When architect Anik Pearson read the New York Times headline “Where Are All the Female Architects?” about two years ago, it lit a fire in her belly. “I remember feeling angry that the question was so misleading. It implied that there were no female architects to be found,” she recalls. “It was saying to the public, you might as well not look for them because they're few and far between.” Rather than stifle her feelings, she contemplated ways to “change the conversation” she says, and not just with casual conversations, but with an audience who could amplify the message that women architects are very much here and doing work that deserves recognition.
Anik’s frustration isn’t unfamiliar to anyone who has felt invisible in their profession but what makes her story different is her decision to act. As she delved into her research, she learned that most women give up on their architecture careers within just a few years of graduation. Why? The reasons are myriad (few opportunities, sexism, family commitments, and so on) but chief among them is a lack of role models. Anik, who founded her eponymous firm at the age of 29, saw the disconnect between emerging women architects feeling hopelessly isolated and established women architects who had persevered, risen to the top of their field, and managed a healthy life-work balance. “It was about putting the two together to show what can be achieved and to provide a network for help.” To realize her idea of a mentorship program, Anik brought together her firm colleague, architect Angelique Pierre, and Nancy Kleppel, Principal at Nancy Kleppel Consulting, to launch Women in the Profession of Architecture. It’s been one year since they began—and they haven’t looked back.
“I’ve always conceptualized our seminar series to be about supporting women in whatever way they need to be supported, which we’re kind of figuring out as we go forward,” says Nancy. “But so much of this is about being seen; being seen by firms that are hiring, being seen by leadership once in the firm, being seen by the public and clients and potential clients and being recognized for one's work.” Seminars, held every other month, are designed to show a diversity of careers within the field and mentors are encouraged to speak about anything they feel was of significance to their trajectory.
This year, which begins in September, will include such topics as adapting to the pandemic, enacting change by taking up leadership positions, and drawing strength from outside interests. Anik, Nancy and Angelique also strive to make the conversations intentional, so that mentees feel better able to take control of their paths, rather than leaving life to chance. And because the seminars are held in intimate spaces (usually Anik’s office, but this year’s program will include a seminar at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, pandemic-permitting), gatherings are informal, which encourages conversation.
“Part of what we're doing is creating a sense of community and providing the resources and the support for you to begin to see your career differently,” says Angelique. “You have questions on your mind or things you're thinking, and it helps to know that there are other women with the same questions,” she continues, explaining that seminars give mentees the confidence to see themselves on equal footing. “Just having someone hear what you're saying and validate it makes an enormous difference. That’s what’s been missing,” adds Anik. “I think a lot of young women—not just in architecture, but in law, in finance, and medicine—drop out of their careers because the obstacles feel insurmountable. Our seminar series is proof that those obstacles are not insurmountable. Others have done it, and that's the most powerful message.”
The success of the program clearly shows how great the need has been, but it also begs the question, “Why now?” Why is this the moment that these sorts of support communities are coming into existence and thriving? Angelique has an idea. “Since the #MeToo movement, more women are speaking up and taking matters into their own hands. We don’t have to apologize for being in the room. We have the tools to feel confident asking for what we want.” Case in point is architect and mentee Dana Boylan, who so appreciated hearing the mentors speak of their hurdles and struggles, she reached out to architect Barbara Spandorf, FAIA, Assistant Director, Department of Design, Construction and Management, City University of New York, for a one-on-one conversation after a seminar. “After I graduated from Cooper Union, the economy crashed, and now it’s COVID-19. I didn’t get a chance to mindfully go about my path and took what jobs I could, even if I wasn’t getting paid. Through sisterhood—peers and mentors that I can talk to—there’s an opportunity to see what my career could look like.” Participating in the seminars affirmed that not getting paid was not ok and that strong, intelligent women need nurturing too. “We all have questions, struggle, and hope our decisions are the right ones, and it’s ok to be scared. That’s why the act of someone really listening to you, someone who’s older and has perspective, is so important,” says Barbara. “Change comes from a willingness to ask and a willingness to act,” adds Angelique. (In happy news, Dana has since welcomed a baby, taken a new job, and is doing well.)
Women in the Profession of Architecture was intentionally designed to be a simple program that its founders could manage while juggling their own careers and families, but it was also designed with the hope that other architecture firms would follow suit. (Discussions are currently underway for similar programs in Austin/San Antonio and Portland.) But an unexpected secondary effect of their simple approach was the ease with which they’ve moved the program online for the duration of the pandemic. “We’ve had to transition to virtual but there’s no disadvantage, both models work,” explains Angelique. “The energy online is slightly different but it’s equally engaging, even more relaxed, and we can reach more people.” In Nancy’s words, “We’re rolling with the punches! We don't have a script or know how it's all going to unfold, but we have an outline, a lot of ideas, and a lot of energy.”
“I wasn't expecting the benefits of having created this thing, of working with Nancy and Angelique, the mentors and the mentees,” says Anik. “I’ve learned so much about them, and about myself in the process. It’s opened a whole new world.” And, like all of the program’s participants, she’s the real deal when it comes to mentorship. “Send them our way—we’re happy to talk to them,” are her words to Move Over Bob’s next generation of trailblazers. “Don’t give up,” she adds. “Have the courage to prevail, and to challenge and deliberately set out to prove the preconceptions wrong.”
To find out more about Women in the Practice of Architecture and their new series of events, visit womeninarchitecture.net.