2019 AIA Women’s Leadership Summit

2019 AIA Women’s Leadership Summit

Thoughts: Reframe

I spent my formative years in Iran, a traditionally patriarchal society on the verge of modernization. The country’s first western-style public university was established in early 20th century during my grandparents’ time. Prior to that, while traditional-style education was accessible to the elite, the average population remained largely uneducated. In families, men were generally breadwinners and women homemakers. My grandfather was among the early group of students who attended University of Tehran in pursuit of an academic career. Meanwhile, my grandmother, whose strict father had prevented her from attending school as a young girl, stayed home after marriage and raised children as her husband’s career advanced. She, like most women of her time, did not live a life with choice.

My parents were the first wave of Iranians to find their way into a modern school system. By the 1950s, the cultural transformation and resulting economic growth were underway. Young women—mostly encouraged by mothers who had themselves been deprived of basic rights—now had a chance to pursue studies and careers outside of the home. Those pioneering women were eager and delighted to join the workforce and become contributing members of the society alongside men. To them, work was not just about financial independence but also a social statement: a rebellion against tradition, a claim to newly-won rights, and a display of choice, autonomy and existence.

I grew up watching an idealist generation of women beat a path in a social environment that simultaneously rejected and embraced the idea of gender equality. Despite the fact that patriarchy was still deeply rooted in the fabric of the society, and political upheavals such as the Iranian Revolution of 1979 had set progress back, women had made significant headway forward by the time I was a young girl in school. When I decided to become an architect, no family member questioned my choice. They did not comment nor imply that architecture was a male-centric profession because, by then, women were just as capable as men in their eyes. I was encouraged to follow my ambitions.

Since women’s roles in a developing society like Iran had been redefined so radically over a short period of time, there was no doubt in my mind that the developed world would be much further ahead in this regard. I had simply assumed women would be far more integrated in the professional sectors of the society already. With a childish sense of naiveté and wishful thinking of a teenager, I moved across the globe to the US to pursue architecture. It was literally the turn of the century.

School years went by in a haze. The playing field seemed fair and equal during that time with several women around as professors and classmates. Either I was oblivious to the reality of the situation back then or life was different among the young and ambitious with limited real-world responsibilities. However, upon entering professional practice about twelve years ago, I began to encounter a different reality altogether. Suddenly there were very few women in senior leadership positions, and as time went by, many of my female peers and colleagues of the early years dropped out of the scene one after another for various reasons. Some discouraged by difficulties caused by the Great Recession of the late 2000s left architecture for completely different professions. Some frustrated by the long hours and relatively low compensation left architecture for better-paying positions in related fields, and others struggling with balance of work and family life quit demanding architecture jobs in exchange for more free time at home. A workforce that was equally filled with men and women at the beginning of my career became more and more male-saturated as I moved forward.


The question became increasingly mind-boggling overtime. Why is it that women who navigate architecture school and early career days with such incredible passion, suddenly lose interest and momentum in the following years? Why would one endure endless allnighters and hardship in school if they had no intent to stay around long term? Why do so many of us realize too late that managing the finances of urban life is a difficult task to achieve with a career in architecture? How is it that a post-recession economy cannot keep women content in the field? Why do women leave the profession more often than men?

With these questions swirling through my mind I headed to Minneapolis in mid- September to attend AIA Women’s Leadership Summit, a conference attended by women architects from around the country to discuss the state of architecture for women professionals.

Pause: Rethink

From September 12th to 14th, Minneapolis was host to the largest gathering of female architects ever held in the United States. This year’s conference, the 6th event in WLS’s decade-long history, was themed ‘Reframe. Rethink. Refresh.’ A group of 750 women architects and design professionals came together to reflect on the role of women in the architecture profession today and highlight the importance of equity in the #MeToo era.

The conference was divided into a series of general sessions for all participants, and a number of focused seminars and workshops in which practicing women shared experiences and lessons-learned with smaller groups. Over the course of 2.5 intense days, national and local AIA presidents addressed the summit; keynote speaker Priya Parker, author of The Art of Gathering and founder of Thrive Labs, demonstrated the power of human interaction through a series of interactive experiences; keynote speaker Toshiko Mori, professor of architecture and former department chair at the Harvard GSD, presented a fast-track, visual diary of her professional life as a series of photographs accompanied by inspiring words; Julie Snow of Snow Kreilich Architects, an award-winning practice in Minneapolis, discussed the founding of her firm in 1995 and its growth over the last 2.5 decades; a handful of women architects of diverse backgrounds at varying career stages shared their professional trajectory from past to present in a series of short story narrations; local architecture firms hosted happy hour events and conversations for smaller groups in their offices1.

It was an incredibly inspiring few days. I met attendees who had left young children and family members behind and traveled to Minneapolis on personal time to be part of a professional conference that extended into the weekend. I heard from architects practicing in rural parts of the country about challenges of hiring and running an architecture business in places where architecture graduates are rare or completely nonexistent. I heard from women who had redefined their professional path after encountering hurdles that forced them to search for creative new ways to situate themselves within the profession. I listened to stories of failure and success, of backlash and encouragement, of disappointment and hope. It was encouraging to be surrounded by so many talented women committed to a shared passion: architecture.

In such a charged atmosphere, my internal questions lingered for a couple of days. I had imagined conversations to be around issues in the workplace that prevent women from continuing on the architecture path, and yet all I was hearing were stories of perseverance. It was not until Debbie Millman, host of the podcast Design Matters, graphic designer, author, educator and master of ceremonies for the event, pointed out the difference between “passion” and “purpose” that I started to see things in a different light.

That day, I began to think deeply about the qualities that define each virtue and started to distinguish between architecture as passion vs. architecture as purpose. Ultimately, the difference comes down to the old battle between the heart and the mind. Passion is connected to emotions while purpose is grounded in reason. Passion is focused on the ‘what’ and purpose is obsessed with the ‘why’. Passion is about self-satisfaction whereas purpose is about serving others. Passion has a temporal nature while purpose is rooted in permanence. Passion stops but purpose goes on. Suddenly it became clear that I was sharing the room with a group of women who found a purpose in architecture beyond the initial passion.

And I began to connect the dots…

Toshiko Mori, FAIA, at 2019 AIA Women’s Leadership Summit in Minneapolis

Afterthoughts: Refresh

It occurred to me that the reason why the women of Iran—those who had shaped my upbringing—continued to push boundaries outside of home was because they were driven by purpose. They truly believed in creating a just society where women had equal rights and opportunities as men. That if equal opportunities were not provided by default, they had a responsibility to demand it, and a continued responsibility to maintain it. They believed that a society in which women had an equal part to play in both school and workplace is healthier and more balanced than the alternative. Choosing to work as a professional came with the conviction that they were contributing to a social structure greater than themselves. Those women returned to work after marriage and childbirth, not because they had less desire to spend time with their family, but because they knew it was important to have a voice outside of home, and to set a precedent for the next generations of women who would eventually look up to them, admire their struggles and cherish their achievements.

It is easy to take opportunities for granted when choice is abundant. It is easy to lose sight of purpose and follow passions, one after another, as they turn the corner. It is easy to blame the system, see the flaws and turn away when reality does not align with the plan. If passion leads the way, it is easy to lose interest and give up when life gets in the way. What is not easy is to keep moving forward despite the setbacks. It is not easy to improve the system against the odds. It is not easy to navigate a male-dominated field as a woman, confront bias and dismissals along the way and continue on. But if we find greater purpose in this profession, believe in ourselves as women and in the transformative power of architecture combined with our voice, then we possess a duty to stay put.

Only 3 of the 100 largest architecture firms worldwide are headed by women—all three are Scandinavian. Men have dominated the architecture field not by their choice, but ours: our choice to leave the field. If there is a shortage of women in senior leadership roles today, it is partly because not enough experienced women are available to fill those roles. Most of us have advanced through the middle of our careers with very few female mentors. Women in senior positions today arrived with no female mentors in sight. It is our job to change the course for future generations, to become the role models we rarely had, if at all.

In the path forward, men are our allies. They are our fathers, brothers, friends, colleagues and mentors. They recognize talent and appreciate hard work and genuine effort. They help, they teach and take our hand if we extend a hand. As architects, we all have to work together and help each other to make this profession more representative of the society at large. It is only through an inclusive group of professionals who represent all facets of a population—its various colors and genders and minority groups—that we would be able to fully serve the needs of the diverse communities we live in. Only then would our buildings become true reflections of the times and the occupants they are designed for.

Ever since I joined WRNS four years ago, the company has tripled its staff and opened two new offices outside of California. Spearheaded largely by women in the studio, improvements have been made and steps taken towards a more equitable practice. Our JUST certification process has pushed socially sustainable initiatives such as gender diversity and pay equity2. Today, it is encouraging to see that  our Seattle studio of eight has grown to be 50% female, and it is my sincere hope that the trend continues as we expand more in the future. It is also true that women face challenges in the workplace that often go unnoticed or unreported, but there is no obstacle that our collective determination cannot overcome. If we are to change the face of the profession in a meaningful way, it is important to identify challenges along the way, communicate shortcomings with the leadership, and work together as a group to provide solutions. WRNS Studio, as a trend-setting, forward-thinking young company with high visibility in the market and growing footprint around the country, can lead the way by introducing innovative incentives that specifically respond to the needs of its female employees and encourage their continued involvement in the profession. We have the ability to take small steps at a local level that produce ripple effects in the greater industry.

Glancing at the past with an eye towards the future the outlook appears promising. While we are closer than ever before to achieving equity in architecture, major changes are yet to come. There is still a long, bumpy road ahead and our generation can pave the way. As long as we make a conscious effort to look beyond our daily tasks with a greater purpose in mind, and approach the profession with a sense of commitment to our community, our colleagues and the future generation, we will be able to make a positive impact in the field, however slow or small. The largest obstacles in life are those created by our own minds.

Be passionate. Be purposeful.

1More information about the event can be found here.
2For more information about WRNS Studio as a JUST organization click here.