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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?

EQxD Get Real: Bias & Privilege, should it define or limit your dreams?

by LaShae Ferguson, Associate AIA                                                           @LaShae_F 

When I was invited to discuss bias and privilege, honestly, I cringed. What a topic for discussion. Bias and privilege are strong topics and in today's world, you know it's there, but it doesn't always reveal itself blatantly.


In the context of bias and privilege, under the surface are elements of economics, resources, and historical background. I am privileged to have access to water, medical care, voting rights, and business ownership. My children, who are girls, have access to a free education and learning resources. Lately, I’ve been reading the stories about engineers and technology professionals, who have had to endure challenges in the workplace because of their gender. They started this movement #ilooklikeanengineer and it is inspiring because it makes us feel that we are not alone in our struggles, challenges and frustrations. Architecture is not isolated from what’s happening in our society or in the world, it is an extension of it, so it makes sense that what happens in society filters into the professions, not just in architecture but in business, technology, and engineering. These are the professions where, because of your gender, you’re seen as being employed in a non-traditional role.  If you’re fortunate enough to be in the upper echelons of these professions, our numbers dwindle.

But change is happening. Even though in 2015, race, gender, violence, unfairness, injustice, are intricately woven, there is an undercurrent of change. Working in firms, I witnessed very few associates or partners that looked like me, but in my mind, I said screw that, I'm going to be an owner and I’m going to find not only people who resemble me but those that excel at what they do. I’ve had the privilege of working shoulder to shoulder with design architects and owners who freehand sketch, explain building systems, pass on business advice and that changed the game for me. Once I got that exposure, I thought, okay, I can do this.

LaShae Ferguson, Associate AIA, Principal of  LA Design Collective

LaShae Ferguson, Associate AIA, Principal of LA Design Collective

 No one is immune to either privilege or bias to some degree, but the power of that lies in allowing it to define or limit your aspirations and dreams. My story wouldn’t be real if I didn’t mention that I’m an archimom, and everything I do is emulated by my girls. I would sound crazy if I told them they couldn’t do something because they’re African American or because their girls. And I am a product of a woman who lived on her own terms, my mother. She is my role model, my rock and an endless source of reason, humor, comfort and common sense.

Some of the things she shared with me; Rome wasn’t built in a day, don’t give up so easily, and most of all, I’m proud of you. Now, growing up in that environment is not only a privilege, but a blessing. Some of the other nuggets of wisdom I’ve learned (and I am still learning) that provide a source of encouragement:

  1. Identifying 3 people who are sources of inspiration, and who overcame bias and privilege. One of my favorites is Serena Williams, Shonda Rhimes and one of my personal mentors whom I work with very closely. 

  2. Broadening perspectives, reach out and get to know people who may not necessarily look like you.

  3. Jealousy or envy of someone else because of the way they grew up and what they have is not productive.

  4. If someone consistently makes you feel slighted, talk about it, when the air is clear, when you both are in a better mood, be specific, direct, brief and keep it moving.

  5. Understand that having limited resources, does not equate with limited imagination and growth.

  6. Always gather your tribe, surround yourself with positive open minded people

LaShae's daughters at Smithsonian's MathFest on the National Mall - learning how to build structures.

LaShae's daughters at Smithsonian's MathFest on the National Mall - learning how to build structures.

Growing up, I did not know one architect, I didn't even know what they did and so I pass this knowledge of architecture not only to my kids, but kids in the inner city; volunteering with Architecture in the Schools, so they know, I'm African American, I’m a woman, I grew up in a rough neighborhood, in poverty, I paid my way through college and so can you.  Other than my dad working demolition, my personal historical background didn’t provide a backdrop for architecture-the resources were zero and the economics was equivalent to the resources. But in my mind, I could change those circumstances, with one action, then another, and so on.

We still have a long way to go, but let's continue to influence one another by invoking dialogue, by sharing our stories, challenges and triumphs. We need understanding, tolerance and an open mind. Even though change and our perceptions are sometimes an uncomfortable process - it is possible. And I tell people all the time - you want change? Make it happen. You be the change. We can get there.