Waiting for the Great Leap Forward

By Mary-Margaret Zindren, EVP/Executive Director

Architecture is a profession where women are severely underrepresented; the profession does not reflect the public it serves and progress toward that goal has been stubbornly slow. My column this month is excerpted from the speech I made to the largest gathering of women architects ever convened: the AIA Women’s Leadership Summit that took place in Minneapolis in September. The speech was designed to be read aloud; if you read it silently, try to hear your own voice saying the words.

We have the power to change the profession of architecture — and by extension, to literally change the world around us. Changing the profession and the world is what women in architecture have been working to do for decades. 
And while we have unquestionably made progress, in the words of musician and activist Billy Bragg, we are “waiting for the great leap forward.” In that song, he says, with cynicism, that “The future is just a T-shirt away.” 
I have my own t-shirts — my “Feminist,” my “The Future is Female,” and my “Nevertheless, She Persisted.” I’ve got my photos from marches. I’ve posted, commented, and used my “me too” hash tag.
Bragg says this is lovely — good for us — but we also have to do the real work. The work of leadership. I completely agree. But, frankly, as a man, this is easier for him to say.
Many of us still carry the burden of “women’s work” in our homes and in our relationships as the primary caregivers for children, parents, and loved ones, and in the workplace, as the party planners and client consolers. We are constantly navigating the double bind of likability and authority which drains our well of energy and diverts our attention from doing our core jobs — and, mostly, doing those jobs for less pay than our male colleagues.
And, on top of all of this, women with disabilities fight inordinately long just to be hired, and then are often pigeonholed, as if design for disability is your only area of interest or expertise.
And for LGBTQ+ women, it means navigating the heteronormative conversations, spaces, and assumptions that pervade the profession and pressure you to tamp down your self-expression.
For women of color, it means fighting prove-it-again bias — being pressed to demonstrate skills and expertise twice over, and receiving even less pay — and with regularly-occurring slights from colleagues and clients and contractors, and the asks and assumptions that you will mentor and speak on behalf of everyone who looks or sounds remotely like you, and the painstaking patience it takes to deal with white women like me as we come to terms with the history and legacy of our whiteness, and too often — subtly, and not-so-subtly — ask you to set aside issues of race and to check your culture at the door. 
When sometimes, often, all any of us want to do is show up and do the work. The work of architecture.
Our intention in convening this gathering is time for you to focus on you. Your definition of success. Your leadership development. The time and opportunity to gain strength and insight from each other. The time and space to build up your resilience.
Whether you identify as a woman architect or an architect who happens to be a women, a woman pursuing a degree in architecture, a woman pursuing licensure, a woman trained in architecture who is teaching or applying your training to other fields, a woman who is owning the role of citizen architect, an individual of any gender identity who is leveraging your power and skill to bring gender equity and inclusion to your firm, your school, or this profession, or simply a human being living through the intensity of this day and age, you need to cultivate resilience and strength.
Your strength is not just within you; it is among you. Together, all of us are a force to be reckoned with.
Let this gathering fuel us. Let it fuel the reckoning in architecture. Let it fuel the great leap forward.

View the full October issue of Matrix.