By Ali Menke Joiner, AIA, architect at Shears Adkins Rockmore

Joiner8_square cropBeing an architect is hard. We go through rigorous studio sessions in college to achieve a degree, only then to prove our value creatively and technically at work every day for the rest of our career. Failing first to achieve success later is a daily practice. Architecture school graduation and employment rates are finally at an all-time balancing of equality between genders; women are present in our schools and our firms, yet we continue to lack equal representation at the top of the profession and across leadership roles in our field.

Being an architect is a passion we shouldn’t have to give up, or set aside, yet women are not excelling at the same rate as men and are leaving the profession. I believe our industry is delayed in comparison to others in the progress we are making towards leadership opportunity, not only limited to women’s roles in our design firms, but also across those businesses we consult with, work for, and ultimately work with on a construction site. We are surrounded primarily by male leaders. We allow the industry to use the label “female architect” as a descriptor that automatically positions us as outsiders from the norm. When in truth, we are the norm. We do belong.

Surveying the social scripts

Social scripts run rampant in many aspects of our society. They create biased expectations of behavior, opinions, and decisions putting additional pressure on people to act in a particular way. I believe social influences are holding women back in their careers, creating expectations at work and at home that we didn’t write for ourselves. I find this topic particularly hard to have a conversation about. We get defensive, not wanting our opinions or thoughts to be anything but our own. But my intent here is to outline a general problem that I see, understanding there are huge ranges of personal experiences for each of us.

One career damaging script in my mind has two stages. Stage One assumes that a woman who is focused on her career is not a good candidate to be a spouse or mother. It feels like we should only have one priority in life and if we choose to have a family, our leading identity is chosen for us: a mother. This mindset is evident in the phrase “working mother,” used excessively today. Have you heard a colleague being described as a “working father”? I haven’t. For men, their identity at work is their occupation. These titles influence how we see each other in the workplace. Stage Two: if she successfully bulldozes past the first stage, she may find herself in a sort of exile for not following the rules of Stage One. As her success in the workplace increases, so does her unlikability1. She is often criticized by others as too ambitious and is ostracized by both genders, harsher by fellow females. Today, based merely on the demographic data at hand, a woman who is committed to her career and to achieving professional success should not be viewed as atypical. We all work hard for our accomplishments. We all grow through our challenges and deserve the right to be proud coming out on the other end.

A second script is often placed on the new mother. If she wants a family, she is expected to take on more home-based responsibilities than her partner. The most common pattern that I see is that it becomes difficult to balance both the strenuous demands of being an architect and fulfilling a desire to have a family. I’ve watched many of my female peers start a family and, just as they are gaining more responsibility at work, decide to quit their jobs to stay home while their partners continue to work their ‘full-time’ job. Unequal pay paired with high child-care costs often factors into these decisions, as does society’s negative reaction to a man who might choose to stay at home with the kids or a woman who is seen as choosing her career over her family. What if we stopped expecting women to raise our families and instead believed that we deserve, and can continue to have, a prominent career just like our working fathers have had? I believe women cut themselves short at work and men fail to step up at home when we accept a standard script society has imposed on each of us. Frankly, we shouldn’t follow a script someone else wrote for us and most certainly shouldn’t expect anyone else to. We deserve the career we have dreamed of.

Authenticity over expectation

So often, women hear advice like “don’t be emotional at work” or read articles about “thinking like a man” directed towards women who want to succeed in a room full of men. Those strategies don’t hold an ounce of sustainability. They are statements that mute individuality for the sake of conformity. Women do think differently; not better, not worse, differently. We were raised with different expectations and experiences. The best way to highlight our capabilities is to own the differences. We need to be our whole, honest selves. We need to establish connection and supportive relationships with our partners, in and out of the office, no matter the gender (or age, or race, etc.). I’ve accepted that I may be more sensitive at work than the man sitting next to me. I know the way I see the world is usually more intimately aware, emotionally responsive, and critically analyzed through a lens that is unique to my experiences and interpretation. I encourage everyone to identify their unique strengths and build connecting relationships with people who have complimentary skill sets to you. Build a dream team around you at every level of your career. Teamwork, and an ability to make progress with people, moves the needle.

We can’t win with a losing attitude

The argument of equity falls flat if anyone expects opportunity simply because of their gender. All women lose if any one of us expects an invitation short of earning it. The solution is for us to better communicate our value and strengths in a way that is understood by our teammates, our bosses, and our clients. Our creative ideas, and how we convey them, might be different than how some are used to hearing these things. That’s an advantage! Be the new voice. Set a different creative tone; after all, that’s what creativity is about.

Anyone that is going to be successful in their career needs to embody enduring confidence, have an ability to take risks and be strong in powerful ‘rooms.’ The biggest lesson I’ve learned so far in my career is that strength cannot exist without vulnerability. I think this point is one of the biggest misconceptions in the workplace today. Many people stereotype men as insensitive or invulnerable (another script), but I believe that’s a false interpretation. I think men have mastered the ability to be vulnerable and have faith in themselves that they will persevere. Women have been proven to fear consequences more greatly2, and nowhere is that more evident than in a creative dialog. Being vulnerable to sit at the table for the first time, asking for more responsibility when parts of it feel uncomfortable, or speaking up about creative direction when you disagree, allows others to see who you are, and it is then that your potential becomes visible to them. Personal connection, creating trustful relationships and mastering mentorship is a place I see women excelling. It is also the main reason we can’t draw a line between men and women. We need men to understand how we work, that support what we need, and to see the positive impacts we bring to our projects. Women can bring a new level of awareness and consciousness to our workplaces, and we will all be better leaders because of it.

Most mentoring relationships are successful when committed by both parties because they are enjoyable just as much as they are challenging. The #MeToo movement is important and valid. Its call to awareness needed to happen. But it is important for all of us to separate #MeToo from #TimesUp. In many conversations I’ve had about #MeToo with men, their reaction is fearful, even after they’ve done nothing wrong. The truth is, most of you guys are pretty damn great! Its important to acknowledge your important position to positively impact our careers. I fear the movement is causing some men to pass on mentorship or collaboration opportunities with women out of fear. But we need you. Architecture is historically an apprentice profession and we need continued mentorship, from all directions, in order for us to learn, grow, be inspired and contribute. The social assumption that a man and a woman out together “must be a date” needs to fall away. We can’t afford to not have the drink. We can’t afford to miss the opportunity to connect and grow through this kind of one on one coaching. Social connection, trust and feedback are critical to understanding firm culture, direction and opportunity. They happen in small groups in spontaneous conversations. We need to be at the table3.

My challenge to our industry is to stop demanding equality based on demographic statistics, nor should we expect it to balance itself passively. Changing the makeup of leadership positions in our industry requires an active effort for all of us, with a focus on the betterment of our communities. Through evaluation of our workplaces and a better understanding of each other we will be able to create lasting change.

Continued reading 

I seek stories that relate to my experience that help me better understand the world and my place in it. As I learn and grow, my opinion of this topic has changed (and will continue to) in a healthy way. I’ve included links to some of my favorite references that relate to this topic below. Happy learning!

  • Lean In, Women, Work and the Will to Lead, Sheryl Sandberg (2013)
  • Weekly Gender Letter Newsletter from NY Times. Subscribe:
  • Girl Uninterrupted Project – conversations with Architects: com/conversations/
  • Find Podcasts or interviews with Trevor Noah. He uses humility and honesty to discuss diversity in a humorous way. Listening to him and learning from him can lead us in a direction towards having difficult conversations with each other.

About the Author

Ali saw herself as an architect long before she saw herself as a wife or a mother. She can’t imagine being the person she is today without the passion that exists to be all of them at once. She encourages young architects to find their passion and strive for it fully. Today, Ali is an architect at Shears Adkins Rockmore. Her husband Matt, also an architect, is completely and enthusiastically supportive of her career, as is she equally supportive of his. Their daughter Caden loves “building [block] cities” and is showing a dominant inclusion of large cantilevers in her work. On her best days, Ali is unapologetically herself.


  1. Chapter 11, Working Together Toward Equality, Page 159, Lean In, Women, Work and the Will to Lead, Sheryl Sandberg (2013)
  2. “Risk: Males vs Females”, Science In Our World, Penn State University (Fall 2015),
  3. “What Most People Get Wrong About Men and Women” Harvard Business Review (May-June 2018),