Today is International Women’s Day — a celebration that has been observed for more than 100 years around the world.
This year feels different, though. It comes on the heels of an unprecedented movement for women’s equality and justice. Fueled by #metoo and the Women’s March, discussions about women’s rights have captured headlines and spotlights across the globe. Women are standing together, demanding change and pressing for progress.
I am one of those women. In my career, I’ve been propositioned by a client. I’ve endured the wolf whistles and catcalls from the job site. I’ve been told I wouldn’t achieve success because of my gender. I even had a professor tell me I couldn’t have a family and be an architect — I’d have to choose one or the other.
But as people tried to diminish me, I became even more determined and energized to achieve my goals.
And I did. I’m a wife, a mother of two daughters and an architect. I rose through the ranks at FKP (now FKP | CannonDesign), starting at the bottom rung and making my way to the top as CEO. I was named a fellow of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) at age 45. And now with CannonDesign, I’m honored to lead one of the most innovative pediatric healthcare practices in the world as well as to represent the firm within the AIA’s Large Firm Round Table (LFRT) new diversity initiative.
I don’t share this to promote my accomplishments. I’m sharing my experiences because I want to offer every person in our profession inspiration and hope. I am one of many women who have experienced success in the A/E industry, and although the journey wasn’t always easy, I made it happen. The glass ceiling that pervades society didn’t disappear, but I took the time to understand it (I am an architect after all and, for me, glass ceilings are beautiful — letting light in while providing shelter). I figured out how to reshape the glass ceilings I encountered. Because remember, when heat is applied to glass, it becomes pliable. So even with glass ceilings in place, I found ways to shape the career and life I wanted.
I thought today would be a good opportunity to share some lessons I’ve learned throughout my career, as well as some advice I’ve been given. I don’t present myself as an authority on this topic, but I’m hopeful that all people — women, men, people of color, the LGBTQ community, etc. — can find at least one piece of inspiration that can help them advance their careers.
Progress takes time. This is always tough advice to swallow because we live in a society fueled by instant gratification. Social media, smartphones and the internet have made it possible to get results for almost anything immediately. But when pushing for social progress, it is essential to remember it takes time to effect change. So many people fought to get us to where we are today, and they dedicated much of their lives to foster that progress. It wasn’t long ago that women couldn’t vote, that our schools were segregated, and that businesses could legally discriminate against people of any kind.
My advice: We all know the architecture and engineering fields have a diversity challenge. To change that and achieve the diversity aspirations we have as an industry, it will require engagement from all of us. Posting a single Tweet is not going to change anything. But reaching out into the schools and showing children the career opportunities in the profession will. Mentoring aspiring designers will. Joining (or creating) organizations focused on equality in the profession will. If you want to see progress move faster, you have to get engaged and help catalyze change. As Gandhi said, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”
You can have it all, even with kids in tow. I am very fortunate to have an amazing mother. When she was younger, she drove a car with a bumper sticker that read, “A woman’s place is in the house, and the senate, too!” She was a chemistry teacher who also raised five children. I assumed her life was normal and routine. And then I had kids and confronted the hard reality of a workplace that didn’t support working mothers. After my first child, I found it almost impossible to simultaneously be the mother I wanted to be and the dedicated professional I was. I began to worry I would have to choose one or the other as that professor in college advised me. At the time, there weren’t any role models who had been in a similar position or a network of other working women in the industry to reach out to for guidance. But I forged my path. I stopped trying to create work/life “balance” and refocused on creating work/life integration.
My advice: Balance requires equilibrium. And as we all know, it’s very rare for people in our profession to have absolute equilibrium between work and personal life. But you CAN do it all. I did it by having a wonderful husband who co-parented with me and reframed his perceptions around roles. I did it by forming a support group of other like-minded parents who banded together to help each other juggle family/work conflicts. I did it by working with leadership at FKP to change their approach to work flexibility, and I even sometimes brought my kids with me to client meetings. So don’t ever think you have to choose one over the other. You can have it all — you just need to put in the energy and strategize on how best to make career/personal life integration work for you.
Don’t expect to be given anything. Every qualified person deserves equal opportunities in the workplace, but no respectable company should hire or promote someone solely because they’re a man or a woman — diversity should never be about checking boxes. It’s about finding the best talent for the job, regardless of who they are. A company’s success depends on that. And society’s advancement depends upon each of us every day giving our very best efforts.
My advice: Simply make yourself the best person for the job. Make bold career aspirations for yourself, but then take responsibility for laying the groundwork for getting there; don’t ever put the success of your career in someone else’s hands. But it’s also important to stay grounded in the reality of your current situation. I’ll never forget an interview I had with a young woman a few years ago about a job opportunity. She was right out of college, and as soon as she walked into the interview, she made it clear that she wanted to be a principal within five years. That was not an attainable reality for her at the time, but that’s not to say she couldn’t eventually reach that goal. So become very self-aware and work on yourself and your mindset; always remain grounded, and if you feel like you are being held back from something you deserve, find positive ways to be heard and effect change.
Learn from others. As I said, when I was starting my architecture career, there weren’t any female leaders to seek out for guidance. Thankfully, I had many male mentors who saw the value women brought to the profession, who were active parents and struggled themselves to integrate little league games alongside business travel. There were also historical role models I admired — like Rosa Parks for her dignity and quiet fortitude, among others. Today, we have so many amazing women to learn from who have most likely experienced any challenge you may encounter. At CannonDesign, Laurie McCoy, the office practice leader of our LA office, was a single mother raising four kids. Liz Guerrero and Denise Cherry founded Assembly Design in Denise’s living room. Hilda Espinal has risen to the top as a woman architect of color. And Abbie Clary, Deb Sheehan, Meg Osman, Cynthia Walston, Lynne Deninger, Carisima Koenig, Patricia Bou, and so many others have forged successful and inspiring careers within the profession.
My advice: Young designers today have more opportunities to learn from mentors than ever before. Harness these opportunities! Whether through formal mentorship or not, reach out and talk to people who have experienced the type of success you seek and get advice on the challenges you may be encountering.
I realize some of you may disagree with some or all of my advice — but that’s great! Diversity of thought is key to move equality forward. This is my experience, and everyone has their own unique story to tell and their own path to travel. By examining our individual mindsets, bringing our voices together and sharing our experiences, we can help our industry effectively press for progress.