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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?

INSPIRE% TALKS - Relaunch: Be Tough, Brave and Go for It!

by Lucy Irwin, AIA

Equity by Design asked me to share my story of relaunching my architectural career at the 2016 EQxDM3 Symposium Friday Night INSPIRE% TALKS - given in a Pecha Kucha style format: 20 slides, 20 seconds each. The Symposium was designed to be an opportunity for architects of all ages and levels of experience to come together to learn from one another by sharing research, experiences, wisdom, dreams, insights and strategies. This is the story I shared.  Some of the resources I used in my journey are at the end of the post.



We are about to take a risky journey together. So climb into the boat with me. You can be in the bikini or the one piece, but hold on tight, because there are rapids ahead, big rocks to crash into, and it’s all going to pass by in a flash.

At 26, I was probably like many young architects, ambitious, hard working, directed.  I’d graduated from Dartmouth College and Yale School of Architecture, worked for several architects on the East Coast, Chicago and San Francisco.  I was on the fast track, and I was going to do it all.

I imagined myself as the next Frank Lloyd Wright, or Zaha Hadid, while also being a wife and a mother. If I worked hard, I could have a successful career and achieve my personal goals.  But life is risky, and in fact takes twists and turns we can’t imagine at 26. See those rocks and rapids ahead?  I took a big risk, got married, and moved to North Carolina.

I got a great job working for Phil Freelon, the architect of the San Francisco Museum of the African Diaspora. I got my internship years done, designing airports, banks, research facilities. At this point, I was right on track with my male peers, gaining experience, skills and confidence. I took the licensing exams, which at that time lasted several days, while I was 7 months pregnant.  I passed them all, moved to San Francisco with my husband and weeks later our first child was born.

After getting our new little family settled, and surviving the Loma Prieta Earthquake, I found a job working part time doing high-end residential work.  It didn’t feel quite like I was on the Frank Lloyd Wright fast track anymore, but I kept at it. I took the additional oral exam required to get my California license, this time pregnant with my second child. After maternity leave I returned to my part time job, until our third child was born. Juggling two careers and child care for three children was tough. It became clear the best solution for the time being was for me to take care of the home front.

I never stopped thinking like an architect, or seeing the world through the lens of a designer. I paid my licensing dues year after year, but I could not read the magazines or watch who was getting prizes.  It was too painful to be on the outside of something I loved passionately. Between recessions, and being fully occupied with children and community service, years went by.  While I did not practice architecture, I did continue to work on solving complex problems creatively and developed many skills that make me a more valuable architect now.

I did lots of risky things during that time, following my passion for building stronger communities for families and fighting for a more equitable society.

  • I coordinated the first reunion of the Black Student Union at St. Ignatius High School.  We produced a video telling the 40 year history of the club, which was an amazing education in the history of San Francisco.

  • I sat for 6 weeks on a jury for murder case.

  • Worked on political campaigns.

  • Taught sewing to middle school students.

  • Built volunteer organizations at public, private and parochial schools.

  • Sat on boards, learned how to balance  budgets and developed strategic plans.

  • Did workdays with Habitat for Humanity and Rebuilding Together.

But the risk I really want to tell you about is when I decided to return to the practice of architecture.  I decided to take a Revit class, to update my skills.  That first class was terrifying, and I came out of it bug-eyed. I stuck with it and soon realized my knowledge of how buildings go together gave me a leg up.  It was really scary telling people I wanted to return to architecture. Would it be possible?  How it would work out?  

I started doing informational interviews, and through that process I found Equity by Design.  I joined the AIA, a mentorship group, and the Organization of Women Architects.

At my first meeting of Equity by Design, I met Pamela Tang, another mother who had taken 20 years off to raise her four children.  That gave me so much courage and hope.  Rosa Sheng and Lilian Asperin supported, encouraged and challenged me to develop new skills.  I attended the AIA Convention in Atlanta in 2015, and participated in my first EQxD Hackathon Workshop.

I did over 20 informational interviews, asking architects what changes they had seen in the profession, what continuing education they had found most helpful, what resources they would recommend, what skills they look for when making new hires.  I was humbled by what these individuals had accomplished, and their generosity.

Through this process, I learned so much about the current practice of architecture, where I might fit in, and what skills I needed to strengthen.  The more practice I had talking to architects about the volunteer work I had done, and how it fit into my current ambition of returning to practice, the more comfortable and confident I felt.

In September of 2015, I attended the AIA Women’s Leadership Forum in Seattle.  To be in a room full of 300 women architects, and hear their stories of how they built their careers, and families, was deeply reassuring and inspiring.  I feared how other women would feel about me re-entering the profession, but the support and encouragement has been amazing.  My biggest challenge is getting out of my own way, knowing I have the skills, wisdom and ability to get back in the game.

Every one of these steps was terrifying, but each time I put myself out there, I built more confidence in my ability to relaunch my career.  So by the time I had a job interview, I was able to tell my story with confidence, ask pertinent questions about the position, and help the interviewer imagine how they might fit an unconventional applicant like me into their organization.

Because of taking the negotiating workshop with EQxD, I was able to negotiate a fair wage.  My first job was in a large very competitive firm, and I learned so much in four months, it was like boot camp. But it may have not been the best fit.  Equity by Design gives me the courage to dust myself off, get back on the horse, and fight for my spot in this tough profession.

I’d love to tell you I’m well on my way to being the next Zaha Hadid now, but that would not be true.  I am just another step along my path, still figuring things out, taking on new risks and challenges. I am so thankful to have Equity by Design on my side, fighting for the profession I love, running programs that help me develop skills to be a better architect.

I encourage each of you to join Equity by Design, and the movement to make architecture a more relevant, equitable profession.

If you are returning to architecture after a break to care for family, I’d love to hear about your relaunch in the comments below or on twitter.  I’m @Lucile_Irwin. Take some risks.  Be tough, brave, and go for it!