Equity is Action

by | June 8, 2017 8 Ideas

Suzanne Blair and I recently attended the biennial AIA Vision Future Symposium on The Value Proposition for Equity and ended the week on a high note. Not only was the sun out (finally!); not only did we spend the day with some talented Portland business women; but we were re-inspired and challenged to improve ourselves, our firm and our community.

Re-fueling the fire is a good thing – we can always do better and do more.

At SERA, as with many other architectural firms, the commitment to improve the built environment goes much deeper than what we design. Our values propel us to be volunteers, participants and mentors in our work and in our communities.

We envision ourselves as representing everyone, but we are not reflective of everyone – so we must do better. Despite our good intentions, even though we may be reaching out, or have a program in place, it does not mean it is working.

Our profession has a strong ‘apprentice’ mentality that does not typically lend itself to inclusiveness or alternative paths. And like most other professions, mentorship is key to an individual’s success. If you don’t see yourself in a position, or a way to achieve it, you are probably not going to start or stay in the profession.  To create the diverse and successful architecture firms of the future we then must pro-actively include and invite diversity to the design and decision table and not be so narrow minded as to think we can represent it ourselves.

The symposium we attended was mainly focused on women in architecture and data collected by the San Francisco AIA Equity by Design (EQxD) committee (formerly known as the Missing 32% Project), which sheds light on the obstacles that women face in the profession. The myth that we leave the profession because we give birth has been debunked finally. The data shows that most office policies are not supportive of mothers, and that we choose to leave the profession to do something else in the design realm that better supports both roles.

We ended the day with a presentation by Denise Harrington, who drove the point that equity is action, and if we want to provide opportunities for everyone it will take effort – real effort – within the profession to make this happen.

So I’m asking, SERA: what is one action we can take this year to help develop, retain and promote the talented women in this office?



  1. Becca Dobosh says |

    Lovely blog post Becky, very timely and thoughtful.

    I think one action that SERA could take would be to introduce the idea of the sabbatical (paid / or partially paid) for employees that have been at SERA a long time. Several other firms in town have a policy and it encourages exploration of other passions or family time and while not targeted at women specifically I think would benefit the firm as a whole because it is acknowledging there are other things / interests / passions / ways of living in the world that people need time to explore. Thanks again for your post!

    • Becky Epstein says |

      Thanks Becca! I like that idea, thanks for posting. I’ve been getting other good ideas from staff and I’m going to schedule a happy hour for week after next to discuss them and get a priority list going.

  2. Fearn Smith says |

    I’m so glad you attended this symposium!

    My thoughts about SERA so far in regards to this issue… I would like to see 50% women represented in upper management, especially as principals. I believe SERA is better than most architecture firms at seeking gender balance, but there may be room for improvement in this area? What do you think is holding women back from these positions?

    Thank you for posting this and providing an opportunity for dialogue!

    • Becky Epstein says |

      Hi Fearn thanks for your reply! I’m actually quite proud of where SERA is in relation to women in upper management too-we have women directors for Operations, Marketing, IT, and Contracts & Administration; then we have myself, Suzanne, Natasha and Lisa in the principal group. In the past, we have had a continuous presence of women in the principal group. Are we at 50% in the principal group? -not yet, but I have no doubt that it can happen because the door is open and the ceiling is open to structure (so speak). Which brings me to your second question-what do I think is holding women back from these positions. To be honest, I think part of it is ourselves. We need to envision ourselves there, Use our voice, raise our hands, ask for or proactively find leadership opportunities, and ask for mentorship from the C-suite to help us get there. I’m looking forward to continuing this conversation.

  3. Patrick Sullivan says |

    I don’t know if this truly helps promote women as much as promoting a healthy culture, but one thing that might be interesting would be an all staff session on implicit or subconscious bias. Kind of like the strengths finder exercise, it would be revealing and beneficial both professionally and personally.

    We may not want to make signs telling everyone what our Top 5 Bias’ are 🙂 But a seminar on how they work, on how they might manifest in our day-to-day interactions with co-workers, how they affect the design process would be interesting. The goal being that in promoting self-awareness and cultural tendencies we remove impediments to the promotion and retention of women in our office(s).

  4. Becky Epstein says |

    Great comment Patrick! Thank you for posting. I agree that promoting a healthy culture is key for all staff, not just women. Suzanne and I came out of the symposium with bias training as the top take-away. I hope you come to the planning meeting and speak to the importance of this as well.

  5. Rebecca Grace says |

    I finally took a moment to read this and I’m so glad I did! Thank you for writing this, Becky. When I joined SERA, after working at two other large firms, one of my first impressions was how many women there were (and our numbers have nearly tripled since then). I felt empowered and comforted simply by the presence of so many women.

    I agree with all the comments so far. As Becca points out, it’s essential that the firm respects work-life balance, regardless of family, academic, or other obligations. I am a huge proponent of flexible schedules, regardless of what your “other obligations” may be. A sabbatical program would be HUGE in influencing SERA culture.

    As Fearn says, overall ratios are one thing, but women in leadership is essential. I’ve been conflicted throughout my career about how active I am on the gender issue. I never want to feel like I am where I am because I’m a woman and someone felt the need to balance the scale. And yet, when I’ve been in the room and the scale is balanced, I can feel it. The tone changes. The ability to collaborate changes. Expectations feel clearer. Voices are heard. These are the qualities I want well represented in leadership.

    And to Patrick’s point, implicit bias affects all of us in so many ways! I was just thinking about this today (only related to race)! A session on implicit bias would be so incredibly insightful. It’s becoming increasingly clear that addressing our awareness of gender, race, and sexuality is imperative to maintaining a welcoming and empowering work environment.

    If we take any of the above actions this year, I would be even more proud to be part of SERA than I am today. I’m definitely looking forward to continuing this conversation. Thanks for kicking it off Becky!

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