ongoing discussion about equity, diversity, and inclusion in the architecture industry, we’ve interviewed several female staff about their careers, education, and personal experiences in the field. This conversation is part one of a series with Senior Associate Lee Clark and Designer Jennifer Lema from our Wilkes-Barre office.

This first interview contrasts the experience of attending design school as a female from the vantage point of someone with years of practice to that of a recent graduate and their accounts of entering the profession as young architects. We explore universal barriers for women and touch on what has changed over the past several decades. To begin the conversation, we looked back at Lee’s experience at the start of her education at the University of Florida, as well as examine Jennifer’s more recent experience at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

Senior Associate, Lee Clark (Right) © Chad Ziemendorf

Design School

What was your experience like in design school as a woman?

Lee: I went to the University of Florida for my undergraduate degree [in 1978]. There were five studios of sixteen people each, and there was one woman in each studio. So, it’s not fair to say I was the only woman in the program, but I was the only woman in my studio. The University of Florida was a great place because it was a very diverse school and still is. We had a lot of students from Cuba, Central, and Latin American countries. There were some African American students, but none I can recall in my architecture classes.

Although one of the few women in my program, I felt equal to the male students; they were my close friends. I felt like they were smart and respectful towards me — which isn’t to say they were always respectful in every way — but I was one of them. I was part of their group, and that was fine with me. I think this is one of the ways views on gender have changed from the time I was in school to now. At the time, there was pressure for women to assimilate into the male-dominated culture. Now the focus is on the integration of gender, where differences are celebrated and strengthened by working together.

There were a lot of other things happening in the culture at the time. A lot of my classmates were navigating being gay out in the world. I even remember that one of the five women got married in our senior year, and we decided to have a mock traditional wedding shower since all our friends were men. They were required to come in drag, and it was awesome! In looking back, we found ourselves in all sorts of interesting gender situations. I felt like I fit into that pretty well.

By the time I got to grad school at Syracuse [University], there were a couple of women who taught design (that was in the late 80s), but in the early 80s at Florida, I sure can’t remember any, but I didn’t expect them.

I knew I was going into a men’s field and that I’d be one of the only ones doing that, and I accepted that.

Jennifer: The gender split at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) was about 50/50 female and male, which seemed normal to me. I always thought there might be more male students, but it wasn’t like that when I got to school. What I hadn’t thought of was that I would have more male professors than female professors during my five years there, but I think that was changing for other students as my time at RPI ended.

As a New Yorker, I’ve always been surrounded by diverse people and cultures. RPI is in Upstate New York, so I was hoping I would have a diverse class. My close friends are made up of other Latinos that are also from New York City or the tri-state area. However, during my time at RPI, I experienced the demographics in school flip: there were more white students and professors than people of color.

Overall, I remember my time at RPI warmly, not only because of the great professors I had and the wonderful friends I made but because of how much I grew as a designer. Not only was I challenged to shift my preconceptions of architecture, but I also felt good about the support I had along the way.

Designer, Jennifer Lema © Chad Ziemendorf

Joining the Profession

What was your experience like as a woman entering the architecture industry?

Lee: I took a job with a very large architectural and engineering firm that had 150 employees, all in one space. Of those, I’d say only ten or twelve were professional engineers or architects; most of the rest of them had a draftsman degree or an associate degree and were not doing the designing.

I was the only woman professional out of 150 people, and I was shocked by the attitudes that I came up against.

The term sexual harassment had not yet been invented, but I experienced a textbook case of it. I learned after I joined the firm that the only other women there were secretaries and that it appeared almost all of them were having affairs with the partners. I complained to my superior — the head of the design department — about certain things that people had done, and I was told, “boys will be boys,” and I needed to “get over it.” So, this was vastly different from my college experience because — even though it wasn’t like we were all that well behaved in college and a lot of silly stuff that had sexual innuendo went on — we respected each other and treated each other as equals. In my first work situation, I was absolutely not treated as equal. And, after two years of that, I decided I needed to get out of there and go to grad school, which I did. And after grad school, I came to Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, which aligned more closely with what I had hoped to find.

Even though there weren’t many women in the firm, certainly everyone was more like the people I’d gone to school with. We all appreciated each other’s contributions and intelligence and had conversations on a loftier plane. I can’t honestly remember any outright feelings of not being considered equal with the rest of my colleagues here. But as the years went on, I started to wonder why I didn’t see more women in leadership roles.

Jennifer: When I got the offer to work at the [Bohlin Cywinski Jackson] Wilkes-Barre office, I was excited to join a firm that has such a deep understanding of people, places, and material. I expected the Wilkes-Barre area to resemble the demographics of Troy, NY, but I was surprised to see there weren’t as many women in the office as there had been in architecture school. Although the number of female staff is small, the women we do have are excellent at what they do and appreciated for being strong and knowledgeable. It’s something that has stuck out to me.

Women like Lee have so much experience and are crucial because of that and everything else they bring to the table. It is something that I appreciated and noticed once I got here. I didn’t even know I missed it until I saw ituntil I saw strong women. While there may not be a lot of women in positions of leadership in architecture, it’s nice to have people like Lee to look up to.

Want more?

Follow the conversation as we continue our discussion in part two on experiencing gender inequality in the workplace and lessons learned the hard way.

Further Reading:
Meet Victoria Acevedo, a Leader on the Rise
Celebrating International Women’s Month: Tina Faust
Associate Annelise Pitts Advances Equity in the Architectural Field

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