Industry veteran offers advice for women in architecture

Women's Day

Industry veteran offers advice for women in architecture

Tania Bortolotto offers advice to women in architecture. (Courtesy rawpixel)

As the sole founder and president of Bortolotto, a design and architecture firm in Toronto, I have had my fair share of gender-based discrimination throughout my career. On this International Women’s Day, I find myself reflecting on the 20-year journey as a female-led firm and the implications it has for the female architects of today. From learning how to be heard in the boardroom to mastering project bids and networking in a room full of men, there are skills that I’ve had to hone on a steep learning curve of condescending comments and awkward conversations starting at the beginning of my career. My hope is that the women navigating the architecture industry in 2019 are able to take the work of their forerunners and leverage those advances to their benefit and success today.

The truth is that women are natural leaders and are necessary to every senior management team, but the statistics make motivating female entrepreneurs difficult: A study by Dezeen found that women occupy just 10 percent of the highest-ranking jobs at the world’s leading architecture firms, while 16 firms have no women at all in senior positions. The study also showed that the percentage of women decreases steadily at each ascending tier of management. Only 3 of the top 100 architecture firms are headed by a woman while just 10 percent of the very highest leadership positions are held by women. These numbers ultimately mean that women are desperately underrepresented and that the architecture we see around us is built by men, for men. That being said, women make up 50 percent of the population and 47 percent of the workforce. Women are entrepreneurs, consumers, mothers, employees, and leaders—all types of women need to be represented at a table full of decision-makers and at all management levels.

When it comes to boardrooms specifically, women tend to be at a disadvantage. With women being so much in the minority, it can feel discouraging and impossible to make an impact at the table when looking around. From my experience in the male-dominated architecture industry and in boardrooms outnumbered by men, our work and experience are highly valued—although that may not seem the case at first. Your peers will listen to you when you make yourself heard. Here are some tips for getting recognized:

State your views clearly

When you are outnumbered in a meeting and others are dominating the conversation, it can be difficult to get your thoughts and ideas in. Oftentimes, fears of looking foolish or being ridiculed stop us from saying what needs to be said. My top advice is to not be afraid to be firm in expressing your opinion.

Your knowledge is essential to the conversation, so when you feel it is appropriate to add value, jump right in, speaking clearly and remaining firm behind your views.

Create a presence and be confident

Women report feeling less confident because they believe that they have only been appointed to a boardroom to fill a “women quota,” and not because they have expertise and add value. Rather than doubting ourselves, women should march into meetings with confidence in their knowledge and experience, ready to bring to the table everything they have to offer. Rather than sinking into the background, embrace your presence and join the conversation confidently.

Bring your perspective to the table and stay true to your values

As an architect, I often come at challenges from a design perspective, which requires a mind that not only thinks outside the box, but also can be eccentric, without conforming to the rules. Sometimes it’s easier to agree with the majority than voice your own contradictory opinion, but this is not how policies change or how great ideas come to light. A major reason for gender diversity is to ensure a balanced insight is brought to the table. But it’s not enough to just bring a “woman’s perspective;” rather, your specific knowledge and expertise is as valuable as your peers’ and is an important part of the discussion. 

Give credit and take credit

Giving everyone who deserves credit for their work is part of being a supportive leader and a way to showcase that success is a collaborative effort. That also means learning to take credit and acknowledging your success when appropriate. Demonstrating that women are equal partners is essential for earning deserved respect.

Change is on the horizon and it starts here today, with you. Insisting on an equal number of women in leadership roles is the start to true gender equality in the workplace, but ensuring our voices are heard on every platform—whether working at a construction site, in a boardroom, or on a team for a client—is the spark that starts the flame.

Tania Bortolotto is the founder of Bortolotto, a Toronto-based architecture firm.