We were given the opportunity to participate in a pilot program for women’s leadership in the design industry run by The Coxe Group – a consulting firm who provides business management guidance to design firms, including Arrowstreet.  At first, we were skeptical of the program being ‘women only.’ We are trained as architects, not female architects, and had reservations about pointlessly continuing to segregate our gender. In the end, the program transformed our view of practicing architecture as women. This rare opportunity to communicate around a table with just females allowed for a unique candor and support that is hard to find in a male-dominated field. We gained perspectives from different sizes and types of firms and people across the country, and opened our eyes to typical industry biases, whether conscious or not. Arrowstreet is doing well compared to the average firm, but the industry has a long way to go before the conversation of gender and diversity is no longer relevant.

The idea for the conference stemmed from a discussion at a past Coxe Group session for firm Partners regarding women in the industry. While the number of women in architecture schools has drastically increased over the past few decades, the number of women in leadership positions has been slow to rise. According to statistics compiled for this past year’s AIA Convention, the number of women graduating with a degree in architecture is roughly the same as men (45% vs. 55%), but this number drops dramatically with career growth. Only 17% of principals/partners are women. The firms at the Coxe Group session discussed strategies for better supporting and retaining their female staff.  In a male-dominated profession, the leadership roundtable for women is a step toward equalizing the gender divide.

Integral to the advancement of women in design is the development and refinement of leadership skills. This is an ongoing process, but the first step is to identify proficiencies and areas for improvement. We evaluated our personal tendencies and discussed strategies to improve listening, feedback, negotiation, delegation, collaboration, credibility, trust, and networking. We both found developing these tools has increased our confidence, particularly in situations where our age or lack of experience can be intimidating to us. These qualities are not just important for individual career growth, but for the benefit of the firm as a whole. Leadership tools include:

  • Improve Communication and Listening Skills: Be cognizant of daily interaction with clients, consultants, contractors, and colleagues.
  • Focus on Project Objectives: Recognize both the big picture and time sensitive aspects of a project.
  • Support a Collaborative Team Atmosphere: Foster an open environment where team members feel confident to share ideas and express opinions.
  • Be Confident: Believe in your value; prepare and rely on your knowledge.
  • Develop Relationships: Connect with others in the industry to build trust
  • Build an Expertise – Pursue Your Passion: Increase your firm’s credibility related to a specific project type or industry initiative.
  • Be Trustful and Reliable: Consistently deliver quality work on time.
  • Be Mindful of the Firm’s Well-Being: Uphold the firm’s image. Continuously represent the firm from networking at industry events to meeting all deadlines.

We’ve brought these principles back to Arrowstreet, applying the skills we learned to current projects and office initiatives. In addition, at the beginning of the program, we were tasked with a “stretch assignment,” a project we generated for ourselves to challenge us beyond our current skill level. Initially we both chose to increase our expertise in areas relating to our current projects. However, our stretch assignments evolved throughout the course of the program as we all came to the realization that this is an ongoing process, not just a single goal to be finalized within the nine month program. They morphed from a stretch assignment to stretch goals and have generated momentum for us to shape our careers through ongoing development.

Cat – My preliminary stretch assignment was to advance myself as a leader in multi-family residential, wood frame construction.  I attended industry events to increase my network and familiarity with regional development; including presentations focused on trends of millennial renters, E+ housing design, and post-construction discussions of individual projects.  I utilized my experience to build relationships with new developer clients and add value to their project teams.  Within the office, I promoted myself as an internal resource, launching discussions within the Housing Group and sharing my project history (including best practices and lessons learned) with coworkers.

My “a-ha moment” came as I pondered continuing my stretch assignment after the round table concluded.  To maintain my drive, I needed to better relate my ongoing knowledge of multi-family residential, with my greater personal interest of mixed-use developments.  As a liberal arts college student, my passion for creating walkable, livable communities led me to architecture school.  I am excited to increase my expertise of residential development’s incorporation into the master planning of urban infill and transit-oriented developments. I began to appreciate that I am a work in progress, and the program opened my mind to continuously advancing my knowledge base. 

Bridgette When I began the program, I was working on developer-led, multi-family housing projects. I desired for these projects to have an environmentally-conscience focus, but “sustainability” implies a price tag typically beyond the scope of budget-driven projects. My goal was to understand how projects can be successful from both an environmental and cost perspective. I joined ULI, attended many sessions on a variety of topics including passive house; reached out to architects, consultants, and experts; and researched precedents to better understand the challenges and methods for implementing change to lead us towards a better future. Through the course of my research, I learned that true success is the result of early commitment and collaboration from all parties – the architect, client, consultant, and contractor – to pursue and evaluate opportunities. Arrowstreet’s commitment to the 2030 Challenge promotes our view that as architects, we are responsible for leading the design of environmentally and socially responsible infrastructure. I am excited to be a part of this initiative, to continue research, and to help bring the goals of the 2030 Challenge to fruition.

Our last round table session formally concluded a nine month experience with female architects and interior designers brought together to learn leadership skills and to discuss challenges across the industry. Addressing women in architecture separately may seem dated, particularly for firms like Arrowstreet where half the employees are women, but everyone must work to advance gender equity until it is no longer a relevant conversation for any firm or any career position. These sessions offered us the opportunity to engage in open and honest conversations about challenges, potential solutions, and why gender and diversity matters to firms. All businesses, but particularly those in the design field, will thrive when embracing opinions and expertise from a wide variety of sources (gender, race, age, etc).

When women leave the profession or don’t rise up equally into positions of leadership, businesses are at a disadvantage; a homogeneous firm lacks diverse viewpoints.  This occurrence does not result from lack of drive, but rather from the industry’s failure to adapt to modern demands and schedules. Women and men are inherently different in their communication styles, management tactics, and through their expected gender roles. However, different work methods must be recognized and embraced, and traditional social norms broken down in order for everyone to thrive in the modern work environment. These sessions were not only opportunities for personal career growth, but a platform for identifying obstacles and for brainstorming methods for change. These include supporting empowerment, equality, perseverance, flexibility, and an awareness of pressures outside the office. Programs like this should continually be supported so that new ideas are always arising and challenging the old system to build a better industry. We see this experience as an opportunity to spark conversations in our own firm and on a broader scale.