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There has been much discussion raised about "Why are women leaving Architecture? and more broadly, Why is the profession losing key talent?"  Both women and men practitioners are disillusioned by the myth of work/life balance: Women are grappling with "have it all" expectations of juggling family time with the demands of full-time work.  Men are struggling to support their families solely on an architect's salary and fall back on asking spouses to maintain their jobs. The lack of affordable childcare and high cost of living only magnifies the challenges.  How did we end up in this modern family dilemma? What can we do to improve the situation?

How to Advance Women in Architecture? A Chat with Rosa Sheng at BAR Architects

BAR Architects recently formed a discussion and support group amongst women architects and emerging professionals with the goal of empowering each other towards advancement and leadership opportunities within the profession. We share tools and methods with each other for how to get there, bring up relevant personal experiences, discuss articles and books, make internal presentations to the rest of the group for our passion areas, and overall strive to prepare a more fertile ground for women’s advancement both within our office and outside of it in the larger community. This collective knowledge about barriers, histories, opportunities, strengths and weaknesses are helping us cultivate the change we want to see.
We recently invited Rosa Sheng to our office for one of these discussions.  Rosa and I met about a year ago before The Missing 32% Project was launched and quickly became friends. She is a Senior Associate at Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, a Board of Director at AIA San Francisco and the chairperson for The Missing 32% Project Committee. She has an unmatched passion and drive for this cause.
The discussion was a productive and engaging opportunity for everyone in the room. Among many topics, we also touched on possible solutions to the problem of keeping women in the profession such as flexible work hours, the ability to off-ramp/on-ramp after pregnancy (and other leave of absence) and transitioning the profession to a performance-based system vs. our current hours-based system, etc.
The critical issue of clients is that 92% of our firm's developer clients are men. Our challenge lies in how women need to learn to do business in a man’s world and how we bridge the gap to be recognized as leaders.  The path to increasing representation of women in leadership roles is built by understanding and practicing effective communication styles and learning to navigate politics, etc.  How do we break the glass ceiling? The most actionable items start with being knowledgeable about our field of expertise (Architecture), building confidence and cultivating meaningful relationships.

Other key points that we came in our group discussion:

  1. We need to increase representation of women in executive roles.
  2. Start out by building your skill set and expertise to gain people’s trust, especially the client’s trust.
  3. Experiment with different communication styles, see what works the best – body language is very important.
  4. Dressing for success is a huge and important part of being taken seriously. Professional and energetic attire will go a long way towards making you distinct.  But be mindful not to stand out in a way that will detract from the business at hand: Interview, negotiations, or job site meeting.
  5. The Confidence Gap discussion – in advancement, confidence can be more important than competence.  The conclusion is that we must take action!
  6. Within the firm, identify sponsors (leaders who will speak on your behalf) for project opportunities, performance reviews and professional development goals. Also identify proteges that you can in turn sponsor as you advance in leadership.
  7. Clients can be sponsors, too. Nurturing client relationships and giving them the opportunity to communicate our performance and rapport back to our employers as well as the industry can be very fruitful.
  8. Having a voice at the construction site is a very important experience all women should strive to obtain.
  9. When clients proactively engage you in a conversation and ask for your opinion, it speaks volumes about the trust you established with them to your firm's leadership.
  10. Middle level architects should also sponsor junior level architects. Through modeling, you are exemplifying how you would like to be treated by high level staff. Peers can also mentor each other as they share common experiences.
  11. Networking and social media has been influential in having informal interactions with clients. We should make use of it to the extent possible. Networking while genuinely being interested in others when you make connections has long lasting and more effective results than formal marketing strategies. People can detect insincerity a mile away.
  12. As the industry, we need to promote the value proposition that design has in improving the quality of life and the depth of professional skills that architects provide in the larger community. Find a vein (a path for you) and follow it.
  13. Don’t be apologetic about your particular schedule needs due to having children or caring for family. Communicate clearly, treat them matter-of-factly and create a mutually workable schedule setup for you and your employer.
  14. Create a career plan and be open in the communication of your goals and progress with a mentor and/or sponsor.
  15. Be selective when interviewing for a job to increase the chance you will be supported during life changing transitions. For off-ramping and on-ramping, write a clear proposal for your available work hours and desired goals during the transition, and be ready to negotiate for what you want. 

So, let’s think about this moving forward, experiment with them and see the effects they have on our careers. 

Rosa – thanks for joining us, it was a pleasure to have you.
Basak Cakici Adams, LEED AP BD+C, Associate, Architect