Women Design Leaders Offer Candid Advice

Women design leaders. From left to right: Carol Loewenson, Vaughn Rinner, and Wendy Moeller

“We’re still fighting for equal pay. And there are a million cracks in the glass ceiling, but we haven’t broken through yet,” argued American Planning Association (APA) President Cynthia Bowen, at a session at APA’s annual conference in New York City, which featured a group of women design leaders with a total of 100 years of experience between them.

Vaughn Rinner, FASLA, ASLA president; Carol Loewenson, partner at Mitchell | Guirgola Architects and former president of AIA NY; and Wendy Moeller, a planner who started her own consultancy and is a board member of APA, talked in very personal terms about their important early influences, their efforts to overcome obstacles and achieve a work/life balance, and how to find “meaningful” professional fulfillment.

Some highlights from their wide-ranging, one-hour conversation:

Loewenson: “After World War II, my grandmother Edith started her own construction business. She wasn’t out there asking for favors, just doing it. I learned from her how to get things built, and that hard work pays off.”

Rinner: Back when I started as a landscape architect (in the 1970s), “I was one of two women at an engineering firm of 1,000. They didn’t like having me there. They didn’t like how I dressed. I was not prepared to be a pioneer. I experienced extreme sexism.”

Loewenson: “It’s not my experience that the architecture world is chauvinistic or male-driven. You need to find a place where you are appreciated. If you find yourself in a male-dominated firm, you can either try to change it or decide that it’s not the right fit. If you have opportunities to prove yourself, then you can take off. But construction — that’s a tough industry.”

Rinner: “It’s very important that we be ourselves and break the stereotypes. We must challenge what is typically male or female behavior. I’ve heard from many people that the worst bosses they’ve ever had were women. This is because women in middle management are put in a position where they must compete with each other. They are set up by men. Collaboration is everything. If we can be ourselves, we can support, not compete with each other.”

Rinner: “In a large group of men and women, men tend to dominate. Women can help other women be heard. Women may raise a great point, but have it co-opted by a man, then people forget where that idea came from. Women don’t get credit and don’t get heard. Through sponsorship and support, women can get heard.”

Loewenson: “It’s important to educate elementary and high school girls to give them confidence. So many amazing women draw the line at public speaking — they can’t get over that fear.”

Moeller: “When speaking in front of crowds, you have to read your audience and adjust your approach. Sometimes I can be very forward and sometimes just be myself. Creating a comprehensive plan for an Amish community, where the audience was all male, took lots of effort. They were very skeptical. But we persuaded them we knew what we are doing.”

Moeller: “When I set out on my own and created my own consultancy, it was frightening. I had to have hard discussions with my husband, who had to learn some ‘women’ work at home. It’s important to be confident about what you want.”

Loewenson: “If you are angry or scared, figure out what you really want. If the clarity of what you want is there, you will be clear-headed.”

Moeller: “Professional mentors in offices and associates are great. We didn’t have those when I was growing up. I seek out women in mid and upper levels as resources. It’s very informal, but there is a support structure.”

Loewenson: “As for work/life balance, everyday is a challenge. Some businesses are high-pressure and you won’t change them. Find a pace you are comfortable with.”

Rinner: “If you are working at a place where you can’t be who you want to be and can’t have a flexible schedule, you don’t want to work there.”

Moeller: “I work for myself. It’s very flexible. My personal support is my family, who are always around. It’s not a good situation without that support structure though.”

Loewenson: “Overcome your fears. Don’t be held back by them. Do it anyway. There is not another option. There will always be more challenges to overcome. Challenges are motivators.”

3 thoughts on “Women Design Leaders Offer Candid Advice

  1. Elouise 08/02/2017 / 10:15 am

    Until men are asked “How do you do it all? How do you balance having a family and a career? “. I’m afraid that us women will be held under the glass ceiling. That’s a general comment for all professions. It’s not just LA.

  2. Sophie Sauvé 08/02/2017 / 10:27 am

    Thank goodness for leaders! Thank you for speaking out and for Jared Green for documenting what seems like a rich talk!

  3. JM 08/02/2017 / 7:54 pm

    I’d like to see more discussion about the wage gap for women of color. A large contributor to the gender wage gap is the secretive nature of salary negotiation. In Linda Babcock’ “Women Don’t Ask,” women are less likely to negotiate their salary and men are more likely to ask for more money. If you don’t know how much other people are earning, how do you know if your salary is competitive?

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