A Stressed Out Woman At Her Desk

Roadblocks Remain

A survey sheds light on why midcareer women leave design firms.

By Timothy A. Schuler

Portrait of Maya Sharfi
Maya Sharfi, the founder of Build Yourself. Photo by Jessie Wyman Photography.

Rachel Wilkins was 28 years old when she got her first job in landscape architecture. Since graduate school, she had dreamed of working for a woman, but at the large Houston firm where she’d been hired—which Wilkins declined to name—all her bosses were men. Though she had “two wonderful male mentors,” she says she also regularly felt demeaned as a woman, passed over for promotions that went to male colleagues or, when the firm was called out for its lack of women in leadership, to women with less experience but more social capital. Her bosses, Wilkins says, seemed to “consider themselves the dads of the office,” a dynamic she says is omnipresent in landscape architecture—and problematic. “I don’t need a dad,” Wilkins says. “I need a boss who’s invested in my growth.” 

Wilkins says the gendered double standard she has continued to encounter has cost her projects and promotions. “I don’t have it in me to flatter a man to get what I want,” she says. “And that has worked to my disadvantage.”

Wilkins is far from alone. According to a new survey, 32 percent of midlevel women in architecture, landscape architecture, engineering, and urban planning cited not feeling valued by their organization or manager as a top reason for leaving a firm. Other reasons included low or no potential for advancement, an unmanageable workload, and a lack of work–life balance. Concerns around compensation ranked fifth. “Reading the survey responses, I was like, check, check, check, and check,” Wilkins says.

Conducted by Build Yourself, a consultancy that works one-on-one with women and design firms to advance women in leadership, the survey results represent the opinions of nearly 100 women. It specifically targeted women at the associate, senior associate, and associate principal level. “This middle level is kind of like the middle child,” says Maya Sharfi, who trained as a landscape architect before starting Build Yourself in 2013. “It’s not the neediest. It’s not the [people] in charge. So, it doesn’t get as much attention. And it’s really a shame because it’s the backbone of a lot of firms. I see women—like, really amazing, midlevel women—leaving practices because they have assessed that they’re never going to make it into leadership.” According to the Visualizing Equity in Landscape Architecture (VELA) Project, a women-led research collaborative investigating gender equity in landscape architecture, the midcareer period represents a critical “missing link” in the company ladder for women in the profession.
Portrait of Barbara Nazarewicz, ASLA
Barbara Nazarewicz, ASLA, an associate at Stantec. Photo by Lindsay Mott, Lull & Lore.

Many women worry that the traditional path to advancement may not be compatible with their responsibilities outside the office. Barbara Nazarewicz, ASLA, says that before she had children, she regularly worked 60 hours a week at her job as an associate at Stantec. At the time, she relished the opportunity to do the work she loved. But when she became a mother, the number of hours Nazarewicz could work fell dramatically. She wonders how it will affect her career. “It seems to me that in order to continue climbing the corporate ladder, I have to be as engaged as I was before,” she says.

A number of programs and organizations focused on gender equity in landscape architecture have emerged in recent years, including WxLA, founded in 2018. Most recently, ASLA (LAM’s publisher) established the Gender Equity Task Force, chaired by Wendy Miller, FASLA, and Jeanne Lukenda, ASLA. In March, the group hosted its first of what will be quarterly webinars. SuLin Kotowicz, FASLA, the president-elect of ASLA and a member of the task force, says the webinars are a way to keep gender equity front and center and are meant to be forums in which women, as well as nonbinary individuals, can discuss the unique challenges they face. Kotowicz says that as a national association, ASLA has an important role to play in developing a more robust mentorship program for women. “People want to have a mentor at all levels of their career, and I think there are other ways that we could develop support networks through ASLA,” Kotowicz says.

“In order to continue climbing the corporate ladder, I have to be as engaged as I was before [I had kids].” —Barbara Nazarewicz, ASLA

Nicole Warns, ASLA, a principal and director of design at TBG Partners in Austin, Texas, says that landscape architecture firms need to be clearer about growth pathways for midcareer employees but also help women who do become leaders adjust to a new level of responsibility. “[Women] have been socialized that we have to overperform; we have to be hyperqualified and hyperattentive and hyperdetailed. And you internalize that to the point that you get into a place where it is truly impossible to keep up with.” Warns is currently working with other female principals at TBG to develop a sponsorship program that will help alleviate some of these challenges. In contrast with a more conventional mentor–mentee relationship, Warns says, sponsors are encouraged to champion their associates. “When you’re sponsoring someone, you’re not just having a one-on-one every quarter and giving them advice; you’re actively fighting for them behind the scenes,” she says.

Firms that take the experiences of women seriously and pilot supportive systems will have the best chance of attracting and retaining talented women, Sharfi says. “Not trying to understand where your blind spots are and increase your visibility in those areas has always been a bad business move,” she says. “The male leaders and owners who choose to upgrade their perspectives are going to be the ones that ultimately win out in the market.”

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