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Navigating Women’s Challenges in Architecture

written by
Joann Lui

Women in architecture face a myriad of challenges and opportunities as they navigate through their careers. In a recent TestFit for Women event, we delved into the discussion about multifaceted challenges faced by women in architecture with a special guest Evelyn Lee, FAIA, Founder of Practice of Architecture.

Being Heard and Taken Seriously at Work

One of the predominant challenges discussed is women's struggle to be heard and taken seriously in professional settings. Joann shares insights from her community, the Women Architects Collective, where 5000+ members frequently cite this issue as a primary concern.

“We ask every member when they join the WAC what their biggest struggle is as a woman in architecture,” Joann shared. “An overwhelming majority response is always being heard and taken seriously at work.”

According to the AIA’s report for An Investigation into Bias in the Architecture Profession, over 50% of women experience pushback for assertive behavior compared to a quarter of men.

To help women overcome these challenges, Evelyn suggested a few ways to gain respect and support in the workplace.

Finding Sponsors & Mentors

Developing strong relationships with sponsors and mentors can help you gain invaluable support and guidance. You can seek sponsors (or champions) inside your firm to advocate for you when it comes to promotion or advancement discussion. But you can also find mentors outside of your firm for career advice.

There are many ways to find mentorship opportunities such as joining your local AIA chapters, networking events, or online communities like the Women Architects Collective.

Keep Track of Your Success

As a way to overcome imposter syndrome, Evelyn suggested maintaining a record of achievements and successes to help you demonstrate your value and contributions within the firm. Not only can you use this documentation in performance reviews but also boosts your confidence and serves as a reminder of your own capabilities.

“I always take screenshots of emails or praises that my clients sent and save them in a folder,” Joann shared. “It’s an easy way to remind myself of why I’m doing what I do.”

Vote with Your Feet

No job is forever. It’s important to recognize when a work environment is not conducive to growth and respect. Women should feel empowered to explore other opportunities if their current workplace fails to address issues of being heard and taken seriously. Moving to a more supportive and inclusive environment can lead to greater fulfillment and professional success.

Role Advancement for Women

Roughly 40% of women believe success depends on the success of others of the same gender, as opposed to roughly 10% of men. Collaborating with and uplifting fellow women in the field can create a more empowering environment where everyone has the opportunity to thrive.

Job Hopping to Advance

Job hopping might get a bad rap, but for some women, advancing in their careers may involve strategically changing roles or organizations to access new opportunities for growth and development.

This is especially useful for those who are just trying to get through the AXP. “I couldn't get all my hours right at one job. I needed to go to other places to make that happen.” Evelyn shared.

Build a Portfolio Career

A portfolio career, according to Evelyn’s LinkedIn post, is characterized by pursuing multiple income streams or interests simultaneously rather than relying on a single job or profession. 

 “We're always told in architecture school you can do anything with an architecture degree,” Evelyn said. “But then as soon as you graduate and you're in a firm, it's like how are you on your AXP? How many AREs have you passed? And then as soon as you get licensed, now you're a project manager. It becomes very linear.”

Embracing a portfolio career can offer flexibility and diverse opportunities to pursue your passions, expand your skill sets, and create a fulfilling career journey tailored to your strengths and interests.

Retaining Women in the Workplace

Firms play a crucial role in supporting and retaining women in architecture. 

Paid Parental Leave and Flexible Work Schedule

Evelyn Lee emphasizes the importance of paid parental leave especially as data shows, nearly 50% of women worked part-time compared to 1% of men after parental leave.

And over half of women believe taking family leave would hurt their careers compared to a quarter of men. So it’s not enough just to provide these benefits—we need to encourage people to make use of them.

Flexible Work Schedule

“The big winner is offering flexible schedules,” Evelyn emphasized. “So many people are going into the office only to be stuck on Zoom calls all day. So then you have to ask yourself how productive is being in the office.”

Offering flexibility allows employees, including women, to better manage their time, reduce commute stress, and achieve a healthier integration of work and personal responsibilities.

Removing the Stigma of Mental Health

A very simple change like reframing sick days as mental health and wellness days can help reduce the stigma around taking time off for self-care. “It allows your employees to use those days, not only when they're dramatically sick, but they just need to recoup from all the other stressors in their life,” Evelyn stated.

At TestFit, we offer personal days every quarter so that our team members can take a day off anytime for any reason with no questions asked.

The Future of Women in Architecture

According to NCARB by the Numbers 2023, a growing number of women earn their architectural licenses with a 5% increase from the previous year, hinting at a more balanced gender representation in the field.

To further support more and more women joining the architecture profession, Evelyn highlights the potential of technology to level the playing field and reshape traditional roles within firms, offering opportunities for women to excel in new areas.

“One of the interesting things that we're seeing on the AI side is because the technology is so relatively new and moving so fast, there's an opportunity to level the playing field,” Evelyn emphasized. “I see that as a huge opportunity to take over a lot of the mundane things and support a lot of the areas that women tend to get stuck into at firms.”

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