Part Two — Gender Inequality & Unconscious Bias
As part of ongoing discussions initiated in 2019 in our practice about equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) in the architecture profession, we have held practice-wide conversations guided by the AIA’s Guides for Equitable Practice. With a desire to hear more diverse perspectives within each studio, we’ve interviewed several female staff about their careers, education, and personal experiences in the field. This conversation is part two of a series, shared last March of 2020, with Senior Associate Lee Clark and Jennifer Lema, a designer from our Wilkes-Barre studio.
This second interview highlights experiences in the workplace shaped by gender roles, gender representation, social norms, and unconscious bias. Lee and Jennifer also discuss lessons learned the hard way. These experiences prove that we must look closely at the day-to-day interactions that have unintended consequences. We begin by discussing gender balance in the workplace and the challenges facing women in the architecture industry.
What barriers are preventing women from working in the A/E/C industry?
Jennifer: Pay and flexibility are important roadblocks to consider. I’ve heard women say that they went through an arduous architecture program and later practiced architecture but have left the field for another industry that gives them better pay, flexibility, and opportunities for promotion. As a woman of color, I always thought that the hardest part was getting in, but after listening and learning about other women’s experiences over the past year it seems as though there are as many barriers preventing women from staying and growing in this industry.
How do we reach a 50/50 gender balance in the workplace, specifically in Wilkes-Barre and firmwide?
Lee: I’m starting to think as we have these conversations that maybe we just need to tell people more you are welcome here and make it clear that that variety is something we value. Because if they haven’t heard that, they don’t know what they’ll find in a small city in Pennsylvania.
We can make it clear that we would like to enrich our studio in Wilkes-Barre and firmwide by saying, “please come here.” We care a lot about having a diverse workforce, and we can do many more things to try to make that happen.
I think if we could get more diverse people to interview in the first place, we’d have more success. There have been times when four men and one woman showed up, and we didn’t hire the woman because we didn’t find her to be the best candidate. But if we can get a lot more minorities and women in the applicant pool, then I think that we have a better chance of finding a match that would want to come here.
What are some instances of gender inequality that you have seen in the industry?
Lee: I experienced sexual harassment in my first job as an architect, such as being asked by my boss to wear revealing clothing to client meetings, and having that same client tell me I needed to wear more makeup. Other gender differentiators seem unimportant, but they’re always around you. Many men were taught growing up how to be polite to women, and they bring those lessons to the workplace — like pulling out your chair at a conference table or offering to carry your packages.
Another example of this is opening doors. I would like to think that someone is opening a door for me because I’m another human being who might have my arms full. I try to be mindful of opening doors for others as a polite gesture. But when it’s a recognition of gender, I don’t always appreciate it — it contributes to the message that women are dependent upon men. When I attend a walkthrough for a new project I sometimes find myself to be one of the few women in the group. I may hang back to take a photo or look more closely at a detail. Occasionally when I turn to catch up, there’ll be ten men holding a door open and waiting for me to walk through. It’s embarrassing that I have disrupted the flow of the tour.
I smile, thank everyone and walk through the door, but when it happens to you multiple times, it’s annoying. I’d like to tell these other professionals to “please just treat me like one of you.” Perhaps other rules might apply if I’m your dinner date, but right here, right now, we’re all on the same footing. Even when you’re acting nice to me, you are showing that I’m different, and you’re not allowing me the freedom to behave the way any one of you would.
That’s a small example of gender bias. Sometimes the little things like that just keep adding up, and you’re making my job harder because I don’t look like you.
Jennifer: I’m still pretty new to working in the industry but one thing sticks out to me are micro-aggressions. For example, in situations where I haven’t been formally introduced to consultants or sales reps, in a room filled with male colleagues they assume I’m an interior designer and not an architect.
What’s a lesson you learned the hard way about gender discrimination?
Lee: One hard lesson I learned as a young architect was about wearing a short skirt to a job meeting that I expected to be a design review with the client. We were renovating an existing building and designing a new addition. While we were there, the contractor mentioned they had completed our detailed repairs to the roof membrane, and it was ready for inspection before being closed up. He and his companions grinned at me while looking at my skirt and said, “The ladder is over here but if you don’t feel like climbing it today, you can just trust us.” Their leers did not engender trust.
It was a silly situation and I realized I had set myself up for it, but I wasn’t going to look like I couldn’t do my job, or I wasn’t tough enough. I could have said, “I’ll come back next week,” but at the time, I thought, “No, nobody’s pulling this one on me.” So, I told them I was going up the ladder and they could stand at the bottom or stand at the top, but I was planning to see the roof.
The incident stuck with me: be prepared for anything at a job site, and an appropriate wardrobe can influence whether or not you are taken seriously.
What can we each do to help create a more equitable workplace?
Lee: Between reading Michelle Obama’s book Becoming and the firm’s EDI conversations, I’ve come away thinking that what I most want to do is to hear people’s stories. Find out what their lives are like. I’m really curious about all that. I think it helps us all see where people are now and understand where they came from. It makes us more empathetic about all of our different situations. That would be my advice, to get people to open up and just talk about themselves and all of us listen hard to what they say.
Jennifer: I’ve been involved in some of the interviews for interns and I’ve gone to career fairs and studio crits. I think staying involved and informed about what’s happening is essential. Trying to be involved in hiring efforts is something I can do to offer a different perspective.
It’s also so important to give everyone a chance to speak. We started scratching the surface by sharing micro-aggressions last time we had an EDI meeting in the studio, it felt therapeutic to have people listen and empathize with each other’s experiences.
That session made me think of all the time some people lose thinking about micro-aggressions that others never experience. I had never thought about it in terms of time and productivity, so that really made me reflect on the big impact small moments can have.
Want to hear more?
Follow us on Medium, Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook to find more highlights of women in our firm. If you missed the first part, you can find the interview with Lee and Jennifer here.