Today, I wanted to share three stories that I’ve collected on what it can feel like to be a woman or person of color in my field – architecture. Names and identifying details have been altered, but the basic structure of these stories is true—and they are recent. They are not from the 1950s or 1960s, they are from today.
You may be sitting next to this person at your desk right now as you read these words. Anna, Isaac or Giselle might be passing by you right now, hand up in a little wave, as he or she heads to the copier. Or you might be this person.
These are the stories and lives in our industry. And while our companies need to change—need to adopt equitable hiring and promotion practices—each and every one of us needs to make that commitment too. We are our institutions. We all have agency.
In my first job out of college as an administrative assistant at an architecture firm, I was the first line of defense when reviewing resumes. In that first job, I had little experience, and what felt like almost no power, but I was playing a key role—I was a gatekeeper of employment in the tiny turf of the architecture firm I worked at.
We all have agency. I have changed names and identifying details for privacy, but these stories are real.
Anna is a white architect with seven years of experience working in a large firm. Anna just had her first baby. Anna took of three months for maternity leave and came back to a project that had just gone into construction. Anna hoped to breastfeed her son for six months. “I’d read a lot about the benefits of breastfeeding in terms of development and bonding,” she says. “I was lucky because my firm had a room where women could pump breast milk, but on the construction site it was a different story.” Anna showed up onsite and quickly realized there was nowhere to pump. She shared a construction trailer with 9 other architects and consultants and people were constantly going in and out. On her first day onsite, Anna hastily cleaned the trailer, posted a do not enter sign on the door and jammed a piece of plywood under the doorknob. “I rigged it so it would only open an inch or two.”
“It worked but it was hard.” she says. “It was a little embarrassing to talk about my need to breastfeed in order to advocate for it, she says. “I’m the kind of person who can roll up her sleeves and ask for what I need, but it was hard, and I wasn’t able to be consistent enough to make it to the full six months.” Anna wonders if women who are less willing to put themselves out there than she was would have made it as far as she did. Could they have given up their breastfeeding goal or would they just have found a way not to come back to the construction site?
Isaac is a black architect with 14 years of experience. Isaac had been at his firm for a number of years when he started to notice he wasn’t getting the promotion opportunities that were offered to others. “We worked with a lot of developers” he says, “And I started to notice that the firm seemed to want to promote the kind of people that our developer clients wanted to work with—white men and slender, attractive white women. I also noticed that while whites managed minorities, and minorities were put in charge of minorities, minorities never managed whites.”
The clincher came when Isaac was asked to serve on a project as an advisor and to be part of the training of another employee’s growth into a project manager—a role he had never been given. “The firm made it very clear that this guy was being groomed to lead projects, and I was to teach him what I knew as part of his training.”
“I was at every meeting because I knew everything about the project, but he was in charge, even though I was training him.” Isaac decided to leave the firm. “I can’t prove to you that it was racism,” he says, “but I knew this would never be a place to grow in my career.” Isaac left the firm and moved to a city that he considers more diverse. “While Boston is diverse, the professional classes are largely white,” he says. At his new firm, one of the principals is Jewish. “While she’s not a minority, I find that she’s more comfortable putting minorities in positions of power,” he says “I feel like there’s somewhere for me to go here.”
Giselle is an architectural designer with four years of experience, who works in a mid-size firm. Giselle is Dominican and grew up in Boston. When she goes back to her childhood neighborhood, she sees a lot changing in the city. “I’ll be on the orange line and I’ll see so many buildings going up,” she says. “At my firm, which does a lot of multifamily housing, we’re the ones who are doing these kind of projects.”
Giselle has started trying to avoid working on multifamily housing. “I’ll try to get myself staffed on institutional projects, or even on renovations, but I try to not work on new residential buildings, especially in those neighborhoods,” she says. When I go to church and hang out with my family and friends, everybody is talking about the gentrification and rising prices. I just don’t want to feel like I’m making my living off of displacing the people I grew up with.”
What are you going to do for the Annas, the Isaacs and the Giselles in your world? What are you going to do about it?