By Tamara M. Roy, AIA Leed AP

Early on as an architecture student I started to look for women mentors to provide a metaphorical ‘map’ for my professional life. I thought if I could follow them, I’d learn the way to success.

What I found surprised me.   The map I was looking for was not a traditional paper map to plot your destination as the end point of a line. It was actually more like the GPS maps of today, constantly evolving based on changing road conditions. I (sort of) ended up where I wanted to go, but not the way I thought I’d get there!

The Original Map

When I was a kid I wanted to become an artist.  This goal was met with dismay by my parents, who were struggling to make ends meet.  They had brought me up to be self-sufficient – I’d had my first chambermaid job at 14 years old – so they suggested that architecture would be a more dependable profession.  At that juncture of my life the map turned.

Without money ,I couldn’t go to my #1 or #2 college choice either, so I chose the one that gave me the most grants, worried that this decision would forever impact me.  Teaching at a State College now, I’d like to believe that it doesn’t matter which college one goes to – the outcome can be nearly the same – but that would be a severe oversimplification.  Your first job is often tied to the network you unknowingly start in school. Capitalize on the connections of friends, family, professors, and alumni you know.

After a year I decided that I did want to become an architect – what a cool profession!  It fulfilled my creative streak and I found I was a good problem solver, communicator, and visualizer.  From that moment on, with half of my graduating class women, we were all on track to become professionals. It would be easy to find other women whose map I could follow.

Optimism Hits Reality

I learned early in the search for mentors that I could learn a lot from others, but no one had the same map as me. Many women I saw just underlined how challenging this path would be.

For example, take the first office I worked in, run by two professors. The male of the pair didn’t seem at all conflicted, even though he had 2 children at home. The woman straddled, exhausted, between teaching, working, and motherhood. Her kids would sit for hours at the office until her husband literally begged her to come home for dinner at 8-9 pm.  I guess it never occurred to him to cook (or get take-out) -he was like her third child. She was trying to be a superhero, but her husband still expected a traditional wife. Yikes! I thought. This is a tragic picture. I don’t want this to be my map!

(Ergo, another one of my huge pieces of advice to young women – the partner you choose will greatly affect your life, so choose wisely.)

After that, I worked at a woman-owned sole-proprietor firm. I thought I could really find that mentor I was looking for there. She was divorced, had two grown children (who slept there day and night) and ran a practice doing house renovations and women’s shelters. She was another superhero, but I was saddened by how she was so often alone and frazzled, trying to please her clients and her children. I moved on, still on the lookout for women who were professionally and personally happy.

I admit that happiness was actually my main goal in life!

The women architects in the generations before mine really had a rough time . One of my favorite articles that pulls women out of the shadows is by Arch Daily, “The 10 Most Overlooked Women in Architecture History.” Look at Julia Morgan, Eileen Gray, Denise Scott Brown. I don’t believe any of them had children, which up until my generation was the stark choice – profession or family, not both.

“My buildings will be my legacy… they will speak for me long after I’m gone.”

–Julia Morgan

I did look sideways for women in other professions like law and medicine. Unfortunately I found similar tradeoffs – women chose pediatrics or family law and had small private practices. Or, if they went for the gold and became surgeons, they could afford expensive child care (or had stay at home husbands). None of those options was going to work for me, as I worked at low wage architecture internships and paid off my student loans.

Don’t Let the Road Blocks Stop You

Looking back I think of sexism and elitism as roadblocks that tried to get in the way of my progress.  (I can only imagine if I was a black woman, adding racism to that list.) Some boundaries were clearly marked, while others more subtle.  The key was recognizing them and deciding how to deal with them. Were they small setbacks that could be ignored? Bosses who could be “educated”? Or barriers that were so strong I had to plot an alternate course?

Every woman (and member of a minority group) experiences those almost daily indignities that try to make us feel small, and it’s hard to know which ones to fight against and which ones to let pass. 

My first male boss grabbed my hands during the job interview and said I couldn’t have built a porch because my nails were too perfect.

Eeew – talk about a Me Too moment!

I told him I wore gloves and then took the job, overlooking his insinuation that a woman couldn’t possibly have built that porch.  

That same male boss kept introducing me to his clients/friends saying I’d gone to Harvard, no matter how many times I corrected him. (I guess Carnegie-Mellon was too hard to remember)  He unconsciously was trying to put me inside his club. In architecture, it is rarely discussed, but many successful architects come from wealthy families and/or go to elite schools where they meet future clients who are wealthy.  This club, as the research on conscious and unconscious bias has shown, shuts out those who don’t have the same pedigree. 

In the moment, I always found it difficult to challenge these biases, since they are thrown in as casual pieces of conversation. 

My advice here: don’t waste a minute beating yourself up with, ‘I should have said…’.  Ignore the small comments and focus on your strengths. But if it is repeated, or the person is your supervisor, take them aside later and talk to them about it.  

Usually it is enough to tell them how their behavior or comments made you feel, and it can result in positive change.

Ever an optimist, I put that boss in the ‘could be educated’ category and called him on his biases.

A few months later he told a client to stop referring to me as someone who’d look great on his marketing posters. (Eeew again.)  My boss had learned empathy, and was willing to lose the client to keep me as his valued employee.

Then, there was the firm that passed me by for promotions year after year but kept promising that next year would be my time, while they promoted lesser qualified men. It took me way too long to see that barrier. I stayed there for ten years when I should have moved on after five (three?!).

Looking back, I can see that I was conditioned to believe in a merit-based system – if I worked hard enough, someone would tap my shoulder and – pouf! I’d be transformed from scullery maid to Cinderella (don’t get me started on the Cinderella myth).

This is one of my most repeated pieces of advice to professional women – don’t stay in an environment where you are unappreciated, hoping you can change the culture. Find a place where you can thrive.

Finding a Mentor (finally)

At our Massart interview for the Treehouse project, President Kay Sloan spoke directly to me, even though the Principal and project manager were both in the room (that literally never happened). 

She asked me, ‘how many people could we involve in the design of this building?’ And I answered, ‘as many as you want!’.

In that moment I knew I would learn a tremendous amount from her about leadership. She was not afraid of – and in fact sought out- other people’s opinions because she knew it would enrich the result. She wanted to make a landmark to Massart’s mission, not to her ego. 

And when state and city agencies wanted us to tone down the design, she courageously said, ‘if it doesn’t look like it’s on fire, why build it???’ 

She became the mentor I had been searching for, a warm yet powerful woman who empowered others around her while shaping a shared vision. Ever since then she’s been my north star. 

There have been many women, and progressive men, whose careers have inspired me through the years. 

As another coach advised me and now I tell my students: find people you admire and learn from them.  Ask them to coffee!

I’ve found women especially open to sharing their experiences. 

“Recalculating”

In my twenties, I wasn’t convinced I wanted to have children. However, as time progressed and I found a loving partner, my opinion changed.

I thought, why can’t I have it all?

Two children later, I had to admit that my life looked a lot like the two women bosses I criticized (note to self, never judge!).  I was constantly tired, trying to be everything to everyone and losing myself in the process.  Holding onto the full-speed-ahead map of professional success and giving the family time and love was incompatible.  The map had to change.

I thought that my husband would share this road with me equally. Yet,  I hadn’t taken into account that he was 5 years older and made a higher salary. By the time we became parents we depended on his full time income plus a significant portion of mine to afford a small house, child care and my student loans. 

If one of us was going to dial back it had to be me.

During those years I kept recalibrating my schedule. As my kids’ needs changed, I tried everything from (4) 8-hour days, to (3) 10-hour days, in at 6 am, out at 2pm.  I stopped going to networking events in the evenings.

However, another piece of advice I give to working mothers is to recognize the importance of always keeping a foot in the door of the firm to avoid falling totally behind.

I chose that path and do not regret it, but it came with a price.  My trajectory to becoming a firm principal was easily delayed by 7-10 years. 

Supporting me through this time was a group of women friends and a career coach. They helped me reframe my ambitions and taught me how to take care of myself.  We would go around in a circle and share our highs and lows in a deep and honest way. We cried and laughed. I feel so thankful to them for the many times they showed me that what I thought were my failures was actually personal growth.  My map bent, twisted, and stretched to take in what life was throwing at me. 

Striving for ‘success’ morphed into seeking out fulfillment.  It turns out that finding fulfillment in life is not getting to any one destination, it is enjoying the journey itself.

Where’s My Map Now?

Along the way I learned to identify what role I wanted, and how I wanted to embody it. I’ve also learned to find a ‘Plan B’  if ‘Plan A’ didn’t work out.

Because I loved collaborating with great clients, and to have more influence over my projects, I decided that I wanted to be a principal. But I faced an obstacle that my male colleagues didn’t. In order to succeed as a principal you need to ‘make it rain,’ or bring projects into the firm. And where do you get that work? From your network. But on a compressed schedule I didn’t have time for extra-curricular conferences. I hated golfing, and outside of work lunches or drinks with male developers were awkward – too many ‘Me-too’ challenges there. (Other than Kay Sloan, all my clients were and still are men.)

I needed to find another way.

I partnered with my male colleagues at the firm who held the client relationships.  It didn’t get me ‘revenue’ but it kept me busy, creating an ever-widening circle of satisfied clients. In so doing, I built a reputation outside my firm as an innovative thinker and gifted community engagement liaison.  When Mayor Menino was looking for architects to provide ideas for the Innovation District, his staff called me. That day the previous map exploded in stars!

After crowd-sourcing my young staff, I introduced micro-housing into the discussion in the context of Boston’s housing affordability crisis. The next week the Mayor created a new policy that 20% of all units in the district be ‘innovation units’ (code word for efficient, micro, lower rent, sustainable). Developers immediately asked my male colleagues, ‘what the heck is an Innovation Unit?’ and they’d answer, ‘you have to ask Tamara’. 

Overnight I was nicknamed, The Mother of the Micro Unit by one of my clients.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wRvR_7r2uEU

We funded the What’s In think-tank at our firm, a group of emerging architects researching alternative living environments. A few years later I focused my presidency at the Boston Society of Architects on compact living. Together, with the Mayor’s Housing Innovation Lab and LiveLight, designed and built a full scale micro-unit and exhibited it around the city. 

Our work influenced Boston’s Compact Living Policy Pilot, reducing parking spaces in compact developments. This is a major win for urbanism and sustainability! This work also positioned me and my team to attract even more of the work we love.

Destination…

It occurs to me as I finish this (on my 54th birthday) that while I have made my own map I owe so much to the women who came before me as I wove parts of their maps into mine.  My mom who got her first job as a teacher after my parents divorced. My previous bosses, women leaders, coaches and friends. The BSA Women In Design and Women Principals Group.   My mother in law, whose motto has always been, family first.  

I’ve continued to redefine success since I left architecture school.  Today, I am guided not by what society tells me I should want, but by deep desires to keep growing. To grow as a firm leader, an architect, a teacher, a mother (daughter, wife, sister, aunt) and friend.  Those goals can’t be drawn as one line on a map, but they do provide the general direction!

It may take longer, but with luck (clear intentions, good decisions, and perseverance) you’ll get there.

Yeah, I admit, that’s a lot of qualifiers! Women are still not considered equal in capability or pay. My generation did provide many examples of success that continue to help push the next generation forward. 

It is possible now for young women architects to find mentors who have navigated families and work. They are in all sized firms, in all positions of leadership.  Many women principals and associates are changing office policy to support women, so the path is not as difficult. Progressive men now give credit where it is due at the workplace, and want to be involved parents at home. 

Hopefully the story of Marion Mahony Griffin, the first employee of Frank Lloyd Wright, whose watercolors became synonymous with his ‘Prairie Style’ architecture movement and who toiled in obscurity, will not be repeated.

What was her map? How did she struggle with her life’s decisions? As women we yearn to hear the whole story.

The world needs to see more women who have fought hard for the gains we’ve made. And of those who are only beginning their journeys.

Find your map, walk its paces, recalculate as needed along the way.


About Tamara M. Roy Named one of Boston’s Top 50 Power Women In Real Estate & the 2016 President of the Boston Society of Architects, Tamara is an architect & urban designer specializing in multifamily residential, academic, & commercial projects. Her housing portfolio includes over 1500 affordable & market rate units. She was the senior designer for the MassArt ‘Treehouse’, described as ‘the ‘the most interesting Boston high rise in years’ by the Boston Globe. Tamara received her B.Arch from Carnegie-Mellon University & her Masters of Urban Design & Architecture from the Berlage Institute, an international think-tank in Amsterdam, The Netherlands.


If you are still trying to navigate your map, and need help finding your voice along the way, read this article here.

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Mia Scharphie , career coach, headshot

I’m a career coach and strategist with a secret power (I mean, past career) as a designer. I love road trips, graphic novels and helping people like you design the career you love on your own terms.

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