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EB Min on Women in Architecture

EB Min on Women in Architecture

Wednesday, March 07, 2012 | | Interviews

“If you want to change things, you have to stay in the game. If you drop out and talk from the sidelines, people won’t take you as seriously.

Having a good mentor is very important. I can’t stress enough how important it is to be able to turn to someone for advice… a mentor can also be a model of behavior. I could watch my colleagues to see how they talked to people, how they spoke to clients and contractors. They did some custom, highly creative designs – how did they manage to get their way? Even the wording to use can be important… a mentor can coach you on how to speak.”


This article is part of our Women in Architecture interview series, exclusive to The Architect’s Take. EB Min of Min|Day Architecture has a background in studio art as well as architecture. Min|Day’s award-winning work is characterized by an artful yet playful approach, applying advanced 3D modeling with a surprisingly natural aesthetic sense to create unique custom fabricated components.

Why did you start your own firm?

I always knew that I wanted my own design firm. For my first few years, I worked at a landscape architecture firm with Andrea Cochran and Topher Delaney. Andie now has her own landscape design firm, Andrea Cochran Landscape Architecture, and Topher has SEAM Studio.

My career experience is unusual, because I worked for landscape architects rather than a regular architect. Working with Andie and Topher has had a huge influence on me professionally. First, it was two women in a partnership, doing design/build. Not only did they have a high dedication to design principles – but they also knew how to get things built. I didn’t think about the fact that they were women at the time, but now I feel extraordinarily fortunate to have worked with them.

Why did you partner with Jeffrey Day to form Min|Day Architecture?

Jeff and I went to school together at UC-Berkeley. We complement each other well, with a healthy respect for each other’s design sensibilities. It’s nice to have a partner to work with, to serve as a sounding board, and for editing and added support. I get more out of working with someone else. Sometimes I’ll be hesitant about an idea, and Jeff may either say that he doesn’t think it’s a good idea, or he’ll say, “Don’t give it up – we  should do that,” even when it’s something I think will be too hard to do.

Why did you go through with getting your license?

The story of my license is quite a saga, actually. It took me a very long time to get licensed – 14 years! Initially, I took most of my exams at the last moment that they were offered by hand (fill in the dots on a form) as opposed to on the computer. I took and passed all the exams at the same time except for the graphical portion. I thought I’d just take the graphics part “later”. Well, later became never!

I got really busy. I had a practice, and since Jeff was licensed, it seemed less urgent. Then, the clock ran out. If you don’t pass all the exams within a specified period of time, you have to start all over again. I’d run in, take it, fail – but it would keep the clock running. In 2010 I finally passed everything and got my license. I took the oral exam at the last point before they abandoned the orals in favor of a multiple choice format.

Even though I kept putting it off, it had always bothered me that I didn’t have my license. Jeff was licensed, and he didn’t care at all that I wasn’t, but I still felt that we weren’t on an equal footing. Getting that last thing done was a huge monkey off my back.

Other people have criticized the licensing process as well, some of them quite openly.

At one time the exam was different, and happened all at once except for the graphical portion. Then IDP happened – the Internship Development Program, which required a certain number of hours. At first, they didn’t check your reported hours other than that the reports were signed off. Now, you have to log a certain number of work hours for each design phase of a project: Schematic, Design Development, Construction, and so forth. It’s hard for people in large firms to complete all their hours requirements, because in a larger firm a single phase can last for a couple of years.

The length of time it takes to get licensed has substantially increased, no doubt about it. The number of licensed architects is falling, and I believe that the licensing process is a general discouragement. This affects men as well as women, but it’s compounded particularly for women because it’s in the same time period when they have to decide whether to start a family.

Well, the exam shouldn’t be easy, but this is bureaucratically challenging, not intellectually challenging.

There’s this “rolling clock” concept – if you don’t get your license in 5 years, you have to start all over. This makes it doubly, triply hard for women to step out – or work part-time. A lot of women never bother getting license, and then they miss their chance.

How did you get your first projects?

Andie referred me to a project, the Palo Alto Pool House, and said that I could do it either on my own or through their office. Then, they referred more projects to me – because they were landscape architects, and this was outside of their core practice.

Have you ever felt frustrated by your female colleagues?

That’s an odd question. One can be frustrated by anybody, really. I don’t have any experiences in particular to share, other than the typical working frustrations, which weren’t gender-related.

OK I’ll be more specific. Have you ever felt frustrated by women who came back from maternity leave with a sense of entitlement, but who weren’t performing up to speed?

No, I haven’t. But I’ve always worked in small practices. I’ve never worked in a larger firm where they had maternity leave, or family leave policies, or anything like that. I’m used to working with women staff, women architects, even women in construction.

Have you ever experienced discrimination?

Not overtly, no. If it’s not overt, though, it’s tough to even know if it’s happening. If someone does  something obvious like call you “sweetie” on a job site, that’s one thing. But, if you interview for a job, and everyone’s polite, but you don’t get the position, you don’t always know for sure why. But it’s possible that the expectations are not the same as for a man.

Sometimes Jeff and I will go to a meeting with new people whom we don’t know, and they’ll talk to Jeff more, or they’ll address him first. This usually changes during the course of the meeting. I still go to meetings for tenant-improvement projects, and I’ll often notice that everyone’s a guy: the leasing agent, the builder, etc.

Have you felt any sexism on a job site, from construction crews or managers?

Topher and Andie hired their own crews, so there I didn’t feel marginalized. A little more so on the East Coast, perhaps. But residential contractors are getting more used to working with women. However, I have never yet seen a female site supervisor. It seems that as you travel up the food chain, and look at managerial positions, there are fewer women in those positions, no matter what field you’re in. Obvious sexism is not as endemic as it was 30 years ago. People now understand that it is not appropriate. But, women are still not in leadership positions.

Why is that? Are they being subtly passed over, or are they opting out?

I’m seeing this from the outside as it were, because I’m not in one of these larger firm myself. I think there’s some passing over, and then some women are self-selecting out. And a lot of this is tied to having a family. It’s the same in law or engineering.

For women, the decision whether to have a family comes right at the time when they are working to grow in their careers. In skilled professions, people who go through school and get a Master’s degree, won’t be entering the workforce until their mid to late 20s. The first few years they’re getting up to speed. Then, just at the time that their career starts to take off and they start getting some real project responsibility, it’s time to leave. Men don’t have that same limitation, because they can have children at a later time in their lives. Women have to make that decision before their peak childbearing years are over.

Stepping out for a few years to start a family is difficult, and stepping back in is even harder, especially for women. Having a child changes your priorities. Sometimes firms don’t want to take them back, or the women can’t work the same long hours as they used to. This is a very difficult topic to talk about, really.

Child-bearing is more physically taxing for women, because it’s their own body.

Biologically, it’s never completely  fair. Women are more involved in childbearing, with nursing and physical recovery. It’s physically more demanding for them, and hormonally crazy as well. Things are turned upside down. Three months’ leave is just not enough. Women feel pressure to come back and perform at the same level as before. Men don’t feel that same pressure.

We talked about this at the Architect Barbie panel at the AIA San Francisco offices this past Fall. At one point, we asked the audience how many of them planned to have kids, and 80% of them raised their hand. Then we asked them, “How many of you are afraid about this?” and nearly ALL of them raised their hand.

I have a three-year-old and I have my own practice, and there have certainly been challenges. I can’t work as much as I used to, just can’t work as many hours in the day. Before, I worked every day, including weekends, both at home and in the office. I can’t really do that now. I come a little later, leave a little earlier. The first year after having a child was especially challenging time-wise. It took a lot of mental energy. I’m not the most organized person, either.

I also delayed having a child until I was 40. Fortunately, I have a very supportive husband who can stay home more often and help with child care. In a more traditional arrangement, it’s the mother who ends up staying home, while the father works longer and later hours – because he’s the sole breadwinner. Really, someone more versed in feminist theory should address this one. My opinion is that women shouldn’t make it just a feminist issue. It’s a broader conversation that affects everyone, including men. If you make it into a “women’s problem” it becomes marginalized.

My brother took care of my newborn nephew full-time while my sister-in-law went through her surgical residency training.

People from my generation and younger are more open to stay-at-home dads. Companies now offer paternity leave as well as maternity. Still, why do women still pay a higher price? For this interview series, you should get some men involved in this conversation, and women from larger firms as well. And remember, you are speaking to women who are the exception: Anne Fougeron, Karin Payson, and the others have all managed to carve out their own way, by having their own firm. But not everyone wants their own firm.

There are lots of women who want to work on big projects, big things. To really do that, you need to be a partner in a big firm. You should talk to women who’ve managed to do that. Those of us who have our own firms have in a sense created our own world, our own domain. We don’t have to work with people we don’t like. We are removed from that corporate pressure.

How would you advise women architects to invest in their careers?

Have a sense of what you want, what you’d like to achieve, and what type of practice you’d like to be in. Have some sort of picture in mind. It doesn’t have to be super detailed, just have some idea. As far as gender bias goes, nothing will change unless women stay in the field until some of them rise to fill leadership positions. So many women are opting out. We need women in high positions to set policy and who are sympathetic to women’s situations.

It’s been suggested that the women who do rise to the top are not necessarily sympathetic.

There could be some truth to that, especially in the generations before mine. I’m kind of a Generation X-er. Before my time, a lot of women in the top positions didn’t have kids. The were very focused on what they wanted to accomplish. But the bottom line is, if you want to change things, you have to stay in the game. If you drop out and talk from the sidelines, people won’t take you as seriously. It’s easier to be marginalized as a woman than as a man. And if you’re already sidelining yourself, it only makes things worse. We sure didn’t talk about this in school – how to navigate our careers, and make career decisions.

Women have a perception problem, in how other people perceive them. Women over a certain age are more likely to be seen as “old” – more so than men. It’s even more important for women to stay engaged. They can’t disappear.

Other people have spoken about the importance of mentors.

I had some very important mentors who helped me in my career, and still do. There needs to be more mentorship. Not just for women, but maybe women need it even more. Someone to give advice, explain things, act as a sounding board for solving problems and sharing stories.

Having a good mentor is very important. In most professions, people have a mentor of some kind, to foster their career. In school, you have access to advisors, guidance counselors. Those relationships are very important after school as well. You need someone who understands your industry, and who has faced the same problems as you are facing now.

The AIA now has a mentorship program. I can’t stress enough how important it is to be able to turn to someone for advice. Sometimes it should be someone outside of your own firm, too. At the AIA-San Francisco, where I am currently a Board member, we were considering having a more formal mentoring program for women, an informal meeting once a month or once a quarter.

Tell me more about the Barbie panel. I’m sorry to have missed that discussion!

It was myself, Anne Torney, Ila Berman, and Cathy Simon. The idea for this panel discussion came from a blog post “What I Learned From Architect Barbie,” and it was moderated by Jessica Lane, the original author of the blog post. One thing that came out of the discussion was that the older generation of women had problems with the idea of making a Barbie doll into an architect. They were horrified at the idea. I wasn’t horrified at all. I think for Generation X and Y folks, the thought was, why not?

The original post had a big discussion of what Architect Barbie would wear, and how it had to be cute but also practical, and not too distracting.

I agree. Why do women have to curb their femininity in order to practice? Clothing should be appropriate to the job, but women should still be able to express themselves a little. For example, high heels may be inappropriate on a construction site, but a hot pink hard hat – why not?

But some of it goes beyond attire. It has to do with how we as women present ourselves.

I still see gender differences in how men and women present their own work. Men tend to over-value their work, while women under-value theirs. It’s so engrained in women that it’s hard to rectify. We should have a workshop for women on how we present ourselves and to see more clearly how we undermine ourselves through basic mannerisms – deferential body language, too many apologies – all that stuff. Women are so cognizant of body language and social cues, but we don’t see how we ourselves are using it.

This brings us back to mentorship, because in addition to advice, a mentor can be a model of behavior. I could watch Andie and Topher to see how they talked to people, how they spoke to clients and contractors. They did some custom, highly creative designs – how did they manage to get their way? Even the wording to use can be important, and a mentor can coach you on how to speak. Don’t be whiny or complaining, for example. It may seem obvious after the fact but it still helps to have someone show the way.

Any famous last words?

In addition to talking with a few corporate women, I’d suggest talking to some younger women. Ask how they perceive their own potential career choices, how they see the playing field. They might have a different perspective.

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pix EB Min on Women in Architecture About the author
 Rebecca Firestone has been working in the Bay Area since 1998 as a technical writer, business content developer, architectural filing lady, marketing director, and sorcerer’s apprentice.


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