Notes on POWERFUL: Women Leading Design - Jessica L. Butler


After attending the POWERFUL: Women Leading Design symposium organized by the AIA|LA on October 9th at SCI-Arc in Los Angeles, I was feeling inspired, dedicated, and renewed. Being new to LA, I made a lot of new business and personal connections and was eager to leverage all this new information in the progression of my own career and others’. In the weeks since the event, I have reflected upon the themes that were present throughout the daylong event packed with speakers, panel discussions, and questions (& sometimes answers). Many ideas were presented that were overwhelmingly supported, including flexibility of the workplace, choice and how to create our own niche in work and personal spheres, as well as mentoring and empowering other women in their careers. I was so impressed with people (both men and women) who had focused their lives and careers on forging their own paths as well as inspiring and aiding others to do the same. 

Looking back, I have been thinking most about one idea in particular, however, and a few points during the day that it was touched upon. Awareness is accepted as one of the major obstacles to improving equality in the workplace, which is theoretically driven by those in positions of power who are in charge of the hiring process. This issue was first brought up by Gabrielle Bullock, the Global Diversity Leader at Perkins + Will, who discussed their firm’s approach to increasing diversity throughout their international practice. Much of the effort they made was in training and bringing a basic level of awareness to their employees, especially those in positions that contribute to hiring practices, in order to eradicate underlying biases and thought processes. In the same panel, Dr. Philip Hart of Hart Realty Advisors stated that the problem was with white men, and that they need to lead by example in order to effect change in the diversity of the workplace.

The idea of bringing men to the table to discuss issues of diversity and particularly gender equality came up several times throughout the day, including when Marc Neveu, Chair of the Architecture Department at Woodbury University, opened up the room for discussion on whether or not men should be included. This sparked a heated debate on when and if men should be brought into the discussion, but I believe the general consensus of the day was that to change the status quo, men will have to come to the table in order to raise awareness and implement practical changes in the workplace and beyond.

Erin McConahey of ARUP discussed her firm’s initiatives in supporting diversity amongst their 13,000 global employees, and presented a great slide that I think impacted a lot of people; it was a simple sentence on a white slide that had maybe ⅓ of the letters removed from each word. She asked an audience member to read the slide, which she did without an issue, because from the slide most English speakers are able to “fill in the blanks” and understand the meaning of the sentence without all the letters. This she extrapolated to the idea that this is how our brains work in many of life’s situations; we have a tendency to fill in the blanks based on what we know, thereby drawing unconscious conclusions about people and situations. By bringing awareness to the reasoning behind these unconscious processes, we can change the decisions that are made.

I felt a lot of the ideas put forth around this central idea were really powerful (no pun intended) and applicable for just about everyone there including architects, engineers, teachers, and students amongst many others. After processing all of this though, I began thinking about the flip side of this argument: that the naiveté and lack of awareness is not solely held on the side of people in positions of power, doing the hiring or promoting within firm; it is also held by many people on the other side-- the ones who are spending their lives in an unequal workplace.

One of the most interesting presentations of the symposium came from Rhona Berens, a life coach at her own company Forte Dreams Coaching, who addressed the psychology of women and how they approach work-life balance. She encouraged everyone in the audience to remove the ‘buts’ from their internal dialogue, and replace them with ‘ands’, in addition to accepting our own version of balance and compromise in the full spheres of our lives. The biggest thing I took away from her talk was that while many of us, especially those of us who were in attendance at the symposium, desire to change the current state of affairs in our fields in terms of equality, we may still on a daily basis struggle with our own personal issues of balancing our thoughts, goals, dreams and efforts.

In the context of the discussion of awareness and how it can be leveraged to create powerful change in our fields, I think that it is imperative for us all to understand that our own awareness of the issues and what we desire is just as important as encouraging awareness in others in order to follow through with the changes that many of us hope to see. Ensuring that we are aligning our internal dialogue with our external goals, and encouraging those around us to do the same, I believe will only catapult our movement forward.

When I left a previous job with an employer that did not take a stance on equality in the workplace, one of my female superiors (and someone I looked up to) said to me, “I know this office can be difficult to work for, especially as a woman, so I understand why you might want to leave.” I appreciated her sentiment, but I believe this is the type of defeatist dialogue that will have to be eradicated on our own side before we can truly move forward with progress. How can we expect to increase awareness, acceptance, and change when we are overwhelmed with doubt ourselves? If we establish our own beliefs and thought processes in equality, and bolster others to do the same, we will be on solid footing to address any obstacles along the road to positive change. I believe that awareness of equality is and will continue to be the core issue of changing our fields for the better; but we must not miss the first step that lies within ourselves.

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Last updated: 30-Oct-2015 09:05 AM
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