When Women Lead, Design Thrives

In the spring of 2020, in response to a rapidly changing world, IIDA developed a weekly series of conversations focused on the impact of sudden change on the design community, and in turn, design’s role in impacting our collective futures.

The Collective D(esign) webinar series saw the curating of dialogues centering on topics ranging from healthcare, hospitality, and workplace design to education, product design, sustainability, and more. As part of IIDA’s 2020 NeoConnect programming, IIDA presented Collective D(esign): Women Lead Design to center the voices of women on the importance of ensuring diversity and equity in the future of design. With an eye on leadership and how women specifically lead, the panel addressed the importance of being able to see yourself reflected in your leaders and managers.

The discussion was hosted by IIDA CEO and Executive Vice President Cheryl S. Durst, Hon. FIIDA, and featured panelists Robin Klehr Avia, FIIDA, regional managing principal at Gensler from the IIDA New York Chapter; Gabrielle Bullock, FAIA, IIDA, principal and director of global diversity at Perkins and Will from the IIDA Southern California Chapter; Sarah Kuchar, IIDA, creative director of Sarah Kuchar Studio from the IIDA Illinois Chapter; and Angie Lee, AIA, IIDA, partner and design director of interiors at FXCollaborative from IIDA’s New York Chapter. 

Although the movement for gender-based equality in the workplace is decades-old, the recent “Me Too” movement brought to the forefront the dangers that a homogeneous workplace culture can produce, particularly when leadership roles lack diversity in gender. As society faces current challenges—an ongoing global health pandemic, and a reckoning for an urgent need for racial justice—it’s imperative to act from an intersectional lens and strive to promote leadership and equity across demographics including race, sexual orientation, age, and socio-economic backgrounds as well as career experience. 

“I believe that this is an opportunity for us to dismantle the systematic racism that exists, and address and reset our profession to truly, with eyes wide open, embrace, celebrate, and apply unique perspectives through an inclusive and just lens,” says Gabrielle Bullock. She notes that although this movement and awareness may be new to some, it has been the sustained reality for others. By encouraging change in our industry, we can better support leadership from different demographics, and more successfully design with an informed vision for a more diverse and inclusive use of interiors.

“We cannot deny the power of representation—seeing someone who looks like you, seeing them in a critical position of leadership is so  important.”

— Cheryl Durst

One of the most effective ways to elicit real change is through recognizing and honoring the differences that exist. Race, ethnicity, gender identity, orientation, and socioeconomic background all contribute significantly to the ways individuals relate to the world around them. To navigate a world, and especially a workplace environment and culture, that doesn’t take these differences into account can be difficult and create roadblocks to focusing on the work.

“Being brought up in a male-dominated profession, culture, and society, the advice that I was given and that I applied to myself would not work out most of the time.” Angie Lee explains, “I had to try everything until I found what worked for me. And it was a little challenging because it took a little longer to find my voice, find my footing.” She notes that although she didn’t always have a lot of women to lean on, she did have male figures that believed in her and pushed her to develop skills and get out of her comfort zone, recognizing that “it was always a model of leadership that didn’t fit me.”

“Give opportunity, and give it young. You might think that you’re [giving opportunity] because it’s a woman more often than you should, but I guarantee you’re probably just not doing it enough.”

— Sarah Kuchar

This process of conforming to a workforce not built for you nor led by those like you creates an added burden for young professionals. Instead of spending time developing and innovating the industry, they can spend years just learning how to navigate these settings. The experience of learning from a leader that you see yourself in and one who knows how to move through the world from a similar background is invaluable and important to remember when you move into a leadership role.

When Robin Klehr Avia was a young designer interviewing at architectural firms, she noted that she only had one interview in which she was interviewed by a woman. “Margo Walsh affirmed for me that it was possible for a woman to be recognized and rewarded. There was somebody in my image across the table and she was in charge and the boss and that had an incredible effect on me.”

Avia differentiates this experience from traditional mentorship, recognizing that although Graham was indeed a mentor, she was more importantly a sponsor. While you learn a lot about the industry and your profession through mentorship, you still need someone to put you in the room. “it’s about a sponsor opening doors for us—it’s about someone putting us in a place where we can succeed. I think that that is really what we need to be for other women. We need to be their sponsors.”

“I see it as a responsibility and honor to be able to mentor, sponsor, share, you know to anybody who needs it and wants it.”

— Gabrielle Bullock

Mentorship is an invaluable part of shaping yourself as a professional. But without a sponsor, you don’t always have access to the opportunities that grow your career. “I was given many opportunities to fail,” explains Lee. She notes that as she looks back she can now see that many of the men she considered mentors were actually sponsors that gave her opportunities to grow. “I didn’t meet my mentors until I joined organizations like IIDA.”

Bullock notes that she recognizes the importance in her visibility and success. “I am a role model to some. An example of what you could be, how far you could go. As a black woman in this industry, I think of it as an honor to provide this for others.”

“I’ve been at this for 44 years. I think the best part is that I can look back and see the structure that others are building upon the foundation.”

 — Robin Klehr Avia

For some designers, it’s not enough to work within the current systems and processes. Sarah Kucher started her own business after working in larger firms and finds that being a woman-owned business leader and designer has given her the opportunity to provide the guidance and help that she had received in her career. She notes that “there is a strong movement of supporting women-owned businesses,” and credits her visibility with forming an alliance within the Chicago creative community. “I’ve connected with several female entrepreneurs in the city and creative fields we meet quarterly and we help each other.”

Leading as a woman is inherently different, and Kucher recognizes that “Leadership is about organizing people and getting people in a big group to have and feel purpose.” She reflects that being a successful leader isn’t about being the most technically skilled but rather effectively motivating and creating a collaborative space.

“How we came up through the ranks, what we want to change going forward, and how to help us dream big enough. That’s what I lost along the way trying on these models of leadership that never jogged well.”

— Angie Lee

Bullock recognizes that “there is a difference between management and leadership,” and “navigating that line in figuring out when to be one or the other has been very interesting.” 

Leadership can look many different ways, but the most rewarding aspect of leading can be observing the changes that you have actively made, and those that your visibility creates. Being that beacon for younger designers can provide the freedom to carve out their space in the industry and courage to take more risks.

“I can see women that I’ve sponsored making the world a better place; I talk to a lot of young people I work with about placing value on significance over success,” Bullock reflects. “I think it’s important in that significance isn’t like a one-off—it’s not about what you did last week or last month but it’s really about what you do over the course of many years it’s your life’s work.”

Watch the full conversation that further explores leadership and diversity in design, examining race and gender, while looking forward to the future, finding optimism during a tenuous time.

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