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Practicing while Female

Much has been written lately about female architects, or women in architecture.  Should we just not discuss it and do our jobs?  Should we highlight our accomplishments as architects and have special exhibitions of our work?   Should we attempt to figure out why women leave architecture?  Does being female while practicing architecture even deserve discussion?

It never occurred to me that being female and being an architect would be an issue. I grew up listening to “Free to Be… You and Me” by Marlo Thomas.  I was almost 6 when it came out in 1972 and all I remember is listening to it constantly.  I believed everything on the album, and why not? Throughout my teenage years I was somehow ignorant of the struggles that women still had in the workplace at the time (early 80s)  and could only have believed that the liberation movement was history.  It is entirely possible that a
s a teenager I was completely self absorbed and not very thoughtful about big issues.  I ended up going to a women’s college that confirmed that I could do whatever I wanted to do.   By graduate school I was part of a class that was over 50% female, so I still hadn’t had an inkling that my becoming an architect was going to be a problem for some people.  Sure, my grandmother told me that I should choose a career “more suitable to a woman” but I paid no attention.

Now that I am 50 and have been paying attention for a while I am aware of gender inequality and bias but what I don’t understand is- why?  Why is it inappropriate for a woman to be an architect?  The following is a list of the reasons that I have been able to come up with:

As a woman I won’t be taken seriously by the contractors.  In fact, this rarely happens.  As the architect I am the agent of the owner and so they don’t really have a choice but to consider what I have to say- but beyond that I really have had great and respectful relationships with most of the contractors that I have worked with over the past 20 years.  Sometimes it is the subcontractors that have a problem with me, but rarely.  Once a framer told me to go shopping which was so out of line that I was confused for a few minutes.  A plumber I was interviewing for work at my own house said to me “Lady, you’d be a nightmare to work for” which I took to mean that he didn’t want the job.  Now that I think of it, does that have to do with my gender?  I could be a nightmare for that man as a man or a woman, I suppose, but I can’t imagine him saying “Sir/dude/buddy, you’d be a nightmare to work for”.

As a female architect I won’t be able to lift really heavy items as might a male architect. Architects don’t have to carry formwork or bags of sand or stoves around.  However, it is true that I can’t carry those things.  This may have more to do with me personally and being 50 but the reason is irrelevant since I won’t even attempt to carry the stove.

As a female architect I don’t understand how a building goes together because construction is only interesting to men. I have nothing to say about this other than- it just isn’t true.

I can’t think of any other reasons, but if you can think of additional reasons, please leave them in the comments.  Wait, don’t.

You may have already guessed that I do not believe one’s gender is an impediment to a successful architectural practice.  In the end, clients would be well served to choose an architect with whom they can relate, who will listen to them and interpret their ideas and goals, who is knowledgeable about codes and construction trends, who shares their values in terms of environmental impact, who understands their lifestyle and will help design a suitable space for them.

Here is the real burning question- where are all of the female general contractors?

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Being the client

Every once in a while, it is probably good for me to be the client. I’ve had two very disappointing design experiences this summer.  I am filled with a buyers remorse so acute it makes my eyes burn.  This morning it occurred to me- maybe this is the way my clients feel sometimes.  I hope not, but it is important for me to be sensitive to the fact that they may be panicking and regretting their choice of designer (me).

This summer I am reworking my online presence and I needed a new logo.  I went through an on-line site where a designer is chosen by the client based on their portfolio.  I was desperate and wanted something fast.  At the same time I wanted to pay someone for their time, so I chose the highest cost logo design that I could.  I looked at the logos and chose one a designer whose I thought looked hand drawn but thoughtful.  I wrote to her, sent her my current logo and some favorite recent images of mine. She sent me a design questionnaire but before I had a chance to fill it out (less than an hour later, I would have filled it out but I was driving to the Cape) she sent me her first draft.

Ugh.  You only get a few revisions.  I tried not to worry.  I wrote to her again about what I wanted and made more concrete suggestions, didn’t hear back, wrote again, didn’t hear back, wrote again.  This was over a couple of days.  Sure, that isn’t much time but my original deal was for a 48 hour product!  I had asked for feminine and strong, architectural and handmade.  I wanted to be wowed with a great idea.

Oh well.

Later, during a different project,  I freaked out over color choices.  Someone had chosen dusty purple and dusty rose for me.  I told myself  that to the designers I am probably an impossibly old lady and all old ladies love dusty rose and dusty purple.  Of course I was over reacting and I’m over it now, I simply asked for something different and guess what- I got it!  But at first- having been presented with a draft of the product with no explanation or narrative- I felt misunderstood and unheard and as thought I had wasted so much money and time.

What did I learn from this?  Be responsive to clients, to be otherwise just frustrates anyone.  Set a schedule that I (as the designer) can live with, and let the client know what is going to happen when.  Give people options.  Draw up the option they said they wanted and a couple of versions of it.  Most people I work with want to be involved in the design process, and they already have an idea of what they want.  My job is to make their dreams come true, as I like to say.

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“Greater Boston’s most flexible architect”

My Houzz profile states that I’m Greater Boston’s most flexible architect.  I came up with that one.  I felt that it was a truer statement than what they originally had, which said “Boston’s Elite Architect and building designer” or something like that.  Let’s be honest, I am not an elite architect. Have I ever aspired to be one? What does elite actually mean? “1. A select part of a group that is superior to the rest in terms of ability or qualities”.  In a city of 3,000+ architects, who are the elite among us?  Instead of measuring myself against the thousands of my colleagues I came up with the likelihood that I am Greater Boston’s (although not all of Massachusetts, that may be overstating) most flexible.  What do I mean by that?  I’m willing to work on almost anything. Every person’s project is important to them and I try to help them as much as I can. Sometimes people have already designed their project and I try to help them realize the best version of that design.    I don’t get hung up on designing everything myself and controlling every little bit of the project.  The more that people want to be involved with the design and the process, the better.  Maybe I am flexible because I can throw out ideas and not be offended if someone doesn’t like them.  All ideas can lead to something else.  I also consider myself flexible in a practical sense because my schedule seems to be very fluid and last minute requests don’t bother me.  Would I rather be an elite architect or a flexible architect?  Could I be both?