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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: When Insomnia Speaks

When Insomnia Speaks: Transitioning from Motherhood, Scorn and Advocacy

by Alicia Liebel-Berg, Associate AIA

It is Midnight. The blue hue glows from the baby monitor as I watch my son sleep. Exhaustion pounds on my forehead. Stress invades my thoughts. My alarm is set for 4:30 a.m., I need to sleep. I wish I could sleep. What happened to me this year is difficult and needs to be shared with other emerging professional women who are considering having children. The problem is; how will it really be shared? Who will read it? Perhaps that is what privilege really is, the freedom to share the truth without fear of judgment and consequences. 

Alicia Liebel-Berg, Associate AIA

Alicia Liebel-Berg, Associate AIA

Some would say that the ability to birth a child is a privilege; others would say it is a burden. Why? Arguments could be made that mothers are distracted and lack the ability to have the scheduling flexibility that the architecture profession demands. Extend that from the transitional gate of woman in practice to a mother and the battle to prove equivalence in billable hour production. Anxiety rises to dread and suddenly a mother discovers that her confidence has been shattered. She struggles to ascertain if she is held as a valuable asset or the woman who is just going to quit her job anyway. Unexpectedly she finds herself questioning her resolve to be the parent and career woman. She starts to have doubts and wonders, “Is this constant mental anguish of trying to keep up with appearances and professional abilities worth the time away from her child?” Is that paycheck big enough to compensate for this new bias? How did she go from never having a sleepless night to having weeks on end consumed by slow moving hours clogged with confusing thoughts?

Can bias be proved against someone who simply took the ten weeks of time she was offered and came back to find that perceptions of her abilities as a professional had changed - even if they were in the most subtle yet gut alarming ways? What is a mother to do? How does one begin to defend and argue assertively against that? There isn't a handbook on the gender bias of fighting for a privilege that may have never existed. What is this privilege that never existed? It is the ability to return to your workplace, as a new mother, without the derogatory perceptions that you have become a delicate emotional mess and a liability.

As the architecture profession scratches their heads trying to find the elusive answer of, "Why are women leaving the profession?” someone needs to own the result. It is because you pushed them out the door due to your lack of understanding. This mother, no doubt, knew that there had been a paradigm shift in everything she once knew to be comfortable and routine. This woman once felt that she had a position of achieved distinction, but now she can't shake the feeling that she has been unexpectedly and unconsciously demoted. When she raised the dialogue to her senior management to process the conundrum at hand, the powers with privilege misinterpreted it for weakness instead of a chance to collaborate on an evolution of assigned roles and responsibilities. 

Predictably the new mother will move onward, despite it all, she has to. She doesn't have the privilege or have the tools to combat the corral that society has placed her in. If you want a career and a family, this is your new reality. You wanted it all, new mother, now deal with it...

Several weeks ago I wrote this ode to the new mother by the light of the baby monitor. The next day, while hot on my soap box, my husband said to me, “You have been scorned and you are making people pay." I did not appreciate or understand his subtle nudge then. I do now.

Professional practice is defined by transformative moments. These are little blips in the career seismic chart which resulted in a shift in perception. The frustrations described above conceded the conclusion that Advocacy is birthed from scorn

Career experiences crusted with turmoil yields privilege. When we are given the seeds of privilege we are tasked, in turn, to sow them and cultivate them. It is our responsibility to survey the path ahead. Scorn is the road we navigate; perseverance is the new surface we lay so that those who come after us know the way. I must never forget the mothers who came before me and continued to practice through every moment that lacked understanding, empathy or decency.

With reflection, I have support as a mother in the socially acceptable ways, but not in the ways that are obvious or tangible. My current firm advanced and supported my abilities as a woman, but produced a stressful environment as a mother. I was ignoring the warning signs until the big confrontation occurred. I failed to accept and clarify to my senior staff that my capabilities had changed but my professional desires had not. I was oblivious to the impact that my parenthood was having on my job performance.

Much of the impetus that created the conflict of perception occurred because I was in a work environment that was not conducive to the new life I had. My work hours shifted and my daily drive went from a 40 minute cruise to a nearly 90 minute gridlock. The commute was harboring unnecessary stress as two hours of my day were consumed in transit. The firm's business model is formulated on extreme deadlines. As such, I no longer have the ability to support that model. My capacities changed and now I no longer fit into their fast-paced, rapid deadline, work production culture. There's nothing personal about that, just a simple fact.

Ultimately I have learned that when difficulty arrives, (and it will, it always does) it is important to feel the consequence of scorn - but then, put down the pitch fork and open up a dialogue. Nothing is as powerful as telling your story to help the next new mother avoid a similar anxious state. I am getting real and summoning the courage to make my next big career change. It is difficult to lay aside seniority and familiarity in order to adapt to an evolving lifestyle and career.

I am going back on the job hunt. Predictably this new mother is moving onward, despite it all, I have to. I have the privilege and the skills to polish my portfolio and lay aside what is professionally familiar. I desire a career and a family, this is my new reality. I wanted it all; I am a new mother, now I am dealing with it, on my own terms.

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.