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06.25.2014
Comment> Julie Cook
The Moody Nolan architect tells her story of how the profession is improving for women.
Brad Feinknopf, Feinknopf Photography

The world of business is changing, especially with regard to the careers women are choosing. This is true for my profession as well. Architecture is challenging for women because of the disproportionate ratio of men to women. This is starting to change but is far behind other professions. Fortunately, the momentum is building.

That doesn’t mean the road is paved with gold for women entering what continues to be a predominantly male field. But it does mean that the door is open for women today to make their own success based on the talent and determination they bring to the table.

 
Julie Cook.
Courtesy Moody Nolan
 

The changing face of the profession has been evident to me over a career that began, in some respects, when I took a high school drafting class at the suggestion of one of my coaches. As it turned out, I liked drafting and was good at it, but as I prepared to enter The Ohio State University in 1989, I still didn’t know what I wanted to do as a career. A couple of friends had decided to go into architecture, so I decided to try it too.

I might still have decided to pursue architecture, but a comment made to me my freshman year by a male student sealed the deal. “You’ll never make it,” he told me. “You don’t have what it takes to be an architect.” With a background in athletics, playing both volleyball and basketball at Bishop Watterson High School, I’ve always been competitive. At that moment it was game on!

I graduated in 1994 as one of only a handful of women in an architecture class of 100. By the time I went back to graduate school in 1999, things were starting to change. Enrollment of freshmen in the architecture school had risen to nearly 50 percent women.

Today, I work at a firm that is nearly one-third female (the highest ratio among architectural firms). Moody Nolan is the largest minority-owned firm in the country. Diversity is a goal and part of the firm’s identity. It recognizes that to have a strong collaborative working environment and to produce superior results, you must have diverse individuals with different strengths working together.

I came to Moody Nolan right out of graduate school to work on The Ohio State University Recreation and Physical Activity Center (RPAC). Being from Columbus, Ohio, with multiple degrees from Ohio State, this was a once in a lifetime opportunity with a bounty of challenges.


A rendering of the Macolm X City Colleges of Chicago campus expansion project, courtesy of Cook’s firm, Moody Nolan.
Courtesy Moody Nolan
 
 

I was given the chance to go in the field and participate in the construction phase of RPAC. As the onsite field administrator for one of the university’s largest projects, I spent many hours in the construction trailer with virtually no women around me. I was young, I was a woman, and it took some time to build credibility with the men on the site. The same was true for other projects. For the first seven or eight years of my career, whenever I entered a meeting everyone assumed I must be the interior decorator.

I do have one advantage: I’m over six feet tall. Being tall can enhance self-confidence and help establish a leadership presence, which I found crucial when managing large projects and dozens of consultants.

However, there are other advantages to being a woman in this field. Women bring different qualities to design; they tend to be more creative and are good listeners. These attributes are crucial in architecture. Most clients have trouble visualizing a design. They need someone who cannot only listen to their needs, but also make sure they understand how you’re going to help them. Moody Nolan’s goal is “Responsive Architecture”—we listen to our clients and try to create architecture that responds to their thoughts, goals, and needs.

Still, being a woman in architecture hasn’t always been easy. Things continue to get better, but it is not yet an equal playing field. The increased number of women in architecture today is improving representation in the field and over time will move the needle of equality.

Today, when I advise young women considering architecture, I tell them four things. First, make sure this career is something you are passionate about, because you’ll spend a majority of your time doing it. Second, focus on the positives and not the negatives; dwelling on the negatives is always counterproductive. Third, spend time in the construction trailer. You can only learn so much working in an office. Seeing how buildings are put together first hand is the most important experience an architect can have.

Finally, understand that if you want riches and glamour, architecture may not be right for you. But if you want to help create things that will live on after you’re gone, this profession can provide it. When I’ve had a tough day, I can go back to the Ohio State campus, stand in front of the RPAC, and say, “I did that.”

There is no other career that affords an opportunity quite like that.

Julie Cook

Julie Cook is an associate principal at Moody Nolan.