The Future of the Design Profession

Karen Blanchard

julie bush

erike de veyra

NicoleDress

Over the next few months, the PGDG Blog will feature engaged conversations from gatherings of 3-4 Women from the Philly Girls Do Good! class of 2013-14. To kick things off, PGDG co-founder, Danielle DiLeo Kim, and I met with four of the PGDG design professionals for morning coffee, to get their views on work-life balance in the profession today and in the future. They are:Karen Blanchard, AIA LEED AP/BD+C Julie Bush, ASLA Erike de Veyra, Assoc. AIA Nicole Dress, AIA, LEED AP

We wanted to begin by discussing your experience with the working environment for women in the profession. What were some issues you faced when you entered the profession, and what do you think are issues that the latest generation faces?

Julie Bush presented an example of a firm that is very supportive of women designers. In 1991, when Peta Raabe and Anita Lager began their landscape architecture firm, Lager Raabe (now LRSLA), they defined the firm culture to be supportive of its employees and their family life. When Julie had her first child, they not only gave her time off, but allowed her to ease back into work when she came back. Julie is frequently the only woman in meetings about projects, but by representing the role of Landscape Architect, she generally feels that she is a welcome and respected colleague.

However, design firms that are supportive towards employees with family are not necessarily the norm. It feels like there is a stigma towards taking time off work for family in this profession. This isn’t just a problem for women, but also for men. How can the design profession be flexible, that is client-based and deadline driven?

To compare with a different profession, Erike de Veyra shared that co-workers at her former job in government were not only given six months of maternity leave, but also were allowed to work part-time or from home. They were seen as being more efficient with their time, not delinquent. And yet, with design professionals, this is frequently seen as a bad work ethic. Nicole Dress wondered if with the immediacy of social media, there is an expectation that everyone should be readily accessible at all times. Karen Blanchard observed a different point, that with the recession, deadlines are much more demanding than they used to be, and architects are trying to make up for lost time. With so much competition, people often feel powerless to push back against unrealistic project schedules.

Julie, from her position of leadership, feels more comfortable pushing back against demanding schedules, but has mixed results. Anita and Peta had decided from the get go that Lager Raabi (LRSLA) would embrace comfortable work hours. For example, if someone comes in early, they are not penalized for then leaving early. They established a work culture supporting a healthy work/life balance.

Erike, you are one of the most active young professionals we have ever met. Tell us about why you decided to get involved in the professional community.

Erike described how people of her generation (myself included) feel the need to get involved with the profession in a non-traditional way because of the pressures the recession imposed on us. For example, she felt pressured to take a job that wasn’t directly in the architecture field because jobs were scarce when she graduated. However, this then led to her feeling disconnected from the design world. Getting involved with professional organizations was her way to reconnect. Also, she was always very involved with her design community at school, so it was a natural step for her.

As an example of the value of her networks, Erike’s efforts in organizing the Monthly Meetings with AIA Associate Committee resulted in me first encountering Danielle, a co-founder of Philly Girls Do Good. She encouraged everyone in attendance there to take our Architectural Registration Exams as soon as we could, and I wouldn’t have started (or finished) without her “lean-in” directive.

Back to the group. If you felt pressure to join professional organizations, did you have any mentors suggesting it, or was it all just personal initiative? I know for example, that mentors played an important role for Karen to get involved in the professional community.

Karen explained she did not always have a professional mentor. It wasn’t until she began working at WRT that Antonio Fio-Silva began asking her all of the important questions such as: why aren’t you registered yet? What about LEED? WRT was also helpful in giving her time to study for exams towards licensure. It was Antonio who suggested that she try getting involved in the professional community and emphasized that it was ok and even encouraged to not always be working at the office. For Erike, it actually was all her own amazing personal initiative. She found a creative way to stay involved with the professional community even while facing the challenges of the economic climate.

Julie then posed an excellent question for all of us: did we find that being registered as a WBE/MBE/DBE hurts or helps a firm?

Nicole strongly felt that it is a useful designation. It gives minority owned businesses the exposure that they otherwise wouldn't get. As someone within a large firm working on projects that require minority participation, she has of course had mixed success with these companies — as with any. She believes that without the additional incentive to partner with them, her firm would not have had the benefit of many valuable introductions.

From Danielle’s perspective as partner of a new design firm, Locus Partners will benefit from becoming WBE (in-process!) in that it will improve their potential to work on larger projects or team with larger firms that otherwise might over-look the start-up. Women-owned start-ups are looking like the wave of the future.

Reflection

A recurring theme in this conversation were the ripple and ongoing effects of the economic recession upon the design profession. Firms are asking their employees to work longer hours for shorter deadlines; the younger generation is still recovering from having to begin their design careers later than their predecessors. And yet, it doesn’t have to be this way. Yes, we are still recovering from the economic recession, but we can still practice excellent design and expect or provide a supportive employee environment.

An issue related to work/life balance concerns maternity and paternity leave. Maternity leave has been gaining traction in recent years, but paternity leave is still catching up. In “How Do I Make the Most of My Paternity Leave?” Michael Roston writes that only about 15 percent of companies offer paid leave for fathers, though many don’t take it within the competitive workplace. With the economic downturn and slow recovery, companies are probably even less inclined to consider measures that hurt their productivity. However, to adjust perceptions of gender roles, paternity leave is crucial.

Amidst the struggles resulting from the economic recession, our youngest generation is turning hardship into an opportunity to benefit the design community. Erike could have simply left the design profession altogether. Instead, she chose to step in through roles of leadership that enrich connections between older and younger generations of designers. Thank you Erike for your good work! May we all learn from her and the other hard-working women of PDGD! Thank you Karen Blanchard, Julie Bush, and Nicole Dress for a wonderful conversation about a complex topic within the design profession!

—Sophia Lee