Monday, March 14, 2011

Lulu's Mailbag: How does a girl get some respect around here?

Reader C sent the following question in:

I'm curious if you ever had any problems as an intern being female and young. I'm 28 but in the right clothes I can still pass for a 13 year old. haha Of course I'm in appropriate clothing when meeting with consultants and contractors but I still feel like they treat me like I'm a little girl or the assistant. I met with a surveyor and an attorney for a project that was applying for a variance and I was treated as if I was just the copy girl... the girl that answers phones. I know being an assistant comes with the territory of being an intern but I'm 5 years into my career and I feel like I have a great amount of responsibilities... enough to at least earn a little respect. I start testing this summer, by the way. 
Partly I feel like I'm in this situation because my firm is quite small. Apart from the principal architect there are two senior architects and two interns.I suppose if I want to be treated like I'm in the upper rankings I should just move on to a different firm. I'll forever be at the bottom even when I'm licensed. Anyway, I'm going on a tangent and I hate to sound whiny but I just feel so strongly about this. Did you ever feel like you were treated differently for being a female intern? Even now as an architect, do you still feel you have more to prove yourself because you're a female in a dominantly male field? Do you feel like you have to be somewhat of a bitch to be taken seriously? I have many people telling me it's all about balance but honestly, I have yet to meet a female architect in the upper echelons of an architecture firm that has not been labeled a bitch.

This is a great question (or series of questions), and they're not whiny at all--rather they're quite important. They're a little hard to answer only because there are some variables involved in these questions. So let's start with C's basic initial question: Have you ever been treated differently as a female intern? The answer for me personally is: yes and no. I have had some people treat me like "oh, how sweet, a little girl is on our job!" and I've had some treat me like "oh, the architect is here--now we can get some questions answered." I generally have fewer problems with contractors, clients, etc. that are closer to my age (or at least under the age of 40 when I started out in architecture at the age of 25 back in 2000), but some of my best allies were men old enough to be my dad. There are some people who see the world as the Marines do: they address the rank (or job), not the gender. It is those folks who make it easier (usually) to get a job done because it's about getting the job done, not making exceptions along the way or treating you (or me or any woman) like they're less capable.

The next question was "do you feel like you have to prove yourself even now because you're in a male-dominated field?" My answer is this: I worked damn hard at being a solid, competent architect regardless of gender, which gives me the confidence to do my job now, regardless of with whom (or for whom) I'm working. If a situation arises in which it feels like a consultant, client, or contractor doubts my efficacy or skill, I call him/her on it immediately but in a way that is non-confrontational: "Marcus, I want you to know that if you have any questions about the CDs, I'm the one who can best answer them--I drew pretty much every line on this set, and I know it a lot better than Alex does. Do you have any concerns with calling me or directing the RFIs to me?" This is a little bit of hardball, but there's nothing mean about it. It's getting a situation out in the open and attempting to resolve it.

Now, that being said, let me address the "I worked damn hard" part. I think sometimes in architecture, there's a slight bias towards directing women towards space planning and tenant infill-type work, and directing men towards core and shell/exterior and construction detailing-type work. I recognized that early on, and I found myself struggling to keep up with the exterior detailing part of architecture so that I wouldn't get pigeonholed into just doing interior work. While I've still ended up being more interior space planning-oriented in my work, I also developed a knack for code research, which has made me pretty useful regardless of my gender. In terms of proving oneself, I've found that the best path to take is to work hard, keep learning and absorbing skills and information, and be really good at what you do, regardless of your gender. Your track record will speak for itself (though you may have to step up and remind others of your track record on occasion--more on that in a minute).

Finally, C asks if I feel like I have to be a bitch to be taken seriously. My answer: no, but it also depends on what your definition of "bitch" is. Some men (and a few women) will see any woman who stands up for herself or insists that work be done correctly is a "bitch". However, I've found that most people just want someone to tell them exactly what that someone wants or needs, and to be told that in a way that isn't mushy and isn't brusque and rude. Research by Dr. Linda Carli at the Stone Center for Women at Wellesley College found that people are most likely to perceive women as competent when a woman speaks clearly along with some basic "typically feminine" attributes, such as showing concern for others. I know some women with a lot of power in architecture (though certainly, there aren't as many women as there are men), and the ones I've found that rise to the top aren't particularly "bitchy". This might come as a surprise, but if you consider Dr. Carli's findings, it's not surprising at all. Being a jerk only goes so far, especially in a field like architecture, where relationships and good communication are so key. I've seen jerky communication and behavior stymie the careers of both genders. So if a high-ranking woman architect gets called a "bitch" by someone or other, I'm betting it's because she did stand up for herself/her firm/her client/good work/whatever. I've seen men get called "asshole" for similar behavior (though not as often as I hear women earn some caustic label).

However, C's email still gives me pause. Here's what I don't know about your situation, C: when you went to that meeting with the attorney and the surveyor, how did your boss introduce you? Did he even introduce you at all? How did and does your boss treat you in general and in front of clients, consultants, and contractors? People learn how to deal with you based on how they see others deal with you. If your boss said, "This is C, she's helping out on the project" or even just "This is C," then that's a lot less respect-inducing than "This is C--she's the job captain on this project and will be involved in the day-to-day running of construction. If you have a question about the CDs, she's the gal." (I also don't know how you sound when you speak, what your body language is like, and so on, which can affect these dynamics.) I think part of what has reduced the need for me to have to prove myself with those outside the firm is that my managers have usually (though not always) imparted my skill to the rest of the team. The others understood from my managers that Lulu was the person to talk to and she knows what she's doing, end of story. I'm sure we're not all so lucky.

Ultimately, C's struggle at her firm may be the same as one I've experienced lately, which is that of reminding everyone that you're not an intern anymore, but rather a really skilled, talented, and useful architect-in-training and even an architect (once you pass the ARE, C!). I've had to remind managers lately of that fact when asked to do some arcane task on a project. I frame it in economic terms: our office charges a lot more for my time now that I'm licensed, and I remind the managers of that fact when I'm asked to print out some documents or do some other thing. It's not that I'm above it by any means--it's just that I'm an awfully expensive copy girl.

I'm not sure if I've answered C's questions to any satisfaction, and I'm certainly not done with this topic, but I'd be interested in hearing your thoughts. I know my audience here skews young, and I'm intrigued to know what your generation is experiencing in terms of gender bias or differences in treatment in gender. What are you seeing and experiencing?


  1. I am a 20 yr old gal n would go for my first internship in june...if i get selected though!!
    but yeah i feel this happens in my studio too when i am explaining my design my teachers(mostly males) behave as if i havent thought u know technically n i have done sort of a art work!

  2. I want to take on C's question from the male perspective.

    A little background:

    I started in the profession right out of high school. My first gig was at a one man shop where my 'portfolio' was work I did in high school drafting electives as well as hand sketches. A small office can mean that you are doing a broad range of work a little above your skill level. It becomes a trial by fire experience.

    Anyway at 20 I was doing a lot of TI work and some residential. The principal had to go out of town and we had to get a permit rolling for one such project. I was sent down to the City of Denver to walk the plans through. The person I ended up with was a woman in her mid thirtes. When I told her I wanted to walk some plans through, her first response was that they "don't let couriers do that."

    After telling her that I met with the owner, discussed her needs with her, documented the existing space and put the drawing set together she agreed to go over the plans. This review quickly became a inquisition on what I knew about building codes and construction methods.

    As Lulu mentioned in an earlier post, the profession respects what you can do, not your sheep's skin. Being and looking young means more people are going to quiz you. It is much less about your gender than a perception in the profession that only 'grey hairs' have the knowledge it takes to do this work. I have heard clients and principals, ignorantly, say someone is too young and therefore can't be knowledgeable. Never heard it attached to gender before.

    So my advice is similar to Lulu's: educate yourself, show confidence and be firm yet polite. Add in there not to think it is about your gender, even if it is at times. Always take the approach that you just have to prove your skill level to certain people. You have control over your skill and not your gender. If you let it be about gender, ethnicity, orientation, or anything else you have no control over, you will develop a chip on your shoulder for everyone too see.


  3. Anon/D: Great comment and perspective! I think you're right--there's likely just as much ageism in architecture than there is sexism (if not more). Because our profession is so much about experience, there's often this assumption that you "don't know jack" because you lack any grey hair or wrinkles.