Being a Female in a Male-Dominated Industry

by René Graham, CEO and founder of Renzoe Box

 René pictured here with students from her architecture class at Texas A&M University. Although the profession has yet to catch up, there's more females than ever graduating with architecture degrees.

René pictured here with students from her architecture class at Texas A&M University. Although the profession has yet to catch up, there's more females than ever graduating with architecture degrees.

Since the election of 45, there has been a surge of women-centric conversation, events and media attention. Since the Harvey Weinstein scandal broke, there has been an uprising of women stepping forward to reveal their experiences with assault. And after yesterday, the anniversary of the historic global women’s march, it is evident that the tide is still strong.  

As I’ve followed the news and global events over the past year, I’ve been struggling with my own experiences as a woman—and I’ve wrestled with the issues I’ve faced along my career path, what it means to be a woman of my generation in the professional world today, and how I can add to the conversation in a meaningful way.

I myself am many times caught between my own contradictions: there’s what I was taught and have always done in the face of problems (find another path, press on), and what I feel I am now allowed to do, or rather, must do.

Allow me to preface by saying: I am not a person who makes excuses for failures. I take pride in both my successes and failures thus far in life, each a mark of a path that is real; a path that at times has been messy; a path that has led me to be stronger, to try harder. What follows is by no means a manifesto against men, nor an excuse for not yet accomplishing my goals. It is simply my experience.

 

Here’s the truth of it: Being a female in the profession of architecture is a difficult balancing act.  I have found that to navigate my profession successfully, women must weave a very fine line between doing what it takes to be taken seriously professionally, and following cultural norms to be accepted socially.  This isn't new information, as many women from other male-dominant disciplines have spoken to this subject. But I'm here to say out loud: me too.

In architecture, on the one hand, women are sought after or given credibility for some stereotypically female attributed “design sensibility,” or “mom-like” skills to juggle and coordinate the thousands of tasks required to properly manage a building project.  If you’re a savvy professional, you know that you’ll take whatever in-roads you can get, so if someone wants to attribute these traits to me--sure, I’ll take it.  For example, I once had a client walk into my office beaming as she announced, “I'm so excited! I have my very own Joanna Gaines!”

For those of you unfamiliar with the HGTV phenom couple, Chip and Joanna Gaines are the Fixer Uppers whose Texas-based reality TV show has become a national hit, their names synonymous with “great home design" in many American households. While I have the utmost respect for what they do, and myself have been won over by their wholesome charm and ship-lap aesthetic, having had experience in reality TV, I like to think that my skill sets, education, and real life business experience are beyond the scope of what we all know is “behind the curtain" of any entertainment-focused reality television show: a lot of faux.  However, if this is how my client chooses to envision me, so be it. I'll take it as a compliment and move forward.  

On the other hand, in architecture, when it comes to the grit and dirt and heavy-lifting of the profession--the construction knowledge and field work and difficult digital modeling and complex structural details and systems integration--well thats really for the boys. In short, and as was told to me once by a contractor: “you make it pretty; us guys will make it work.”

This doesn't even begin to address the construction site stares and cat calls and sub-contractors addressing you as “the decorator.” I'll let you fill in the blanks as there's just too many of these types of incidents to rattle off.

Beyond those stereotypes, there's the numbers.  If you take the entire spectrum of what is involved in the making of the human habitat--urban planning, public works, capital investment, real estate development, civil/structural/mechanical/electrical engineering, architecture, construction, etc--you’re not going to find a lot of women. I say this not from a standpoint of vast data points and calculations, but from first hand experience. (Although, at some point I did try to find national averages for each industry and came up with somewhere around 17% female; architecture is only 15-18% depending on how you crunch the numbers)

I landed my first internship in architecture in 2003 and have been working in the industry on projects of all types and sizes ever since. I cannot even begin to count how many meetings I’ve sat in where I was the only female at the table; or the only female critic on the jury for reviews of student projects. The picture below of architect Maya Lin in the 80s when she won the DC Vietnam Veteran's Memorial Design Competition? Story of my life. Without hesitation I can conservatively say close to 85% of the meetings I attend look like this photo. In more recent years as I’ve moved up the food chain, started my own business, and moved into roles of greater responsibility, its probably closer to 95%.  As unscientific a measuring stick upon which to gauge the profession as this may be, keep in mind what can be gleaned from my experience--that these are the meetings where decisions happen.

To be more direct: these are the decision-makers of our built environment, and very very few are female.

 Maya Lin, architect for Vietnam Veterans Memorial

Maya Lin, architect for Vietnam Veterans Memorial

So what does this mean?

For any one client or general contractor interaction: miniscule affect, if any.

For any one given meeting or final review: close to nothing.

But over time it adds up. If women aren’t present to make decisions, we won’t gain the necessary experience, we won’t get the good commissions, we won’t get into the good publications, we won’t get the top awards, we won’t build a strong network to grow our professional pursuits, and we’ll never gain a strong foothold.  Its a vicious cycle.

Also, without being out there in the weeds gaining experience at every level, its hard to know your own value. A prominent labor economist once told me: the great thing about women is they’re just as good or better at the job, but 75% of the cost.

 

As I look back on these experiences from within the context of the recent scandals and everything else that made 2017 a breakthrough year for women, it is clearer to me than ever: My generation needs to write our own rules for how we find fulfillment and leadership in the workplace.

We need to pull up our own chair to the table and not wait to be invited.

We need to encourage and work with each other.

We need to build out our networks together.

This is the only path to change.

 

Therefore to to my fellow women in architecture, design, engineering, urban planning and construction out there: KEEP IT UP. Be bold. And lets work together. Lets dream about the big crazy projects and go after them. 

To the female architecture students out there: yes, architecture is hard.  And yes, the profession is a difficult and rocky path. You will likely experience a lot of what I’ve mentioned above.  But on the flip side, there’s a lot of space for you at the table and your voice is needed. I’ll be patiently waiting and searching for you.

And finally to the men in architecture, design, engineering, urban planning and construction out there: the next time you’re at a project meeting, look around. If there isn’t a female at the table, or if there’s only one, take note of it. Then next time, help change it.

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