Supporting Women in Architecture: What We Do Differently At Letter Four

A Brief History of Women in Architecture

To understand where we are now, it’s helpful to know where we’ve been.

When architecture became a formalized profession in the 1850s, women were excluded. Though a few universities admitted women to architectural programs starting in the late 1800s, it wasn’t until a century later, in 1972, that Congress passed Title IX — an education amendment that prevented universities from discriminating against applicants based on sex.

The doors opened to women in the field, yet progress was very slow.

A Current Overview of Women in Architecture

A lot has changed since the 1970s, but there is still a long way to go to have equity in the field.

While nearly 50% of women attend architecture programs, only 23% of registered architects are women. It’s good to note that this is not a significant increase from 21% in 2010 (Zippia). What explains this huge gap between female students and licensed female architects working in the field?

There are many factors to consider, but a study done by the ACSA and AIA from 2016 to 2018 uncovered that hurdles to work-life balance, unequal pay, and a glass ceiling in job opportunities are reasons why women leave the profession (ACSA).

This means women are not becoming registered, reaching upper management positions, becoming partners, or owning firms at the same rate or in the same proportion as men.

Also, when considering architecture with other parallel professions like law or medicine, the numbers are very different. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that 36% of lawyers are women, while 41% of physicians and surgeons are women. So women are not advancing in architecture at the same rate as other types of peer professions (ACSA).

How Letter Four Is Different

Though a lot is needed across the board to create more equity in the industry, Letter Four has made it a priority to support women in architecture. But what goes hand in hand with that mission is creating and nurturing a great company culture based on respect, understanding, and collaboration.

All Female Architecture Team

Letter Four operates a little differently from the average architectural firm. This starts from the top down. The co-owner and principal licensed architect of the firm is Lauren Adams. She earned her architecture degree from Cornell University and has AIA and NCARB credentials with over 20 years of experience in the field. She has made supporting other women in architecture a priority throughout her career.

Lauren describes the challenges she faced working in the industry before starting her own firm:

“I felt that I needed to prove myself on a job site, especially on larger commercial projects. I would be the only woman there and would be looked up and down rather than in the eye. I had to take charge and show that I’m educated, experienced, familiar with the project, and deserving of equal respect.”

Being treated with equal respect seems like it should just be a given, especially as an experienced, licensed, and qualified professional. Unfortunately, that’s not the case if you’re the only woman in the room in a male-dominated industry.

When Lauren and Jeremy partnered to start Letter Four in 2010, they knew they wanted to do things differently. Lauren speaks to how her past experiences impacted this decision:

“I saw that a lot of women in the field left because they weren’t treated well or weren’t able to balance work and life as they started families. I was actually pregnant with my son when I went out on my own and left a very reputable international firm. It was a stressful time, but I managed to take on projects and balance work and family needs with the help of family and friends.”

As a company, Letter Four prioritizes supporting women in architecture with an all-female architectural team. Tenured team members include Lauren as the Principal Architect, Nicole Sugihara as the Architecture Project Manager, and Jessica Tien as the Senior Job Captain.

Like Lauren, Nicole speaks to the challenges of working in a primarily male industry, despite having a degree in architecture from Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, and being a licensed architect with nearly 10 years of experience:

“The hardest part is the underlying ‘need’ to prove yourself. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve been speaking with someone on a construction site who feels the need to dumb down a question because they assume that I do not know what they are talking about.”

Also with a decade of experience under her belt and a degree in architecture from the University of Southern California, Jessica adds to Nicole’s statement:

“I agree! Or worse… to not even be included in the conversation at all when you’re standing right there, even though you hold the answers. It’s difficult to command respect as a petite Asian woman with a young face.”

But neither of them experiences this attitude while working at Letter Four where mutual respect is a priority. “It’s pretty cool being a team of predominantly female professionals.” Nicole explains, “I never feel belittled or talked down to. We support each other in our professional endeavors and it’s a good positive platform to grow.”

At Letter Four it’s not your gender that defines your role, rather it’s your skills and experience that are most important. “Our design decisions and involvement during construction have a direct impact on our projects.” Jessica explains that this level of contribution gives her “a sense of importance and responsibility that is powerful in an industry where women can easily be overshadowed.”

She goes on to say, “It’s nice to be able to work in an environment where being a woman is not always at the forefront of my mind.” While at some other firms you may be constantly reminded that you’re a woman and have to work twice as hard to secure your place in the industry, that is not the case at Letter Four.

Supportive Company Culture

Both Lauren and Jeremy have worked hard to create a culture that is supportive. This includes promoting a healthy work/life balance and offering fair pay, benefits, and flexible schedules. While providing high-quality work and services to clients is a top priority, it is never done at the expense of the team’s mental and physical health. A core belief at the company is that in order to provide great work, you have to start with taking care of your employees.

Lauren explains this was an important aspect from the beginning:

“Working for various firms over the years, I learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t with respect to firm culture, treatment of staff, work-life balance, etc. I wanted to take all of the things I appreciated at each firm to provide a great working environment, one that focuses on learning, growth, mutual support, responsibility, transparency, and of course fun.”

This culture is reflected in the company mission and values, and in day-to-day business practices. Where staff well-being and job satisfaction are vital to the company.

Nicole explains that by joining Letter Four right out of college she was used to the high-stress, overwhelming atmosphere of her architecture program and that on her first day she noticed the culture at Letter Four was very different:

“I’ve always felt the importance of a true work/life balance…Of course, we work hard as passionate professionals, but the whole team consists of down-to-earth human beings who value our mental and physical health, family, friends, travel, and hobbies in addition to architecture and construction.”

This level of support goes beyond the day-to-day and focuses on furthering career development. Working at Letter Four you’re not limited to a narrow role, but growth is supported and encouraged. From licensure, and continuing education, to taking on additional responsibilities to widen your experiences and increase confidence.

“I love having the opportunity to work on EVERY part of the whole when it comes to designing and building a project,” Nicole says. “Each project is your baby. You tend to it and watch it grow into something great.”

Jessica describes both the flexible and pragmatic way the company is run along with the empowerment given to staff as key components of the company’s success:

“Letter Four adapts in a way that’s refreshing for any workplace. I love that Lauren and Jeremy are always open-minded about how we do business and I feel this is precisely why we have flourished through the pandemic. We’re given enough autonomy and flexibility to really bring out the best of the team. The amount of trust we have cannot be taken for granted.”

At Letter Four, we’re proud to have an all-female architecture team in an industry where women are under-represented. We have strived to create a company culture where as an employee you’re not just a cog in the machine, but your experiences and perspective are valued. Where you can take ownership and be proud of your contribution to our projects. Where opportunities for growth are available, supported, and encouraged.

Are you in the design-build industry and looking to join an amazing, women-led team? Or do you need help designing and executing your building project? Letter Four can help! Get in touch to discuss.

Social Media Caption:

Want to work with an amazing woman-led architecture team? Or interested in learning more about the people behind Letter Four? At Letter Four we’re proud to have an all-female architecture team in a traditionally male-dominated industry. On the blog today, we’re taking a look at how under-represented women are in architecture today and are diving into how Letter Four is doing its part. As a company, we not only support women in the field, but foster a culture that’s based on collaboration, respect, and equity. Want to hear more from the women who make up the Letter Four architecture team? Click the link below for the full article.

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