Jane Hendricks, a Principal in our Seattle office, will be honored in an exhibition on Women in Design, taking place in September as part of the national Women's Leadership Summit. Jane is one of only 22 Seattle women who have been elevated to Fellowship in the AIA, given to architects who have made a significant contribution to architecture and society on a national level. On the eve of the exhibition we asked Jane to share her thoughts about the role of women in architecture.
On my very first night away at college a lot of people came late to the freshman convocation, showing up only after they'd joined 50 million other people in watching Billie Jean King defeat Bobby Riggs 6-4, 6-3, 6-3. King was a key player not just in tennis, but in advancing the cause of women's equality in the 1970s and beyond, and she was instrumental in demonstrating for American women that they had the same capacity for success as men, in every kind of pursuit. As I considered architecture as a career, King was one of many who inspired me to look past traditional role definitions that were then pretty much the norm.
Gender issues in society were (are) far from resolved a few years later, but I was still caught off guard during my first week of architecture school, when a reporter from a local newspaper came into our studio to chat with a small group of students and ask: How do women and men design differently? It was a question partly about quality (are men better designers than women?) and partly about form (are buildings designed by men different from buildings designed by women), and her opinion on the latter was already regrettably established ... she was sure that men design towers, and women design caves (which, of course, all have highly functional kitchens with fabulous broom closets). Despite an undergraduate degree in the history of architecture, it had never really occurred to (naive) me to ask a question like that, and my self-righteously indignant response was that her spurious question fundamentally misunderstood where design came from. My classmates (equally divided among women and men for the first time in that program) all agreed with me.
It's a huge relief that collectively we seem to have mostly moved on from questions like this, but that's not to say that women in architecture don't still face the same work place issues that impact women's careers across many professions. It's still sometimes hard to be taken seriously (especially on a construction site ... at one point I painted my hard hat pink, and surprisingly, that seemed to help), and it's still sometimes hard to be recognized for your contributions (just ask Denise Scott Brown). Staying home from work on a day when a son's school is closed can still risk questions about your work ethic, and long hours of working (more than) full time can still stress families and relationships.
So it's a huge relief to see a growing recognition that in addition to talent, ambition and hard work, what women need to be successful in architecture is pretty much what everyone needs: opportunity to develop their talent, flexibility to achieve a healthy balance between work and personal life, and strong role models. I feel very lucky to have found these, but it wasn't always obvious where to look, and I'm grateful that architecture firms and the profession as a whole have begun to put more explicit emphasis on mentorship and (gender-loaded word alert!) steadfast nurturing of both women and men as they learn and grow as professionals.