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There has been much discussion raised about "Why are women leaving Architecture? and more broadly, Why is the profession losing key talent?"  Both women and men practitioners are disillusioned by the myth of work/life balance: Women are grappling with "have it all" expectations of juggling family time with the demands of full-time work.  Men are struggling to support their families solely on an architect's salary and fall back on asking spouses to maintain their jobs. The lack of affordable childcare and high cost of living only magnifies the challenges.  How did we end up in this modern family dilemma? What can we do to improve the situation?

"Being Engaged" is the new "Being Balanced".

An audience of over 50 people convened at the AIA Center for Architecture on the the evening of Wednesday, November 6th, to listen in on a panel discussion titled, "Careers in the Balance".  This conversation is the first in a series of events and discussions focusing on life/work balance put on by the AIA's ForWARD Committee, a Forum for Women Architects and Related Disciplines. The panelists included architects in large firms, husband/wife partnerships, those in sole proprietorships and the president of an engineering firm. The influence of Sheryl Sandberg, author of the ubiquitous "Lean In", was evident from the start as the evening's moderator began with a thought provoking quote about nobody having it all, or at least no one admitting to having successfully figured it all out. Indicating perhaps, that even this word "life/work balance" is an unrealistic ambition, which I believe was unwittingly revealed through the evening's discourse; but this being a very subjective topic,  I will let you decide…..

Based on four general trends that emerged, the following are my take aways from the evening's exchange and what I found to be the remarks that most genuinely resonated:

On the topic of staying relevant ::

Architecture and engineering are challenging industries to stay current in, as information is constantly evolving and changing. The panelist's remarked that it was easy to get overwhelmed and start to feel as if you are disconnected; becoming a disservice to the client.  Subsequently, it's incredibly important to maintain the philosophy of being a lifelong student; carving out time to attend classes, lectures, workshops and reading …. lots of reading! Create your own support system of resources made up of specialists, mentors and business connections. Relevance was also improved by collaboration, which was seen as a necessary tool to not only stay informed; but to foster inspiration by inviting differing points of view. Finally, a panelist encouraged participants to cull all of their talents and be brave enough to solicit not only the obvious service of architecture or engineering, but take it further and offer to create signage, branding, custom furniture, etc. By taking the risk of offering a host of creative services (within your expertise, of course) you are allowing the potential for a more curated and uniformly designed project.  

On the topic of prioritizing time ::

The topic of distinguishing time between that spent towards your personal or professional goals was a lively talking point. At a large scale view, panelists saw life and career as a continuum made up of priorities that are constantly changing, ebbing and flowing. Depending on what stage you are in life, your family may take center stage while your work needs take a back seat or at times your focus needs to be on your project goals, the point is it's a constant flux which make one solid goal of "balance" pointedly unrealistic. One panelist described her home as her "rock", her family time being her main focus outside of running her business and time for outside involvement extremely limited. But this was seen as a temporary reality, one that would change when the kids move on to college and the focus returns to growing the firm and her interests. The point here is to realize that as your priorities shift, you can't beat yourself up about not being 100% at just one thing, without acknowledging that something else will be impacted whether its family, health or career opportunities.  

One panelist consented to the fact that she was, at this juncture, very unbalanced in her life.  Most of her immediate attention being spent on increasing her presence at the local and national level by agreeing to speak at conferences, writing for publications and gaining licensure in many more states through reciprocity testing.   She acknowledged that in previous years she had made a priority of taking a month off in the summer, but with this current push she only could afford to take 8 days off which were spent re-energizing on a trip to Europe. This path, although seen as a temporary unsustainable lifestyle, was understood to eventually slow down and ultimately allow greater creative freedom and broader professional success. The main idea seemed to be that if you love what you do, there is really no time frame to stick to in order to allow yourself to finish a project. Depending on the project load, all the speakers worked on the weekends, evenings and very early mornings to create, to communicate and prioritize. 

On the topic of productivity ::

Having time alone, before the surge of daily distractions, or time bike commuting to and from work with only your thoughts as entertainment, was seen as the most important asset towards peak productivity. As well, creating to-do lists every day and quietly celebrating each item checked off.  Those panelists that worked outside of their home appreciated the freedom to either work at the office or at their kitchen table. They appreciated having their family around and the comfort of home, and the flexibility to step away for personal commitments. Getting out of the office, though, for a run or a walk was seen as necessary to eliminate stress and a good time to speak through issues or upcoming presentations - more than one speaker admitted to probably being mistaken for a crazy person as they walked along speaking aloud to themselves or whomever happened to be around….

On the topic of defining success ::

Here we are, the final theme of the evening and the one with the most personal baggage. Success is one of those words like "balance", everyone has a very different take on what it means, but there's an assumption that it should be a real distinct thing or event. The panelist that appeared the most grounded, the one that equated her home with a "rock", unsurprisingly equated success as being engaged with her kids, with her marriage, enjoying the people that she's employed and the projects she's working on. To hark back to the idea of a continuum, success was agreed to be hardly an event but very discreet moments that though small, are verifiable victories within one's day, or project or even career. 

The idea of allowing yourself to think about your own personal successes was hard for most; something that was challenging to quantify. In fact, the panelist that had revealed their extreme unbalance made the startling assertion that she could not see success and in fact, was haunted daily with extreme insecurity and the notion that she will be exposed as a fraud. There was stunned silence, over 50 people in silence. That this well-known professional architect ,who is held in high esteem by those in the industry, could be in such need of consistent validation - was a revelation. But in fact it was a brave confession anyone in that room would have made. Because only seconds later fellow panelists leaped to her defense declaring their own negative voices and personal doubts. At that moment it all became abundantly clear how much we work to defend how we are perceived and how radically different that may be from how we perceive ourselves and to what lengths we are willing to carry on that charade. 



So what do we take from this, what did the others offer as a restorative path? Some had worked to acquire career and personal development tools, that once learned could be used time and time again.  Others promoted the idea of working with a life coach to encourage self-discovery and learn more about oneself. Another recommended keeping perspective by lifting your head and seeing where you are going in 20 years and letting the residual stresses fall away. Lastly, understanding that the notion of balance is a very dynamic creature, that the best you can really do is check in with yourself every day and ask "Am I doing something today that will promote me tomorrow? Am I letting perfect be the enemy of good?" In the end being engaged with whatever you happen to be doing; whether it's your work or your family or your bike commute, whatever you are doing at that very minute, is the ultimate goal. Consequently, I believe "being engaged" is genuinely the new "being balanced".

Written by Jennifer Wright and originally posted on