Post #17877

Celebrating Women of Impact

Published in the March issue of ArchiType

In celebrating Women’s History Month, it is vital that we look to the present and recognize the women in the Architecture, Engineering, and Construction (AEC) industry who are making history right before our very eyes.

This month, AIA Connecticut recognizes three women who have paved the way for advocacy, equity, and inclusion: Emily Grandstaff-Rice, FAIA, Sharon Prince, and Linda Reeder, FAIA. Their hard work and resiliency have spurred change in the industry and helped rewrite the future as a place where everyone has a seat at the table.

Emily Grandstaff-Rice, FAIA

Emily is approaching her 2023 term as President of the American Institute of Architects. She has held other leadership roles at AIA National, including the 2018-2020 At-Large Director and 2017-2020 Chair of the Equity and Future of Architecture Committee. Emily was President of the Boston Society of Architects in 2014 and is currently a Senior Associate at Arrowstreet in Boston.

When you began your career, did you ever imagine yourself to have a leadership role in the American Institute of Architects? Especially a role as prominent as your approaching AIA presidency?

When I began my career, I worked for a firm that won the AIA Firm of the Year award the same year that Susan Maxman was AIA President. I remember seeing a photograph on the wall with the firm principals—all male at the time—receiving the certificate from Susan. I was always curious who she was. I often tell other female architects that there is power in just you as an architect. You don’t always have to be over-extended or be working in realms that are pushing the boundaries to be successful. Any female architect, and especially those from underrepresented ethnic and racial identities, produce change by being in this profession. For me as an emerging professional, seeing Susan Maxman leading the Institute signaled to me that it was possible. I didn’t meet her until years later, but I told her that story. I know her path had obstacles, but I am grateful that she has made a clearing for the rest of us.

I think I never ruled it out as a possibility, but I thought it would be a much different trajectory. While I won’t be the youngest ever AIA President in the 165-year history, I will be the youngest female AIA President. However, that honor will be short-lived. Both candidates for the 2023 First Vice President/2024 AIA President are female and younger than I am. There are positive changes coming to this institution and profession.

Emily and Jane Hastings, FAIA

What goes through your mind when you think of the female AIA Presidents who led the organization before you?

I am fortunate to have met all of five female AIA Presidents as well as the four female AIA College of Fellows Chancellors. I will serve as AIA President while Frances Halsband, FAIA will serve as AIA College of Fellows Chancellor. This will be the first time in AIA history these roles are both held by women.

A couple of years ago, I made custom t-shirts with their names on them to remind me of the legacies they have created. They have all helped me in their own way over the years, and I am truly thankful for that. Through mentoring, dinners, advice, servicing on initiatives together, and occasionally a scotch whiskey or two, I have learned so much from each of them. It’s the big things but also the small ones—learning how to carry yourself on a stage, advocating for a point that the rest of the Board doesn’t see, and of course, bringing along the many future female leaders that will change the world.

How can women support other women in the AEC industry?

Many of us are familiar with how to be good colleagues and supervisors. In my experience, one of the best methods is to provide peer-to-peer mentoring and support. For most, these last two years have been a struggle.

I have a friend, who I serve with on the AIA Board, who likes to call and check in on me occasionally. They often say, “you need to check in on your strongest friends because even they need to feel connected.” With everyone so busy, I try to be intentional about checking my colleagues, former colleagues, as well as other friends in the AEC industry. We are all professionals trying to balance our success and personal lives.

As a leader, how do you stay mindful of who is at the table and who is missing?

I went to a predominately engineering school where the ratio of male to female students mirrors the percentage of male to female licensed AIA architects today. This experience conditioned me (not in a good way) to get used to the situation of being the only female at the table. Later in my career, I became more aware to move beyond the conditioning to ask the question of why.

Many underrepresented identities in architecture (gender, racial, ethnic) walk a tightrope of expressing themselves authentically while also knowing that is may not be welcome in some traditional AEC realms. Making space for others to come to the table and contribute authentically is something I care deeply about.

What advice would you give to women entering the AEC industry or returning to the industry after a hiatus?

The profession has gone through many changes in the last twenty years ago, however there are still challenges. The recent AIA study, The Elephant in the (Well-Designed) Room: An Investigation into Bias in the Architecture Profession, details many of the differences that women and people of color experience in the AEC industry. My advice would be to be aware of these biases and know that you are not alone. Often, I see talented people second guess themselves and take challenges as personal failures, when in reality, the truth is there but masked by bias.

How have you built confidence and resiliency throughout your career?

There is something to be said about being knocked out and getting back up again. A career in architecture is a long game, and so much of it is built upon personal relationships. I’ve gained confidence by surrounding myself with colleagues and clients that value the work I do. I am honest when I make a mistake. I don’t give up even when things seem like they can be overwhelming. I have to believe that the work I do makes positive change—that belief helps guide me to act with courage and be resilient in the down times.

Sharon Prince

Sharon is the CEO and Founder of Grace Farms Foundation, a private operating foundation established in 2009. The Foundation’s interdisciplinary humanitarian mission is to pursue peace through nature, arts, justice, community, faith, and Design for Freedom — and Grace Farms, a SANAA-designed site for convening people across sectors.

Grace Farms Foundation has an incredible humanitarian mission of creating grace and peace in our communities. How do you hope this mission will impact young generations as they navigate their education and find themselves at the beginning of their careers?

Asking pressing questions is something every single person has in their power, in nearly every room.  Maybe during or after a session, meeting, or encounter, but the questions need to be raised and then the actionable steps follow. Without inquiry and investigation, there won’t be accountability or change.

There is one central question that needs to be asked by the next generation, every AEC professional, and soon the public: “Is your building ethically sourced, without forced labor, as well as sustainably designed?”

Because this question cannot be answered at this time, I initiated the Design for Freedom movement three years ago with the late Bill Menking of The Architect’s Newspaper. The Design for Freedom Working Group has now grown to over 80 leaders within the ecosystem of the built environment  – to raise awareness of this gaping human rights violation and to create institutional responses. We aim to truncate the timeline it takes for the AEC industry to adopt Design for Freedom principles by creating the first ever Design for Freedom pilot projects, including the Harriet Tubman Monument in Newark, NJ and the 21st Serpentine Pavilion in London, by initializing means and methods with material transparency, and collaborating with over 14 colleges and universities that are helping us educate future leaders about this issue.  The ripple effect has begun and can be enormous.

My advice for those just getting started is to look toward working with women and men with integrity and vision. Recognize that there is always something you have to give – your intellectual curiosity, unique experiences and perspectives – your questions.

As a leader, how do you stay mindful of who is at the table and who is missing?

Grace Farms is a female-led organization that is a platform for advancing good in the world through a publicly available place and an interdisciplinary approach. Our stake in the ground is to end modern slavery and gender-based violence. Over the past six and half years, we have been committed to addressing pressing humanitarian issues and taking action. We set out to accomplish our mission with grace, peace and excellence, which actually requires prioritizing women and varied racial backgrounds in the conversation and in leadership roles.

Advancing good locally and globally must mean advancing women and including them around the table. We should even skew more towards women until we have parity.  In fact, Grace Farms wouldn’t be Grace Farms without the contributions of women, starting with Kazuyo Sejima of SANAA.  80% of our executive team are women, 65% of our senior leadership team are female, three of our five opening permanent artworks in 2015 are global woman artists curated by Yuko Hasegawa (Teresita Fernandez, Susan Philipsz and Beatriz Milhazes), and I believe that this commitment to gender equity makes our organization, and so many others like us, that much stronger.

As a part of Design for Freedom, our new movement to eliminate forced labor from the building materials supply chain, Grace Farms has convened an expanding Working Group of more than 80 AEC leaders and others to raise awareness and create a radical paradigm shift within the built environment towards ethical, forced-labor free building materials. Balance and equal representation were top of mind for me when creating the Working Group. Without balance, leaders end up relying on the same people, methodologies, and fractured relationships that stifle innovation. One of the interesting points about the Working Group is that we created a new “table” together. And innovative ideas and action that have resulted are truly inspiring.

Our Design for Freedom Summit on March 31 will bring together committed leaders to accelerate the movement to remove forced labor from the global materials supply chain. Change to the industry has to come from within. By bringing both women and men around the table in this work, we are giving the best opportunity to innovate, add new perspectives, and develop responses to one of the most pressing humanitarian issues of our time.

How can women support other women in the AEC industry?

As you know, women are vastly underrepresented in the AEC industry overall, and in the construction industry in particular. In 2020, women comprised 47% of the total workforce nationally, but only 10.9% of construction industry workers, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. We have a way to go to fill the gender gap, along with women architects and engineers at only 27%.  Overall, I see rising DEI accountability, updated family leave policies, women’s AEC spotlights and organizations speeding up the adoption of the goal for a balanced workplace. Next, we need to actualize it.

The most important thing that women can do for other women in the AEC industry is to always, always aim for a gender balanced team yourself as a manager or leader.  Or, ask for it from your company’s leaders as a means for innovation and improvement in a lagging industry.  We have that prerogative in both cases.  In 2010, when starting the search for a design team for Grace Farms, I created the imperative, that remains in place today, that we must always have gender balanced teams.  This extended to our Foundation team, Design for Freedom Working Group, panel discussions, and programming overall.  I look at the whole, not the individual role.

Yet, there is one critical role at Grace Farms that had to be filled by a woman from the construction sector, our first Sustainable/Ethical Materials Director.  Nora Rizzo comes with a decade of sustainable leadership and has proven in short order to activate the construction and sustainability practitioners.  We are about to issue our Design for Freedom ToolKit at the Summit on March 31st at Grace Farms.

Our aim is to speed up gender parity in the AEC industry and soon be valued for our expertise without a noted gender adjective.

What advice would you give to women entering the AEC industry or returning to the industry after a hiatus?

To women entering the AEC industry, I would give the same advice to those who enter any sector, which that success comes when you are your own person – when you value your experiences, intellect, and perspectives that come not only through your career but also through our family relationships and community connections.

I think women often don’t realize that their careers and their lives thankfully have a very long runway. Most of our careers last decades, with many pivots and starts and stops along the way. It is important to know you are in a long game, and taking time away to care for young children, or an elderly parent, or a family member who is ill, does not automatically mean your career will stall or you will be penalized for years.  After all, what does one, two, three years or more away mean in a four decade-long career? The answer is not much. And after you come back to work, you will bring new perspectives that make you an even better leader and colleague.

How have you built confidence and resiliency throughout your career?

I have often started with stating a vision or goal and then figured out how to do it. With a thoughtful, committed team by your side, you can accomplish so much. You can’t wait until you have it all figured out to get started. Before selecting SANAA to design Grace Farms, we wanted to create a hopeful space where people would convene across sectors and where open architecture would break down barriers between people and nature. We started out with both aspirations and utilitarian requirements and then went about the work of actualizing that vision.  We didn’t ask for a River building; however, it was the inevitable answer to the complex set of architectural directives without a previous model.  The second half of the equation, and equally important, is how you fill your space.

By nature, I’m wired to care and stand up for people along the way and to press on even when few understand. Confidence and resiliency has come over time through experience and lessons learned along the way. From the beginning, some said our mission to end modern slavery and gender-based violence was too aspirational, that we had too many initiatives, and that people might not even come to engage in our programming. But I kept my head down, myopically did the work with aligned partners, and I am happy to say it has worked. When you are tackling seemingly overwhelming humanitarian issues, there’s a distinct advantage to approaching these issues from different perspectives.  As new outcomes emerge and possibilities are realized, your confidence grows.

Linda Reeder, FAIA, LEED AP, DBIA

Linda is an architect, author, and professor who has recently launched The Architectress, a newsletter dedicated to her love of architecture and interest in the history of women practicing architecture and allied professions.

What advice would you give to women entering the AEC industry or returning to the industry after a hiatus?

Chase happiness. Implement or suggest constructive changes to make your workplace better for you and ideally, for everyone else, too. If you can’t change what makes you unhappy at work, find a different workplace or different work. Say yes to interesting opportunities even if you don’t know where they will lead. Cultivate mentors and build a professional network through mutual respect.

How have you built confidence and resiliency throughout your career?

My career has been varied, from working for a small New Haven firm for seven years at the start of my career to starting my own firm to teaching and writing. My guiding principle has been to pursue opportunities that interest me and that I think will make me happy. I also try to say yes where I think I can be of service.

I started my own firm in 2005 because I felt overworked and underpaid at my current employer and figured that would be the case at other firms as well. I’m not independently wealthy so I diversified my income stream as a hedge against an economic downturn. I got part-time gigs teaching a print-reading class at Central Connecticut State University (CCSU) and writing and editing content for AIA National. In addition to some small projects of my own, I also contracted my services to other firms to help out on an as-needed basis. This was a great way to see how other firms operated—to play the field without getting a reputation.

I was earning a good living but was still overworked—until the Great Recession hit and my architecture and consulting work evaporated. My experience writing for the AIA and the contacts I made there helped me get a book contract with Wiley, but that was a labor of love. The book and my teaching experience did help me get a temporary full-time appointment teaching Construction Management at CCSU to pay the bills.

I imagined I would only teach until the recession ended and then return to practice full-time. Instead I learned to enjoy teaching and to take advantage of the institutional support for research and writing. Now I’m a tenured full professor at CCSU working on my third book, having edited or contributed to three others including the 15th edition of the AIA Architect’s Handbook of Professional Practice.

Volunteering also resulted in interesting opportunities. Editing the AIA Small Project Practitioners’ newsletter led to a position on that Knowledge Community’s Advisory Group, which led to my serving as chair of the group and of its national awards jury. This and other accomplishments as a volunteer led to the privilege of serving on the advisory juries for the 2016 Gold Medal and Firm Awards. Owing to my publications, teaching, and leadership, I was elevated to the College of Fellows that same year.

My current volunteer project is a monthly newsletter and blog about women, architecture, and the history of America. I named it The Architectress to reflect the history of how female architects have often been viewed as not belonging in the profession.  The content shows how successfully—and for how many decades—women have been proving that perception wrong. It also addresses current inequities and how we can address them as individuals and as firm leaders. Please consider subscribing! The newsletter is free and arrives just once each month.


Interviewed by Carolyn Petrowski