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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?

AIASF NEXT Conference Recap: Design "Thinkering"

by Rosa Sheng, AIA

Last week, AIASF kicked-off its inaugural NEXT Conference on Thursday and Friday. MoMa Curator Paola Antonelli gave an invigorating and provocative keynote about the increasing ambiguity and ambivalence of design in the next frontier. She suggested that Design is expanding beyond problem solving to complex critical thinking: challenging what we know and stretching out of our comfort zone in a truly disruptive way. Paola asked us to think of Design as Activism out of necessity as we ultimately will be approaching extinction given the way we are operating today. She introduced the concept of "Thinkering", which could be interpreted as a marriage of Design Thinking and Tinkering; merging strategic disruption with real world application and maker experimentation in an iterative dialogue.

In reference to more effective sustainable design, she promoted examples combining biomimetic inspirations with adaptation of new technologies such as 3D and 4D printing Kinematic. And in the case of MIT's MediaLab, The Silk Pavilion explores the relationship between digital and biological fabrication on product and architectural scales. Silkworms were deployed as a biological printer in concert with an algorithmically generated pavilion using a single thread. You can view the project video below to get a sense of the "Thinkering" that Paola references.

Another exploration that Paola suggests is that of Design as a political vehicle to engage and build empathy. In her book release earlier this year "Design and Violence", Paola suggests that Design has a history of violence while the professional discourse has largely trumpeted its successes. Violence - defined as the manifestation of power to alter circumstances against the will of others to their detriment, while ubiquitous and ambivalent, has introduced new threats with the rapid advancement of technology. How can we be responsible stewards of design to leverage the ambiguity of design for positive impact while mitigating the negative effects from moving too quickly forward without understanding the power and consequence of design?

Following the inspiring keynote, the remainder of the conference content addressed some of these themes in 4 sessions within 3 tracks: Business, Technology & Design.  I attended the following sessions and found the content to be of high quality and relevant information (with no bias of my co-presentation on Negotiation of course!)

Nexus: Water Recycling for a Resilient Future

  • Ellen Fuson, HOK
  • Rowan Roderick-Jones, ARUP
  • Tracy Quinn, Natural Resources Defense Council
  • Scott Bryan, ImagineH2O
  • John Scarpulla, SFPUC

With California's current water crisis, Design professionals have an unprecedented opportunity to drive change. The technologies, practices and policies we use to tackle water scarcity has the potential to set a national precedent. While the panel presented cutting-edge water technologies, we still face challenges related to policy, funding, and social norms, particularly for solutions that step beyond drilling new wells or basic conservation measures.  

Business Skills Sprint Session

SPRINT 1: The Future of Business for Architects, Richard Pollack, Pollack Consulting

One of the most important aspects of our profession receives minimal focus during our years in architectural school, yet its the key component of having a viable, appropriately compensated, enjoyable career - and that component is BUSINESS. 

SPRINT 2: Lean (Financial) Management for Architectural Firms, Steven Burns, BQE Software

Lean management is the long-term approach where you seek small, systematic, incremental changes in your process in order to improve your efficiency and quality. While most successful manufacturers have been following a Lean approach for decades, only recently have architects begun to explore Lean management.  Successful implementation is achieved not by the management team but instead from the workers themselves. The front-line staff, those who actually perform the work are the ones charged with innovating ways to speed the process, minimize risk and provide higher client satisfaction. This seminar explores how a Lean approach to financial management can be implemented in an architectural firm.

SPRINT 3: Developing the "Practice of Innovation in Architecture", Mark Miller, MK Think

As principal of the Innovation Studio at MKThink, Mark depends on big data to inform designs so that the outcome is the appropriate solution for the problem. Sometimes the issue at hand is not clear and the use of key analytics can provide answers to undefined problems. By discovering the means to transcend systemic inefficiencies of traditional building, the alignment with today’s post-industrial economy can occur. Innovative solutions correct and capitalize on these inefficiencies by applying successful analytic and technological precedents from parallel industries.

Innovative Negotiation: The Art and Science of Making the Deal

  • Rosa Sheng, Bohlin Cywinski Jackson
  • Elizabeth Tippin, Elizabeth Tippin Law
  • Joan Williams, UC Hastings School of Law
Joan Williams, UC Hastings gives strategies for better negotiation. 

Joan Williams, UC Hastings gives strategies for better negotiation. 

Innovative Negotiation was a newly developed seminar that leverages the science and art of successful deal making to become a more effective negotiator on behalf of yourself, your practice, and for the profession-at-large. In the session, attendees learned tactical skills to build confidence by understanding default negotiation styles and discussed ways to increase effective outcomes for various situations; performance review, salary raise negotiation, contracts and additional services with your clients. There are many situations and types of negotiation — and ultimately it breaks down to communication styles and the choices we make when we engage in these situations. Understanding the various styles of negotiation while learning when to apply these skills based on the situation is critical to successful outcomes. 

Equity in Action: Co-Creating Space for Social Change

  • Mallory Cusenbery, RossDrulisCusenbery Architecture, Inc.
  • Tomas Alvarez, Beats Rhymes & Life, Inc.
Engaging "At Promise" Oakland Youth in design process.

Engaging "At Promise" Oakland Youth in design process.

In Oakland where youth face daily challenges to their well being, "placemaking" and "personal growth" may seem like indulgences. Communities of young people are busy coping with impacts from gun violence, teen pregnancy, high drop-out rates, inadequate healthcare and incarceration. Yet, it is in this very area where a set of important community innovations are emerging. Through concurrent initiatives in programming, mental health facilitation and collaborative placemaking design, East Bay youth are redefining themselves and the places where they live. At the heart of this are grassroots, hands-on engagement processes—using culturally relevant tools—offering a generation of young people means to build their world in their image. This is about co-creating efficacy through guided collaboration. In architecture, youth-focused participatory design is engaging young people in a generative creative process to co-design their built environment, with exciting results. In social work, hip hop therapy is offering a model for culturally-responsive approaches to adolescent mental health, healing and empowerment. Both approaches embrace the notion that youth labeled "at risk" are capable of creating, transforming and shaping their communities; both leverage similar tools to achieve this: collaborative activity groups, exercises to extract youth stories, improvisation, structures for youth creative input, documentation. The role of the "expert”—architect, therapist—is redefined, replacing top-down approaches with porous, non-hierarchical facilitator/collaborator roles. 

Unfortunately, I didn't get to attend Thursday's Placemaking Deep Dive. But judging from the live tweet activity (Captured in Storify Summary) there were some very active discussions about the need for Placemaking to authentically engage with communities to inspire a new activism for "Citizen Planners".

Can Design Solve the Confidence Conundrum?

When the Atlantic featured The Confidence Gap article in early April about Claire Shipman and Katty Kay's new book, The Confidence Code, there was a tidal wave of response, both in agreement and counterpoint of their take that women's confidence challenges are heavily genetically driven and therefore an unavoidable impediment to their success.  Shipman and Kay postulate that women lack self-assurance relative to their male competitors. In a study referenced, women would not apply for a job unless they had 100 percent of the qualifications, men would apply even if they only met 60 percent. And even if women are truly qualified and competent, their is constant self-doubt, anxiety, guilt and apologies about under-performing when the reality is far from critical self-perception.

A tidal wave of debate came in its wake voicing concerns of strongly flawed theory that will further hinder women's professional advancement. Jessica Valenti's article The Female Confidence Gap is a Sham in The Guardian argues that the Confidence Gap theory is driven by varying degrees of societal gender bias, rather than biological differences between men and women.

"The "confidence gap" is not a personal defect as much as it is a reflection of a culture that gives women no reason to feel self-assured. ...A Women's lack of confidence could actually just be a keen understanding of just how little American society values them."

If encouraging women to be more confident in seeking leadership roles and in turn teach self-assurance to others that results in meaningful change for future generations – we as a society need to start by creating a culture that values and supports assertive women. 

Similarly, Tracy Moore echoes that perspective in her Jezebel piece Solve Sexism with Overconfidence, hope and changing your brain. Moore's issue with the Confidence Gap is rooted in how women are presented as "lacking" confidence vs. looking at men as being overconfident. Thus, the skewed frame of reference (and burden of fixing) is focused on women. 

"So when the authors call it a "confidence gap," I have to wonder why they didn't call it an "overconfidence gap"? Is the problem women not thinking they are good enough, or men thinking they are better than they are? In other words, they totally wrote the article like the women they describe: too willing to point the finger at themselves.

After hearing both sides of the discussion, the relevant points of this complex issue lead us to consider the Confidence Conundrum: Do we accept a gender biased status quo and put the onus of achieving equitable advancement on qualified competent women to work harder, stronger, smarter with a heaping dose of self-help induced confidence, (without complaint) to overcome systemic gender challenges? Or, If Equity rides more heavily on fixing a gender biased society that requires major systemic change, where do we begin the disruptive, long and challenging road to shifting the current culture. And realistically, as true systemic culture shifts happen over decades and generations, will our generation get to experience gender blindness and true Equity in Architectural Practice in our career lifetime? 

As Architects, we are trained to solve design problems of aesthetic and technical complexity.  At times, many of our design projects have had a conundrum-like quality with diametrically opposed factors pulling and pushing us to near points of despair. The iterative, dynamic and morphing nature of the design process that is subjected to constant internal and external critique can be applied in our approach for seeking solutions to the Confidence Conundrum and concurrently in Equitable Practice.  While considering the powerful potential of supporting Equity by way of Design Thinking, I came across a parallel strategy. Could design thinking help bridge the Confidence Gap? by Anne Gibbon for The Stanford D School uses Strategic Design Thinking to address the gender bias / confidence conundrum in Technology. It all started with a simple question on a whiteboard: If you were to take on the challenge of growing the number of women in leadership roles, how would you go about it?  Anne's strategy of taking her idea and quickly creating an actionable prototype worked for her own self-coaching for leadership goals.

What if we applied our years of architectural design training and critical thinking to individual and collective challenges of licensure, career advancement, recognition, work life flexibility and retention of Women in Architecture? Is there a way to leverage our training to test and critique best practices that promote Equity? And how do we track what we implement is working? Concurrent with the results of the Equity in Architecture Survey and ongoing research initiatives, we will be hosting a series of discussions on this topic culminating this fall with the 3rd Symposium for The Missing 32% Project: Equity by Design. So Stay tuned.

By Rosa T. Sheng, AIA LEED AP BD+C