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The Pinch-Back: Chicago women architects talk mentorship and firm culture

Career pinch points demonstrate markers that signal a decline in female practitioners

Studio Gang’s work on the new Writers Theater in suburban Glencoe earned the firm an AIA National Honor Award this year.
Curbed Chicago Flickr pool/urbsinhorto1837

Today is International Women’s Day. And Chicago’s women architects are killing it—we can begin there. But there’s still quite a bit amiss when it comes to gender representation in the profession. In the spirit of International Women’s Day, I spoke with a handful of Chicago’s women architects about how they’ve navigated their own career pinches.

The period between 2014 and 2016 produced a plethora of data about women in architecture, notably why there are still vastly more men—especially more men in positions of power—than women in the field. Due to the efforts of groups like the American Institute of Architects and its Diversity in the Profession of Architecture study and the Missing 32% project (2014), data on what AIA calls “career pinch points” have emerged.

Atelier Cho Thompson/Courtesy of The Missing 32% Project

I’m not a statistician. But the career pinch points demonstrate markers that signal a decline in female practitioners. Getting hired, paying dues, licensure, mid-career life changes, and approaching retirement are all moments when the women symbolically recommit to their profession or are systematically denied the growth potential to keep them practicing. While new National Council of Architecture Registration Board (NCARB) record holders slowly approach the 50/50 male/female mark, the numbers of women architects begin to decline at each pinch point.

Ann Lui is the co-founder of Future Firm and assistant professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She has worked in corporate and boutique firms, as well as academic contexts, and has found that throughout these experiences, there are many emotional hindrances. “It's been more of an accumulation of small experiences that have caused me at any given moment to question if I’m in the right profession,” she says, citing sexist remarks that span from inappropriate comments to more serious judgments.

“These range from more innocuous remarks to being told I was a 'diversity hire' to the crediting of work that is wholly my own to my male partner,” she says. “These things don't stop me in my tracks, but they do still hurt and register in a way that over time changes how I see both architecture practice and academia.”

Carol Ross Barney, FAIA, principal and founder of Ross Barney Architects, also sees these pinch points as being less defined than the data indicates. “I think that the points you're talking about are constantly moving,” she says. “If I had to characterize [it], it’s when you realize that there isn't necessarily a roadmap for what you’re doing.”

So perhaps the career pinch points do not make the career path of an architect as clean-cut as one might imagine. Nootan Bharani, AIA, is a licensed architect working with UChicago’s PlaceLab. After beginning her career with a firm and being laid off during the recession in 2009, she found her way to consulting with a company working in sustainability: “I started to realize there are so many more opportunities for architects other than the traditional firm. I had this inkling and never took the leap to figure it out until it was right there in front of me—and I credit that to Kevin Pierce, one of my mentors.”

Ross Barney Architects worked with Massachusetts-based Sasaki Associates to develop the design for the new Chicago Riverwalk extension.
Curbed Chicago Flickr pool/Erik Wolf

Mentorship was a common thread with all of the architects with whom I spoke. Barney spoke of her friendship with John Holabird of Holabird and Root (where she worked for many years). She remembers this relationship fondly: “He was always looking out for me. Without that connection I maybe wouldn't have toughed it out as long or felt as confident with the decisions I made.”

Claire Cahan, the studio director at Studio Gang, cites the firm’s myriad support structures as means to avert potential early- to mid-career pinches. “I feel fortunate to work in a place where there are women at all points in their career,” she says. “They have helped me navigate the professional world as my role has changed ... as I've grown and gained skills. It's important to have that flexibility in a firm or between firms so people can continue to advance. We try to work mentorship into the everyday process. There's isn't a hierarchy at the day-to-day level that would set someone up to either lead or fail on their own.”

The under-construction Vista Tower will surpass Studio Gang’s nearby Aqua as the world’s tallest tower designed by a woman-led firm.
Studio Gang Architects

Lui echoes the need for a similar infrastructure from the beginning, even when students are learning about leadership in architecture. She tells a story of working with a young female architecture student to design and install an exhibition: “The student was holding a computer that contained all the exhibition designs, dimensions, budget, emails, and so on, and she looked at me and said, 'But I don't know who’s in charge!’ I looked at her and said, ‘You're in charge. You designed this and put it together. This is your project.’ I got the sense that nobody had ever said that to her before ... The infrastructure was not there.”

While statistics have come out noting how men perceive women in charge to be “bossy” when they exhibit leadership traits, it is imperative that women receive the types of support that mentorship and institutionalized leadership training can offer to avoid career pinches and to allow them to thrive as architects and firm leaders. Not just because it’s International Women’s Day, but because it is 2017, and yes, women are still fighting sexism, lack of leadership opportunities, and a system that places less value on their work, opinions, and experiences.

Anjulie Rao is a journalist, editor of Chicago Architect magazine, and communications director at AIA Chicago. Her work focuses on equity and the intersections of art and architecture.