A year of challenge, and opportunity, driving change for women architects

Women's Leadership Summit

For women in male-dominated industries, like architecture, the challenge to meet career and societal expectations can be intense. The COVID-19 pandemic cultivated a new appreciation of these challenges, as well as an awareness of the shifts needed to make the work environment more flexible and equitable.

Despite only making up 24% of AIA members, women are leading and working alongside their colleagues to support critical changes while shaping an innovative future. Next fall, they will convene in Silicon Valley for the 2022 Women’s Leadership Summit to share their unique perspectives, learn from experts, and network with the largest gathering of female architects in the United States.

Five leaders from Women in Architecture Silicon Valley—the chapter that will host next year’s Women’s Leadership Summit—provided their perspectives on the challenges women face in the industry, the changes needed, and their excitement about the conference. They include Mariana Alvarez Parga, principal at 19six Architects; Leah Alissa Bayer, president of OJK Architecture + Planning, founder and studio director of EVIA Studio; Katia McClain, managing principal for Northern California Steinberg Hart; Dasha Ortenberg, 2020 chair of the Women in Architecture committee, AIASVC; and Stephanie Silkwood, associate principal at RMW.

What are some of the overall challenges that women faced in 2020?

In the best of times, women carry heavy mental, logistical and physical responsibilities, but 2020 and the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated their challenges. Mariana Alvarez Parga believes that last year “made the many hurdles that women face even more obvious. That includes mothers, but also those caring for the elderly or high-risk individuals. The large cognitive load that we manage aside from our jobs was made more evident and I think has humanized everybody.”

Leah Bayer could see the anxiety created by this mental burden at her firm, saying, “I think the amount of stress, depression and hopelessness over the last year, compounded by the loss of those emotional healing outlets, has been a really hard thing to navigate and manage.”

Despite the impact of these concerns, Stephanie Silkwood observed the unique talents of women in action. “The pandemic, the racial injustice and all the political unrest really highlighted the importance of having a diversity of leadership. This includes all kinds of diversity, but specifically having women in leadership. I think the nurturing qualities of women as leaders has been incredibly important in holding work families together.”

What challenges are women facing in the architecture industry?

While women across sectors shared similar experiences, those working in architecture faced a distinct set of challenges. “This year has really amplified both the inequities in our industry and the lack of resources to address them,” said Dasha Ortenberg. “In terms of women in architecture, there's just been such a challenge for people who have to care for children or family members to balance their work in life.”

A lack of support with career advancement is one of those inequities. “In our profession, the average age to get licensed is around 33 years old,” said Stephanie Silkwood. “Think about what women are doing at that time in their lives—trying to balance getting licensed, work responsibilities to move up in their companies, and starting families. Those things put a lot of pressures on women, which sometimes result in delaying their advancement or completion of the licensure process.”

These examples highlight a larger issue identified by Katia McClain, “I think the industry needs to first recognize that there is a problem.  And just by that recognition, I think we can get further when it comes to gender and racial equality.”

What can the architecture industry do to better support women?

“Women are very capable of performing and leading. In fact, we usually over prepare for specific tasks or promotions beyond what a male peer would do,” said Mariana Alvarez Parga. “What needs to change are the systems in today’s workplaces. The best place to start is mentorship from the inside. That means making a plan for your employees’ career development and understanding where each individual naturally excels. We shouldn’t expect these young people, male or female, to train themselves. We need to reinforce them with support where they’re most talented.”

Katia McClain agrees that “sponsoring and investing in people are some of the best ways to create change. A shift like this would help female architects develop a network that could support the next generation and ensure their seat at the table, thus making the entire industry more aware of women’s needs and perspectives.”

Despite being two decades into the 21st century, McClain added that “paths to leadership roles are still less clear for women than they are for men. That's where having women in leadership matters most, because at that point we are the ones making the decisions about salary and advancement. We are the ones in the room pitching, so we need to be the ones bringing the next generation with us into that room.”

The pandemic forced one drastic shift that will hopefully stick with this very traditional and linear sector. “Flexibility was probably one of changes that the architecture industry desperately needed to make,” said Dasha Ortenberg. “I'm now seeing some firms offering expanded flexibility in terms of working hours, which has allowed people to spend time with their families or just care for their mental health. That feels like one of the positive things that has emerged from last year.”

These challenges and changes are just a few examples that will inform the planning of an inspiring and forward-thinking 2022 Women’s Leadership Summit in Silicon Valley.

What is AIA’s Women’s Leadership Summit?

AIA’s Women’s Leadership Summit (WLS) is one of the only gatherings where women architects and designers are surrounded by other women in a professional setting. That creates a candid, comfortable environment where women can feel a greater sense of support and belonging within the male-dominated industry. WLS delivers strategies for accelerated career advancement through advanced business knowledge, personal empowerment, focused networking, and proactive career management targeting women architects moving into leadership roles at architecture firms.

“We are so pleased to partner with AIA Silicon Valley to reimagine the Women’s Leadership Summit to meet the needs of an emerging technology-driven profession,” said AIA EVP and CEO Robert Ivy, FAIA. “The past year has been especially challenging for women, but we are optimistic about the future with the current and aspiring women leaders driving positive change within firms, schools, and society.”

As a Summit location, Silicon Valley offers case studies – both positive and negative – bearing on challenges faced by the architecture industry. “Tech does business continuity tests, to determine ‘“If something happens, how can I respond?’” McClain pointed out. “So, all of a sudden the pandemic hits and in two days all of us have to figure out a way to work remotely, right? So [Silicon Valley offers] that business awareness that I think tech has nailed down to a tee."

On the other hand, the tech industry’s well-documented struggles to create a women-inclusive culture illustrate the limitations of some common approaches. “Maybe they were hiring more women, but women are still leaving the tech industry,” McClain continued. “So, I think another thing that we can learn from the tech industry is that, yes, you can put money into a problem, but that is not the only way to address the issue. You need to address the issue systematically in the day-to-day actions of your office, supporting employees, and listening. It actually has to come from the culture within the company.”

Why should one attend the 2022 Women’s Leadership Summit?

At the 2022 Women’s Leadership Summit in Silicon Valley, attendees will connect with hundreds of brilliant, dynamic women leaders and aspiring leaders who want to learn, support, and inspire each other.

“My favorite memory from the 2019 WLS in Minneapolis is sitting in a ballroom with all 750 women and an announcement was made that this was the largest gathering of female architects known to history. It was awe-inspiring,” said Stephanie Silkwood. “There are so many online seminars that you go to and learn something, but physically being around these women and just feeling that energy is what's really inspiring.”

Leah Bayer will attend her first WLS next year and thinks that “it will be really exciting to watch women work together to shape the future of architecture.” Bayer continued, “We can all really use something that's very uplifting and focused on what's next. I can’t wait to experience that at the next Women’s Leadership Summit.”

As planning progresses, updates about the 2022 Women’s Leadership Summit will be posted on the webpage. Please email womeninarch@aia.org if you have any questions, ideas to share, or want to support WLS next year.

Additional resources for Women in Architecture can be found here.

*Note: For the sake of this article, references to women include all those who identify as women in mind, body, spirit, and or in any form of human expression.

Image credits

Women's Leadership Summit

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