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Women in Architecture: Part I

October 8, 2014

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We asked two of our architects, Ann Somers, AIA and Katie Lightsey, AIA, to share their thoughts in response to a Wall Street Journal article entitled “In Architecture, a Glass Ceiling.” The article is a look at how, despite the dramatically growing number of women in the field, firm leadership is still dominated by men. Below is Part I of the series.

Principal Ann Somers, AIA has been in architecture since 1981.

My mother was a registered nurse and professor of nursing, so being a working woman seemed a given as I was making my post-high school plan. Obviously, at that time, the percentage of the work force that was female was much smaller but that didn’t phase me. I chose to pursue a career in architecture.

My professors in architecture school were still trying to figure out how to teach women because, truthfully, we were different. One of the key differences came as the result of the average male “growing up” norms at the time. When it came to a working knowledge of how things worked and how things fit together, we were at a disadvantage compared to our male counterparts. In most cases, our daddy did not call us out to the garage and show us how the car engine worked. What I did have in common with my male classmates, unlike my girlfriends, was a love of putting together model ships and cars as a child.

My first job out of college was in Mississippi and I again faced a challenge in what my colleagues believed I was capable of; there was a perceived major difference in what I could do versus the male architectural intern that had merely one year on me. I was hired to do the interior finishes and furnishings for a large project, and that first year I primarily worked on building interiors. Note it was 1981 and I was extremely happy to get a job that even kind of resembled architecture – we were in a terrible recession.

A year later I moved to New York and faced a completely different situation – in a very good way. NYU’s architectural classes were about 50% female and I truly did not see young female and male architectural interns being treated differently. I was employed at Perkins and Will, alongside about 100 other architects. At that time there was only one woman in a leadership position, and very few female architects on staff. The partners were all tall men; in fact, I once got on an elevator will all of them at one time and felt like another species. Was there a glass ceiling or simply fewer female architects at that time? It was probably a combination. Selecting firm partners or principals is a lot like a marriage; you want someone like you, that you’re comfortable around, and that has complementary traits. It was also difficult (read: impossible) for women to earn respect from contractors on a job site. I had a very good friend at the time that was an associate with Venturi Scott Brown. He constantly complained about Venturi getting all the acclaim in lieu of his wife and partner Denise Scott Brown, who was equally responsible for designing and producing their award-winning work. When she finally received a major design award, it was widely acknowledged that it was a long time coming.

I believe that often, a minority’s advancement in their field can be attributed to an authority figure’s willingness to look past the differences and see an individual’s positive attributes. Obviously one must have the chops to succeed and the ability make themselves valuable, but it’s key to have someone in a leadership position ready to look at your skills and not your gender or your skin color. I attribute my being a member of the leadership structure here at CDFL to Rob Farr, someone willing to see me for my talent, and not my gender.

I’ve always tried to be professional – whether that’s in attitude or appearance. I believe that strong communication skills are key to your success. A passion for what you do and the field you are a part of is also integral to your success; as is the ability to learn and grow as the practice evolves. I try to be disciplined with my work ethic and provide a good example to my colleagues. For female architects starting out, or any architect starting out, I think it’s important to look for a position that will give you the most well-rounded experience possible. Work for different firms and see how they differ. At the end of the day, regardless of who you are, the most important advice I can impart is to act like a professional, because that’s how you’ll be treated.

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