Dear Architecture: It's time to create a level field for female designers

If architecture took one moment to be introspective, it would discover appalling imbalances between the opportunities for women and men, as Perkins+Will's Vershaé Hite and Brittany Eaker-Kirkland wrote in an open letter.

January 12, 2016 |
Perkins+Will’s Ideas + Buildings
Dear Architecture: Create a level field for female designers

Illustration courtesy Perkins+Will

An ideas competition organized by Blank Space asked people to submit challenges to the architecture profession in the form of an open letter. Participants from over 60 countries responded. An esteemed jury chose the winners, among whom were two designers in our North Carolina practice. Below, we share their second-place winning entry, an invective asking the profession to make itself a level field for female designers.

The authors added, “Having recently discussed the role of women in architecture, this competition gave us the opportunity to tell an au courant story drawn from a collage of varied circumstances. We wanted to highlight significant issues by presenting lived experiences in relation to statistical data. Our hope is that this letter will incite and amplify meaningful dialogues between men and women in architecture firms across the country, and aid in encouraging an eventual demographic transformation within the profession.”

 

Dear Architecture,

Today over beer and gourmet cupcakes, my co-workers and I celebrated Ashley’s last day at the office. The salted caramel flavor I’d chosen felt oddly appropriate as I contemplated the loss of a mentor and talented peer. You see, it’s not just her last day here; she’s decided to join “The Missing 32%” of women in the United States who were unable to see a long-term future with you despite years of dedication. Our countless conversations over morning and afternoon coffees could not shake her lingering discontent with the tumultuous relationship between the two of you. So she’s moving on and, honestly Architecture, I don’t blame her.

If you took one moment to be introspective, you would discover appalling imbalances. You would see that not even a quarter of architects in the U.S. are women, although women are going to design school at nearly equal rates to men! This number continues to decrease at higher leadership levels in the field. Imagine how difficult it was for Ashley to encourage young female professionals in our office when she consistently saw them unable to achieve their career goals because of office leadership that devalued their contributions, ignored their strengths, and amplified their weaknesses. Even she felt buried under the weight of these recurring issues. Seriously Architecture, are we building on rock or sand here?! Face it – the exclusive “boy’s club” culture you’ve established has forced Ashley to take her Jimmy Choos elsewhere.

Architecture, I’m revealing all of these things to you because I love you. I love design and the incessantly changing, challenging nature of the daily work in architecture. I love how essential you are to the human experience, allowing your user to impress upon you as you do them, becoming a living archive of societal evolution. I love how you scale, humbling me so that I feel my smallness while simultaneously empowering me to create my environment. I love your infinite physical expressions, especially when imbued with theory and experimental ideas that attempt to rescue humanity from its ailments. I love how we are always intertwined and in continual dialogue with one another. But our relationship needs work.

Consistently, I ask for opportunities and you respond with preconceptions, limitations, and pigeonholing. I beg for critical life balance and flexibility and you respond with unpaid overtime. I plead for a clear path to advancement and you present me with an ultimatum: choose status quo or exit sign. So before I reach my breaking point confronting the same issues which drove Ashley to leave, how are you going to change? The practice of architecture has to evolve. We need diverse professional leaders. We need office leadership that is aware of the issues and willing to take quantifiable action to support qualified female professionals.

We need women architects, and women architects need change.

I haven’t given up on you yet, Architecture, but we have a lot of work to do.

Sincerely,
Lauren

P.S. I know a great relationship counselor.

 

About the Authors: Vershaé Hite joined Perkins+Will in 2012, after obtaining her Master of Architecture from the University of Westminster in London, England. She has a wide breadth of experience with the firm’s design competitions and projects, ranging from programming to construction documents and LEED administration. In addition, Hite holds a leadership role in Perkins+Will's Social Responsibility Initiative (SRI) in Research Triangle Park (RTP), N.C., which is complemented by her involvement in the office’s Green Team and co-leading the Exploring Architecture Program to mentor local students.

Brittany Eaker-Kirkland joined Perkins+Will in 2008 after completing her Bachelor of Architecture at UNC Charlotte. She is instrumental in many aspects of the building process from design documentation through construction administration, with significant involvement in the cultural practice. Eaker-Kirkland is invested in on-going leadership efforts with Perkins+Will's Social Responsibility Initiative (SRI), developing local community outreach programs and activities, including co-founding the RTP office’s Exploring Architecture Program.

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Perkins+Will is a firm of remarkable people who are driven by discovery – through their relationships, research, and design. In the simplest sense, our ideas are the precursors for all of our design work. Ideas + Buildings, Perkins+Will’s blog, features emerging thought leadership from across the firm, inviting an even greater global dialog around learning, wellness, workplace, sustainability, and everything in between. Visit the blog at: http://blog.perkinswill.com.

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