MWA’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee hosted our first firm-wide DEI forum last month. For an hour, our team met to listen, learn, and discuss DEI in the workplace. The topic: gender.
Two members of the DEI committee, Maria Benavente and Dana Elliot, hosted this forum. Dana explained that they chose gender as our first discussion topic because it “affects absolutely everyone.” Maria agreed, stating that gender is “one of the big elephants in the room when discussing diversity, equity, and inclusion.” They chose gender as the foundation for the DEI committee to build on, knowing that this topic can expand into deeper conversations for future forums.
Maria emphasized the importance of firm-wide discussions surrounding gender, saying that it is “important because it can help us eliminate biases” and that “architects are designing inclusive, welcoming spaces so that people don’t feel out of place.”
Throughout this blog post, we hope that you feel inspired to have similar conversations at your firm, contemplate ways that we can eliminate gender bias, and join us in our determination to create inclusive spaces.
Two Women’s Paths to Architecture
Originally introduced to the world of art, Dana worked in museums and art spaces before pursuing architecture. She became inspired by the spaces that “use their physical design to challenge how people experienced an art piece or learned about a subject.” She decided to pursue architecture to help “encourage and welcome people into spaces for their community.”
Maria grew up with parents in the medical field who dedicated their careers to treating people who couldn’t afford medical care. Although she knew that medicine wasn’t her calling, she wanted to follow in her parents’ footsteps and find a career where she could contribute to underserved people in her community. Maria chose to pursue architecture when she “realized that our career could impact people from a small scale to a large scale.”
“I guess I’m just a believer that design can perpetuate justice.”Maria Benavente
Why Mentorship Matters
Dana and Maria shared with us two opposite experiences when it comes to mentorship, but both agree that it made an impact. Maria says, “I have had many mentors in my life. And I still have mentors currently at the firm. One is Tom Stark. He’s awesome. He’s more than a mentor, he’s a friend.”
Dana agrees, saying that “many of the senior staff at MWA take on the role of mentor for the junior staff, and I have benefitted from that.”
However, Dana also shares an experience of someone who was “the opposite of a mentor.”
When Dana was first discovering her love for architecture in high school, she attended a program where the teacher dissuaded her from pursuing her career, telling her that she “didn’t understand this, and would never understand this.” It took her a long time to become interested in pursuing architecture again. She eventually identified this experience for what it was: a bad mentor. Even so, Dana acknowledges how heavily that teacher could have influenced her career.
The underlying message between both women’s experiences is that a mentor can steer someone’s path. It is critical that inspiring mentors exist for people who don’t fit the traditional mold of an architect, so that the AEC industry has more representation and diversity, enabling us to create more equitable spaces in the built environment.
“People who don’t fit the typical image of success in our field need even more support.”Dana Elliot
Why is it imperative to continue to inspire girls and women to join the AEC industry?
Currently, only 17% of registered architects are women. However, this number is continuously rising, and over half of the students in architectural programs in the US are women. As we continue to inspire girls and women to join the AEC industry, we build a diverse pipeline of architects.
Maria believes that we need to continue to convey that women “can achieve anything, they can conquer all of the fields.”
“As women, we don’t have to fall under the roles that sometimes society imposes on us.”Maria Benavente
Dana believes we must encourage women to join the industry because “AEC careers are literally shaping the built environment. People with diverse experiences are vital to the work because we can bring different perspectives to the table, creating better designs.” It’s crucial to find ways to support students or staff because there are “a lot of barriers to entry, and even more barriers to remain in the industry, like licensure, long hours, and hierarchical firm structures.”
What was surprising about the information you learned while putting this forum together?
Looking at the statistics of differences in the treatment of genders in the US, the truth is inevitable: men and women are not yet treated equitably. Income, benefits, and opportunity inequities are still prevalent in our workforce, and taking the time to see where those inequities surface can be the solution to closing the gap.
Dana acknowledges the scenario’s difficulty, saying that “knowing how few women, trans, and nonbinary people receive recognition in our field is made all the more real when you see the variety of data.”
Maria was surprised that “we are living in 2022, and we still see women’s rights being suppressed in parts of the world.” She also recognizes that “gender plus ethnicity gets a bigger gap toward reaching equity.”
How can we consider universal design in terms of gender?
“One of the most important tools we have as designers is curiosity.”Dana Elliot
Being curious about someone else’s experience and imagining how they interact with a space can expand designs beyond the norms. When it comes down to it, Dana’s perspective is that “universal design is a way to consider how different needs may overlap, creating a space that expands on who can get what they need in a given environment.”
Maria believes that universal design is a tool for achieving inclusivity. Maria says that “universal design is translated more physically, like creating easy access and maneuvering of things to suit all people.”
As our understanding of gender identity evolves, how can design be implemented to foster more inclusive spaces?
Dana shares her ideas on fostering an inclusive space by stating that “while the built environment is never a blank slate, as designers, we are in a prime position to question conventions and strive to create spaces that are truly suited to the users. For example, in bathrooms, public transit, and even office spaces, there are assumptions that we base designs on. It seems obvious, but a one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work, especially when we consider gender in design requirements.”
Maria expands on this, explaining that to create an approach based on the user, we need to “hear people out, have empathy, see their struggles, and ask them how we can help their day-to-day life.”
Maria believes that we need to have our ears open and be willing to listen as designers. The topic of gender will continue to grow, evolve, and shape design. The more we implement a participative strategy, the more successful and welcoming our build environment will be.
As our understanding of gender identity evolves, what role will architecture and design have in shaping more equitable communities?
“Design can and should be used to create space that adds dignity to and affirms a person’s existence.”Dana Elliot
Maria says that the first step to designing an equitable community is to identify the actual user. We must ask ourselves, “Who are we designing this space for? What are their cultural backgrounds?” Once we have identified the user, we can study the existing conditions to examine what is currently working, and what needs to be changed. Using this as a starting point, we can provide spaces that suit the user. Maria reiterates, “architecture is a social career. It is based on the human need for shelter, but also on the interactions and culture that we generate. The more human, and by this, I mean the more ‘heart and thought’ we add to a design, the more equitable we will be.”
Dana explains that “oftentimes, the ways we think about gender in the built environment are legally written into code. As definitions and ideas of gender continue to grow and evolve to suit each individual’s identity, design should rise to meet that expansion.”
What opportunities do you see for MWA to be part of the solution for gender equity in architecture?
Maria points out that “our team is pretty diverse, and the majority is women, which is pretty cool and rare in our industry. We have new hires from minority groups, and we should keep doing that.”
Maria emphasizes the importance of “everyone having the same education, training, and experiences to grow in their role.” Dana agrees, adding the importance of “pay equity, parental/family leave, and recruiting diverse applicant pools.”
Maria says that “it is important to keep having these conversations and forums.” Creating space within our firm for people to speak out on their experiences, generate new ideas on how to be inclusive, and ultimately design better spaces as a team is invaluable. Thank you, MWA, for hosting this discussion, and thank you, Dana and Maria, for speaking up as the voice of our firm.