I wasn’t always the only woman in the room. Early in my career, I had lots of women colleagues sitting along side me late into the evening, hammering away on AutoCAD, trying to meet some unachievable deadline for our project managers and our clients. But, as I have moved through my career and moved up through the ranks, I have seen that number dwindle. Today, more often than not, I find myself alone in a room of men.
While women’s full participation in architecture has been increasing, it has been a slow crawl. Though about 40% of architecture students are women, only about 20% of licensed architects are women, and only 10% of principals of top revenue-producing firms are women.
Women need to be bold, outspoken, intelligent, exciting, and use who we are to make our mark. That doesn’t mean we have to act like men; we need to celebrate being women and doing the same job differently than our male counterpart. For example, sorry men, but women are naturally more nurturing, and we can use that ability to approach relationship building in a different way. But mostly, we need to be confident in who we are and the value we bring to our organization. That value will be recognized.
I attended the Women Leaders in Healthcare conference last year hosted by Modern Healthcare. One statistic that stood out to me—and I may not get the numbers exactly right —was that men will apply for a job if they meet 40% of the criteria. On the flipside, women typically will not apply for a job unless they meet 70% of the criteria. 70%!!! I think we are playing it too safe. It is time to take a risk and believe in ourselves fully.
My dad taught me a valuable lesson during my early years of learning how to downhill ski. I wasn’t getting better and I was complaining that I was being surpassed by the competition (because yes, I am fiercely competitive). He said, “Abbie, you don’t fall down enough. That tells me you are not taking risks to get better. The more you fall, the better you will get because you will learn from every fall.” So I listened and I fell A LOT. By 8th grade, I was ranked one of the top ten downhill racers in the state of Illinois.
So what does it feel like to be the only woman in the room? It feels like great responsibility. Responsibility to represent women well. To be the spokesperson for all of us so I will not be alone for long. To make a difference. But above all, to be different. It is an opportunity to motivate all women to reach their goals and achieve greater recognition.
So my advice is:
- Don’t be scared or intimidated; be strong and bold. There is absolutely nothing wrong with being the strong, outspoken woman in the room. Women sometimes shrink from this responsibility in fear of being considered in a negative light, while men are celebrated for boldness and strength in character. Break that tradition. Don’t be afraid of those that will be intimidated by your approach and try to use it against you. They are not your focus. Your focus is on those that embrace it. They are the ones you should pay attention to as together you can move forward.
- Find life balance. We cannot have it all; realize that and prioritize. Women want to be super human, super mom, super leader, super wife and be able to change our own oil. Instead, figure out what is the most important to you and do those things well. For me, a messy house and car full of garbage with happy kids and great career is okay. I embrace the messiness because I know I’m doing the most important stuff right. And do not miss your kids’ important moments for anything. Work can wait for those.
- Be selfish about your career. Women worry a lot about what other people think: whether other people are happy, what we can do to win approval of other people. So when it comes to our career, we tend to worry about our boss and our coworkers first… and ourselves last. Flip it around. The only way to hit that life balance is to make you number one in your career. Do what is right for you and your family first, and things will fall into the right place.
- Find a mentor, and a good one. Does it need to be a woman? Not necessarily. In fact, you should find more than one so you can get several perspectives, including from men AND women. But more important than gender, find someone you can trust and who trusts you (this is very important); someone who is available and will make the time; someone who will give the advice that is necessary, not just what you want to hear. But above all, someone who will not judge. You have to know you can speak freely, feel stupid, and ask anything you want without worry.
I would love to hear from other women the advice you would give young women (or the advice you wished you received earlier in your career).