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Motherhood: The Unexpected Catalyst Revolutionizing the Profession of Architecture

This piece was written by Megan Blaine, AIA, Past Chair of WIA Silicon Valley.

Architecture is fundamentally demanding. Starting as an undergrad, studio culture demands long hours, all-nighters, and often leads to caffeine addiction. The least amount of sleep often equals the most amount of praise and admiration from peers. It earns an unspoken title of the hardest working, most dedicated student, and that implicit sentiment is often translated through to professors and ultimately to grades.

This culture prevails throughout an architect’s career. It’s an ongoing expectation in most firms where I’ve worked. The more famous the head honcho, the greater the expected time commitment.  Employees are expected to skip meals and cancel plans with friends and family to complete a deadline (which were often assigned only hours in advance). Once a superior scolded me for taking a short dinner break at 8:30 before I worked until 2am.

This demanding culture is widespread in architecture. And you know what? This culture is stupid. There, I said it. It’s stupid. This culture sets up women who want to have children, for failure.

I always knew I wanted to be an architect from the moment I learned about the profession. I was 12. I also always wanted to have a family, but I knew I had to work hard to become an architect so I set my entire focus on achieving that goal. I put having a family out of my mind.

I went through the typical architect’s path. I dedicated myself to 6 grueling years of education, 3 years of internship and IDP hours, a recession, 2 years of ARE exams, and eventually worked my way up to a prestigious international architecture practice. I was on top of my game. I was doing incredibly well at the firm, had a great relationship with my superiors, and I loved the projects I was working on. But, suddenly, I was in my mid 30’s.

My husband and I decided it was time to start a family. I felt confident at work and I thought I could have it all: the prestigious architecture job AND the family. You know, like so many men do.

As soon as I shared the happy news that I was expecting, my superiors took my responsibilities away. I was devastated but decided to double down and perform even better so that I could work my way back up. I was pregnant and determined to be great at my job.

After my son was born, he was the first baby dropped off at daycare, and the last one to be picked up every day. I picked him up at 5:30pm sharp, which made it impossible to fulfil the expectation that I should be available to the architecture practice at all hours. Did I get my work done? Absolutely. Was I at work 2 hours before everyone else? Yes I was. But it didn’t matter because the perception of me as a hard-working team member was dissolving. Despite my dedication and getting my work done well each day, my successes were attributed to factors outside my hard work. I decided to join the Women in Architecture to change the culture of architecture to be more equitable for women.

Often this toxic culture pits colleagues against mothers. Once a colleague mentioned she resented another colleague who had just become a new mom because the mother left “early” after only working 9 hours. My colleague had to cancel her own plans with friends while the new mom left to pick up her baby. The problem is that dinner plans with friends feels just as important as picking up a baby from daycare, which causes resentment towards mothers. This resentment spreads the misconception that mothers are not as dedicated to their careers as non-mothers. Frankly, this is baseless and untrue.

We wonder why so many women leave architecture, even after many years in the practice. Herein lie two fundamental problems with architecture and the reasons why we have so few female leaders and mothers at the top:

  1. Education, training, and licensure take way too long. By the time a woman earns her license, on average, she’s in her mid 30’s. For men, this is typically not a problem. But for women who also want children, they’re suddenly facing high-risk pregnancies and often find they are no longer able to bear children because they’ve waited too long. Architecture students need to graduate from 5-year study 100% ready to qualify as an Architect.
  2. The time-demanding culture in architecture is destroying careers. It’s not the mothers who are suddenly terrible at their jobs. It’s the perception of them. This culture starts early in studio and prevails throughout our careers. What was I doing during those all-nighters as a student? Gluing balsa wood sticks and plexi together making perfect scale models. This is completely unnecessary in the actual practice of architecture. I should have been learning how to put a real building together. We need to focus architectural education on actual architecture, eliminate busy work, and support students’ lives outside of the studio. If a student stays late to complete an assignment, rather than praising the work, perhaps we should critique it as a time management issue and encourage more efficient work.

My career has had its challenges, but it’s not all doom and gloom. I’ve since started my own practice and I love it. I’m a successful principal and mother; my son is 3 and I’m expecting another baby in October. And, I’m committed to building a practice that I would have wanted to work for as an emerging professional. My future employees will balance their time, get their work done, and leave no later than 6:00pm every day, even on a deadline. Whether or not they have children is irrelevant, because all employees will have their evenings and weekends to themselves. Realistic expectations and no resentment, a more equitable practice.

I consider myself incredibly lucky to have both my career and my children. My hope is that, in the future mothers are given the same opportunities as fathers, where we can continue to excel in our careers as architects regardless of whether or not we decide to start a family.

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