For week five of the Authentic Architect Novena, guest blogger Rosa Sheng shares her story of how you can think you are doing everything right and still feel like you are coming up short career-wise. Learn how Rosa threw out the old playbook, got off the achievement hamster wheel, and is leading the Equity by Design movement to bring equity to the profession of architecture.
Growing up in suburban New Jersey, my awareness and appreciation of Architecture was somewhat limited to retail malls in my early youth. That changed when I was 11 and my aunt took my brother and me to China to visit my grandparents. Among the many sites we toured, the most inspiring were the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, and Hutong “network of alleys that formed the old neighborhoods of Beijing.” My Grandpa explained that these amazing structures and places were intentionally designed and built with great effort to last beyond a singular human lifetime; I learned from him that Architecture goes beyond the bricks and mortar. It’s about PEOPLE and valuing the humanity of communities, and the history of civilizations that inhabits them. I started to “get” the impact of Architecture and the built environment that summer. It was the greatest influence on my decision to become an Architect.
When I started telling my family of my destined career choice, one of my uncles said, “Why would you want to work so hard and not get paid that much? Especially since you are probably going to get married and have kids, right?”
I was mad. Furious actually. And it made me even more determined to reach my dream.
From a dream to the reality
I spent 5 years in architecture school with all-nighters and professors who made me cry during final studio critiques. After graduating during a recession, I spent 5 more years as an “intern” changing jobs every year, working long hours while getting paid “peanuts,” and trying to reconcile the dystopia of professional practice in the real world. Then IDP hours fulfilled, I passed 9 exams to get a licensed with no fanfare. After 21 years in the profession with 10 plus projects, some awards, 1 U.S. Patent, 1 husband, a double mortgage and 2 kids later…
I was ready to quit Architecture
So… how did I go from passionately wanting to become an Architect to a point of desperation? This is not just my story, it’s the story of our profession.
In The Missing 32% Project, Equity in Architecture survey, our goal was to identify factors or “pinch points” from graduation to retirement that cause Architects to leave the profession. The five major pinch points? Hiring, Paying your Dues, Licensure, Caregiving, and the Glass Ceiling.
I managed to navigate the first 3 pinch points, but then there was “caregiving.”
When I graduated from Architecture School, I was confident, I felt like I could do anything and there really wasn’t anything in my way. However, parenthood and trying to keep up with your career is hard work. Having a family and children took me from believing I was a superhero to having those superpowers stripped away – I realized I was only human after all. Regardless of the challenges, I made a conscious decision to keep working. On the surface, I appeared to be succeeding at “having it all”. In reality, I felt like a failure; I often struggled with self-doubt and had symptoms of depression. No matter how hard I tried, I didn’t feel like I was meeting my own expectations, whether it was having enough time for my family, engaging in meaningful work or reaching my leadership goals for career advancement.
As a stark shift from the constant air travel of my previous work, I needed a project that would be closer to home and support work/life flexibility. That project was the business school at Mills’ College in Oakland, CA. It was a unique chance to work with a team led by talented and tenacious women as clients, our consultant team of engineers and even our construction superintendent. As I spent time with the Dean, the faculty and students developing a program and design to support their goals, I became more aware of the lack of women in business leadership, which was also plagued by challenges of implicit bias and imbalance that paralleled similar issues in Architecture. I was slowly getting back to full time work towards the end of the project. Then I had my 2nd child in 2009 as the recession hit. New building projects had disappeared and layoffs were happening industry wide.
While I was grappling with my future in Architecture, I was asked to be a panelist at The 2nd Missing 32% symposium that was hosted by the AIA San Francisco on June 8, 2013. What began as a lunch seminar in 2011 about Architect Barbie’s role to inspire future professionals became a sold out symposium in 2012 and 2013 to address the striking gender disparity in architecture. There was strong energy at the symposium. I met so many courageous and talented women facing similar challenges. It was evident that something needed to change. But identifying “what” to change and then figuring out “how” to make it happen; was a very daunting proposition. What could I possibly do to change inequity in Architecture? After all, I was on the brink of becoming one of The Missing 32% myself.
There was a lot of anecdotal evidence of similar challenges faced by other women in their careers. There were some UK and Australia research data sets including Parlour: Women, Equity, Architecture in Australia with a website of great resources and articles. However, statistics and surveys around these topics were lacking in substantive data and metrics on gender trends in the profession within the U.S.
I had been pulled into a perfect storm. At the same time as the conference, Denise Scott Brown’s Pritzker Prize challenges for recognition for her work was brought to public attention by a petition authored by Harvard Women in Design. Sheryl Sandberg’s Book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead revived and reframed the conversation about the F word – “feminism”. Alexandra Lange’s pivotal piece “Architecture’s Lean In Moment” for Metropolis declared what needed to be done: “We need to create a new set of best practices. That will be a design project in itself, based on data, shared examples, and interpretation.” It became evident to me that DATA would be the calling card to initiate a necessary but difficult conversation about Equity in our profession. When I read this a few days after the symposium, I still didn’t know whether or not I wanted to stay in the profession. But from the positive momentum, I made the decision to take action. On June 11, 2013, I asked AIA San Francisco if we could start a committee to discuss women in leadership and equity in architecture.
Although it was exciting, I felt like I had promised to “eat a whale,” similar to one of my favorite childhood poems by Shel Silverstein “Melinda Mae”. It’s about a little girl who claims that she’ll eat a giant whale. People doubted her ability given her size compared to that of her meal. Well, despite all the doubters, she completed her ambition. She did it with resolve, starting at the tail, bite by bite…and, it took her 89 years. While I initially worried about “biting off more than I could chew” there was a simultaneous sense of commitment for this daunting task. Unlike Melinda, I was determined it wouldn’t take 89 years to achieve these goals!
Building a cause
I couldn’t to do it alone. I needed more people to come to the table to take their bites and we needed bigger forks! I asked everyone I could to help. That was 2 years ago and our little bites in aggregate around the country and the world have quickly become “a movable Equity feast.”
Our ambitious research project began with the 2014 Equity in Architecture Survey that generated 2,289 national responses; approximately 60% women and 40% men. Our intent of the grassroots research study, resulting data and corresponding infographics kick-started a much-needed conversation.
The only way to affect real change is the power of each individual’s decision to “Act”. And those individual actions are even more powerful when collectively unified and each held accountable to each other, catalyzing a chain reaction of like-minded actions. In the last 18 months, much has happened to galvanize the movement for Equity in Architecture.
We launched the much awaited early findings of the survey on October 18, 2014 at the 3rd sold out symposium of 250 attendees for “Equity by Design: Knowledge, Discussion, Action” which framed the goals for the day. “High impact” breakout sessions following each theme’s survey reveal offered deep dive discussions in customized workshops prompting action. The name Equity by Design resonated with our mission and was successful at engaging a larger audience to the conversation.
Perhaps the biggest impact was made at AIA National Convention May 2015 in Atlanta. Equity by Design hosted the first ever AIA convention Hackathon workshop to further the conversation and move the profession forward into action. 32 participants formed 6 teams for a mini-Hackathon on the survey pinch point topics. Additionally, based on the research, I co-authored “Resolution 15-1 Equity in Architecture” with Julia Donoho, AIA and Frank Pitts, FAIA that was co-sponsored by AIA California Council and AIA San Francisco. It passed with a significant majority of 4117 voting yes. The resolution requests that the Institute appoint a commission of experts to assess data, set a plan of action, track progress, and report on results on a regular basis.
Simultaneously with the Equity by Design movement, I manage multiple architectural projects, I still have a family that needs my love, support and at times, undivided attention. The biggest difference is that I live with greater purpose and passion. I have met so many that have graciously supported me without any motives or expectations. I have stretched dangerously beyond my comfort zone, but have have survived unscathed to share the journey – which has been the greatest reward.
We have come a long way, but there is still so much more work to be done like the story of Melinda Mae. In order for equity in architecture to become a reality, we need to go beyond just “thinking differently”. We can make a bigger difference by what we DO. Stay hungry for change, go grab your fork and join us at the table.