Our Gender Equity Taskforce Toronto (GETT) paired up with Building Equity in Architecture Toronto (BEAT), to host a panel last month inviting women from our studio to talk about overcoming obstacles in a male-dominated profession. Christina Grimes, an architect at our Toronto studio, and Susan Gushe, Managing Director of our Vancouver studio take a look at the conversations from the night and share their own experiences:
When I started my architectural career at Perkins + Will’s Vancouver studio, I had no idea how rare it was to be working in a studio with a woman Managing Director. I didn’t fully realize the uniqueness of Susan Gushe — a woman with two young children who had hung on through all the obstacles inherent in a male dominated profession, and was now leading a 100+ person studio. As my career progressed, I consistently worked on projects lead by men. While they were wonderful mentors from whom I learned a lot, I felt that something was missing – more exposure to female leadership.
Currently, I am an architect with the Toronto + Ottawa studio and a member of our GETT (Gender Equity Taskforce Toronto) committee. GETT, comprised of 15 employees, represents the full spectrum of our studio’s staff, from student interns to Principals. Since forming last year, we have spent hours discussing the gender inequalities that still exist in the design industry. Pay inequality, access to female mentorship, and female design leadership, are frequent meeting topics. No miraculous solutions have yet been identified, but by having these conversations, we are all becoming more educated on the underlying issues that continue to hold our industry back from balanced senior leadership.
Eager to extend our inner-office dialogue to the local design community, the GETT committee hosted an evening of discussion last month lead by five of Perkins + Will’s established and emerging leaders, with BEAT, ‘Building Equity in Architecture Toronto’. BEAT is a national organization that creates events and networking opportunities to promote achievements and visibility of women and minorities within the profession. Through a mix of shared stories, humour and personal insight, Susan Gushe, Aimee Drmic, Gayle Meeks, Eunice Wong, and Clara Romero related their experiences as women leading change in an evolving profession, laying the ground for an open and engaged conversation that lasted well into the evening.
From the Toronto studio, Aimee, Gayle, Eunice and Clara presented career snapshots highlighting the diverse challenges and successes they have experienced.
Aimee, a senior architect, described the Toronto studio transformation over her 12-year career, including how the presence of women has increased dramatically. She discussed her own transformation as a new mother, and the constant challenge of balancing home life with work demands.
Gayle, a senior construction administrator, discussed her journey to the CA side of project delivery and her experience working in a male-dominated environment. As an associate, Gayle highlighted opportunities for increasing CA exposure within the studio and her efforts to ensure more women feel comfortable on site.
Eunice, a recent graduate and the youngest presenter, discussed the importance of female mentorship. She highlighted the still prevalent industry equity gap, where many of her colleagues are women, however her supervisors and the ultimate decision makers are often male.
Clara, a senior urban designer, discussed the challenges and opportunities she has experienced as an immigrant to Canada. The loss in value of her work experience in Spain and the difficulties transferring her professional registration are frustrations she has balanced alongside the more diverse Canadian clients she engages with every day.
From the Vancouver studio, Susan Gushe reflected on her 28-year career highlighting the obvious and not so obvious opportunities that brought her to the top.
From my perspective, the evening was inspirational, and I was honoured to be invited by Christina as the keynote speaker. It was a prime opportunity to share my thoughts on how women in architecture experience leadership, and while I am encouraged to see this topic generating considerable discourse, statistics show that barriers continue to limit women’s participation in senior leadership positions, to their detriment.
For the women who account for 50 percent of all candidates entering the profession, and those whose careers are underway, this is a tough reality. We have all experienced the enormous investment required to prepare for this profession. Our lengthy education and post-graduation internship is costly and notoriously difficult. A workplace where half the participants are not able to thrive and benefit from what is often pursued as a “calling” versus career is somewhat tragic.
Only through gender-balanced leadership will we close the pervasive “pay equity gap” and achieve a profession where women have the same opportunity to prosper as their male colleagues.Susan Gushe
In addressing the largely young women in attendance, I felt it was important to emphasize our collective responsibility to become agents of change and purposefully move towards leadership. My observations on how to achieve this are paradoxically drawn from an admittedly “unplanned” 28-year journey to find myself among the small group of female leadership in the profession.
Transferable takeaways on key factors that influenced my career, understood mainly through hindsight, include an early willingness to take on “stretch” opportunities well outside my comfort zone as a means to grow skills and take on responsibilities for functions critical to the success of the firm. A late example came with the request to take on the Operations Director role upon returning from maternity leave in 2004. Moving from a design based project architect role was not easy, but neither was the challenge of gaining the comprehensive working knowledge of finance required to succeed in a firm oversight role.
Finally, women should understand the importance of having a “supporter” versus a mentor, who can champion real opportunities for growth and promotion at the table where decisions are made. I have been lucky throughout my career to have bosses willing to see beyond gender, and do so.
Having the courage to share our experiences amongst ourselves and more importantly with our leaders, will enable women to positively influence their futures and balance the profession. I was impressed by the stories told by Aimee, Gayle, Eunice, and Clara, and by the strong support demonstrated by their studio’s leadership. My takeaway was that while we may not always recognize it, change is well underway.