Karin Payson on Women in Architecture

Karin Payson on Women in Architecture

by | Interviews

“When I was young, I was a rebellious soul. My dream was to be an artist, and my mission in life was to have the freedom to own my own work, control my own schedule, and protect my creative energy. At age 15, I already knew that I wanted freedom. I had a vision of myself living an authentic life. That was my rebellion.”

This article is part of our Women in Architecture interview series, exclusive to The Architect’s Take. After beginning her architecture career in New York, Karin Payson of KPA+D has been running her own San Francisco firm since 1992, creating custom residential designs with a disciplined yet warm contemporary style. You can also read her exclusive interview on The Architect’s Take, where she speaks out about her design philosophy and her experiences within the architectural profession.

Why did you start your own firm?

That’s a very fundamental question. It’s the right question to start with, because it leads straight into a broader dialogue about womens’ experiences in architecture. I started my own firm for two reasons. First of all, there was no room for me with the boys. And when I came here to San Francisco from New York in the early 90s, that’s exactly what it was. Second, when I was young, I was a rebellious soul. My dream was to be an artist, and my mission in life was to have the freedom to own my own work, control my own schedule, and protect my creative energy. Not my intellectual property – my energy.

When I graduated from architecture school, I worked at HHPA (Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates). They broke up about 8 years ago when the partners retired; prior to that, they were a very prominent firm based in New York City. I was successful there partly because I had a different set of goals, and partly because I wasn’t competing for the associate or partner track. I was able to build up a strong portfolio there.

I came to California at age 32 looking for freedom. I worked for an architect who was just starting up a successful practice. I could teach, work for him, and be an integral part of his business – or so I thought. He liked my portfolio, but he couldn’t accept that level of ambition in a woman. When I went to other firms, I didn’t see women as drafters – only as word processors and secretaries. I was shocked! In New York City, there were more women architects than in San Francisco. The women architects in New York City didn’t get the same level of pay as the men, but they did get the same level of responsibility and respect. Not so in San Francisco!

Here, there was literally nowhere for me to go but out on my own. My female colleagues who were my friends all felt the same way. They felt like there was no place for them here. Discrimination has a different face than it used to. It’s a lot less overt. Legally the door is open – but in actual fact, it’s not. Socially it’s not. All my employees right now are women. It’s weird… I’m both proud of it and worried about it. But when I asked a job candidate how she would feel about working in an all-female office, her face totally lit up.

A similar thing was happening in the art world as well. In 1985, the Guerrilla Girls began actively pushing to get women artists into the high-art world in New York City. Women were completely shut out. Even Mary Boone, a top art dealer at that time, was quoted as saying “I would represent women if any of them were any good.” Unbelievable!

So what does freedom mean, exactly? In my experience, most people don’t really WANT to be free.

At age 15, I already knew that I wanted freedom. I had a vision of myself owning my life, having control over my time, and living an authentic life. That was my rebellion.

How did you get your first projects for your new firm?

I started my firm in 1992, and my first projects came from Paul Wiseman, who is now one of the very top interior designers. I had met Paul socially, through a friend of mine who was drafting for Paul. At that time, I was working for Richard Brayton. This work from Paul was a small job, and really I just helped him out.

Two years later, I split from Richard. I was working on a church in San Geronimo with another architect who essentially handed it off to me. Then, Paul Wiseman referred me again for a couple of other projects. The first was a client of his in Los Altos Hills who needed a major home remodel. Shortly after that, Paul introduced me to his brother who lives in the Delta region of the Sacramento River. I designed an entirely new home for him. So, during my first few years on my own, I worked on these two projects. At the same time, I was teaching at UC-Berkeley and CCA.

I really had no idea about how to get new work. I called a handful of people that I knew, and put out the word. That’s my method even now: put a lot of irons out there and hope that something comes up. Now, work is just starting to come in from new sources. Two projects came through the same owner’s rep. Another client was introduced through a personal friend – I kept in contact with that person for three years before he became a client. Yet another client came through my business partners in an investment project, and we have one client who was referred to me by her own father.

That last story is worth telling. This client’s father was a developer of high-end production houses, and he had been referred to me by a colleague. He was used to working with commercial architects, and he pushed back hard when it came to fee. He’d say, “They’re charging half what you charge,” and I’d respond by saying that that I wasn’t competing with them. I offered to scope down the work – no, he wanted full services. Then I offered a discount on my hourly rate, but I couldn’t go down much on the total fee because it just wouldn’t have been enough to cover the work that was needed. He wouldn’t accept this, and so we did not end up working together on his project.

But, a year later, I got an email from the referring colleague, who had forwarded an email from this developer, saying that now his daughter needed an architect. So, somehow, even though he wouldn’t work with me himself, he thought highly enough of me to recommend me to his own daughter.

Sounds like you gained his respect by sticking to your guns.

If you charge a lot, they go away, but if you charge too little, they don’t respect you. It’s the law of the schoolyard. If you have low self-esteem, you’ll just get picked on.

Why did you choose to go for your license?

To me, that’s an unbelievably absurd question. One might as well ask someone why they bothered to go all the way through school to finish a degree. Everyone I went to school with got licensed, although they’re not all in architecture today. It was just what you did to follow through on your education. It was about finishing what you started.

Back then it was easier to get licensed than it is now – not because the test itself was any easier, but because it was all given at one time, not spread out over an indefinite period of time the way it is now. As people graduated, everyone took the test at the same time during 4 consecutive days in June. It was more collegial. Everyone would study together, then you’d take the test together with all your friends. It was just like school. And whatever parts you didn’t pass, you’d take again the following year. It was more a continuous part of the education process. The progression was: grad school, three years working, take the test – and you’re done.

Nowadays, licensing is much more drawn-out. People are more isolated. It’s harder to get it done, because the test is taken in pieces over a longer period of time. This fragmentation makes it much more difficult to complete the process. Life gets in the way. The way the exam is done now, I think it devalues the profession.

Still, the question of getting licensed is a completely separate one from whether people are leaving the profession. I went to a 20-year reunion and almost none of the women were still practicing architecture. And, only a few of the men were. It’s not just women who are leaving, although they still leave in greater numbers proportionally than men do.

The deeper truth is that fewer women stick with the profession and become really serious about the work. Many do interior design instead. I’ve heard people say that the reason is they’re afraid of being sued if they get licensed. They can be sued anyway, whether they have insurance or not. And if you’re not licensed, you can’t even get insurance.

So why are fewer women sticking with the profession?

As I said earlier, the formal barriers are gone, but the obstacles remain. It’s still largely a male-oriented, male-dominated profession. There are few women practicing independently who aren’t married to other architects. One dissuasion is the pay. Unless you’re a principal in a successful firm, or in private practice, you won’t make much. As an employee, it’s very hard, because pay scales tend to be low in relation to the education level required. A long-ago female colleague of mine, an Israeli woman who went to the Technion – a top university – joked that “Architecture will eventually become a woman’s profession because the pay is so bad.”

How can women balance children and work in architecture?

One of my female employees has 2 young kids at home and has still continued to work. It was very important to me to support her in this. She went to working part-time, and currently works 30 hours a week. She took two long maternity leaves, the first one longer than the second. I think she came back to work the second time sooner than I had work for her – but I’ve pushed her hard to stick with the profession.

Is it true that women who have kids sometimes can’t perform at their old level? Is it ONLY the women that this happens to?

My experience has been that women get pregnant and then they disappear. With men, it’s a different story. Men are more likely to want MY job. Young men who work for a woman – they think that their work for me isn’t important, that it’s somehow not “real work”. With the new mother in my office, we have a strong relationship. I saved a project for her – the CA phase of a library – on the condition that she return in time for the start of construction. She has been very diligent and committed.

How was she able to maintain her professional life as a new mom?

It was her upbringing, I think. She had supportive parents, in particular a very supportive mother. When she was 8 years old, her mother wanted to go to graduate school. Her father actually left his business in Colombia for three years while her mother went to grad school in New York for economics. They all came here with no English and stayed until her mother got her Master’s degree. I traveled to Colombia to be at her wedding, where her mom said to me, “Don’t worry – when my daughter has a child, I WILL SEND A NANNY. My daughter has a profession, and she must keep it up, so that her husband will continue to admire her.”

Have you ever been frustrated by your female colleagues? Are they dropping out because they just don’t want to work as hard?

Yes, I have been frustrated, but not in the way that you ask. What frustrates me is a personal sense of exceptionalism – women who identify too strongly with the fact that they’re in a male-dominated profession, and then use that as a way to be “special”. What I mean by that is they don’t want other women around. They want to be the only top female – not just the alpha female, but the ONLY female.

The difference with men is that alpha males don’t use women to make themselves more powerful in the workplace. It’s true that to get to the top in any workplace, you have to be aggressive, driven, and forceful. And the plain truth is that women can’t be as open about it as men can. Women have to be more charming, more coquettish. It’s not about the sex, it’s more about coyness. They can’t exhibit the same behaviors and get away with it. The saying goes that “Nobody likes a strong woman.”

We’ve been talking about the work sphere. Is it any different in the social sphere?

That hasn’t been an issue for me. When I was younger, most of my close personal friends were males. Now, I have many more women than men friends in my personal network. I still have a lot of male friends, too. But I’m finding women to be more interesting. Being married is helpful. When I first got married while working at HHPA, men at work who hadn’t talked to me much started coming up to me and opening up, sharing more – I was “safe” now.

Being married makes it easier to reach out socially to men. It also makes it easier to include their wives or partners in any social overture. There was one man I wanted to know better, but then I realized that I found his wife even more interesting. So I invited them over to my home for brunch. My husband was there too, and we all had a wonderful time.

Do you have any personal stories of discrimination that you faced?

Here’s one. I was at a party in around 2006, I don’t remember where. A man of my own generation was asking me about what I do, so I was telling him how I had my own firm, we do this and we do that. And he asked me, in a mocking tone, “Who’s ‘we’?” – as if I couldn’t possibly have my own firm with other people actually working for me. I responded by explaining that I had 6 employees, including a full-time office manager, 4 designers, and a freelancer. I didn’t lash out at him; I just told him the facts.

But most of the discrimination actually came from my own parents. On the one hand, they encouraged me to be myself. But then they were also saying, “No! You can’t go there” meaning, “We were hoping you’d go to school to be interesting and marriageable.” I was taught to be self-reliant in the event that my marriage didn’t work out, not to seek independence for its own sake.

I was raised with lower expectations than my brother. He was, of course, seen by my parents as more talented, brilliant, etc. He could do anything he wanted. My parents wanted me to go to school to marry a lawyer, as two of my aunts had done. While one aunt went to school for the sake of the education, then later met a man who became a lawyer (who then changed careers), another aunt told me the story of how she had hopped from college to college looking for a husband. She went to Sycracuse, “but there was nobody there.” So she attended graduate school at Columbia University, but there was nobody there, either, so she switched to law, at another university, and met my uncle.  Had I followed that path, my parents would have been pleased.

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

Seek out women architects who are 100% committed to their careers. Mentorship is key. I’ve had a lot of male mentors, and they were wonderful, but that’s not enough. Women also need a mentor who is someone like them – that’s when you know it’s doable. Someone who’s facing the same challenges: life cycles, hormones, self-esteem issues, hidden workplace discrimination.

Susana Torre was one of my mentors. She was active in the profession early on – and she wasn’t married to an architect. She was quite a presence in the architectural scene in the 1970s and 80s, and I sought her out as both a professor and a mentor. Susana remains a significant influence on my sense of the possible.

More recently Barbara Scavullo, a prominent San Francisco interior designer, has been a model for me of a woman who has successfully built and maintained a substantial design practice. Both women have given me invaluable guidance and support over the years just by making themselves available for chit-chat, friendship, advice and gossip. I continue to look at their accomplishments as an inspiration. You are never too old to gain strength and knowledge from those who came before. However, at a certain point we also have to mentor those coming up behind us; and that can be our greatest accomplishment.

3 Responses to “Karin Payson on Women in Architecture”

  1. Birgitta Kyrö Mattsson

    21. Apr, 2012

    Dear Karin!
    It is so interesting to read what you have to tell about being a woman architect in USA.

    I am trying to get a picture of the life and conditions for architects in California since I plan to go there. I am an architect and I have been working when I was young with a big architect company and then with research and education at the Chalmers University. The last 20 years as a municipality architect and at the moment I try to combine municipality work and private small projects. I wrote a book about “Streets and squares” and plan to follow it up. This seems much and I have been in business for many years.
    Now my son, Niklas, is going to San Francisco to do his postdoc as a clinical chemist/neurolog next winter. And I plan to get possibiliy to go there to see him. And then I of course want to get in contact with architects. So when I red your paper I thought that I colud ask you if you got the time and the desire to have some correspondence with me. Perhaps we could discuss the architecture in Sweden and Europe and USA.
    You can find me on Linkedln.
    Kindest regards
    Birgitta Kyrö Mattsson
    Gothenburg, Sweden

  2. Mark English, AIA

    23. Apr, 2012

    Hello Birgitta, thank you for your comments. Please feel free to contact Karin through her website.



  3. Nick

    12. Jul, 2012

    Wow! This is really a fantastic post. I enjoyed every detailed I read from the start to the end. Karin is a really great woman. I think she is now one of my favorite architects. Thanks for sharing the blog post.

    Building Survey New York

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