“Oh…I guess girls are going into architecture now.”
In the 1970s, this was the type of pronouncement one might hear as a female high school student trying to ask a professional architect about his job. And by “one might,” I mean it was Jane Frederick’s real life. The architect in question was likely not trying to be rude—female architects were still a fairly new concept at the time. Nowadays, women earn about 42 percent of architecture degrees in the United States, but they only hold about 25 percent of industry jobs. So: progress, but not enough.
Becoming an architect is no small feat—it usually takes about eight years of post-graduate training to complete 5,600 internship hours and seven exams—but you don’t hear encouragement toward the field as often as you do other go-to prestige categories like law and medicine. So, what is it really like to be a female architect today? For this piece, I spoke to major success cases: first, Jane Frederick, the principal architect at Frederick + Frederick, a small, well-established South Carolina firm that specializes in custom residences for hot, humid climates. She is a Fellow in the Aspen Global Leadership Network and currently serves on the American Institute of Architects Board as one of three at-large directors.
Then we have Courtney Casburn-Brett, the youngest entrepreneur-architect in the United States. Again, in an industry with an exceptionally long path to licensure, a 40-year-old professional is considered a “young architect.” Casburn-Brett started college at 14, was working for one of the top firms in the world at 20, and started her own firm when she was just 24.
The Early Years: “I’m lucky I stuck with it.”
It is perhaps no surprise that Casburn-Brett’s fast-track to architecture began at an early age. “We moved around a lot when I was young, and I was fascinated by how different all the houses we lived in and all the schools I went to were,” she says. “And I loved to draw. I would draw these buildings that I was experiencing depending on where we were.” For her 11th birthday, Casburn-Brett’s parents gave her graph paper and an architect’s drawing tools, including a scale and tracing triangles, and explained to her that this interest of hers could actually be a job one day. “From that point on, I knew that’s what I wanted to do,” she says.
With an interior designer mother and an engineer father, architecture was a perfect synthesis for Frederick in more ways than one. “I was strong in math and really enjoyed art, and I felt like it was a good mix of the two,” she says. But female architects were few and far between at that time. Starting college at Auburn in 1978, there were only six women in Frederick’s architecture class of 50 people, and she did not have a single female professor.
Fast forward to 2004, when Casburn-Brett started at Auburn, and the class gender gap had thankfully closed a bit. She entered the first architecture class at Auburn that was half women, half men. Since then, however, “I’ve found that the higher I’ve climbed, the fewer women I’m around,” she says.
Climbing the Ladder: “I just didn’t fit in at all.”
In Casburn-Brett’s first job at SOM, the legendary firm behind projects like the Freedom Tower and the Sears Tower, she was lucky to find a female role model in her immediate team manager. “She was this really powerful, go-getter woman,” she says. “I was able to see the way that she interacted both with her peers and the next tier above her.”
Graduating in 1982 during the recession, Frederick was not so lucky. She started out working at a small firm in Washington D.C. who hired architects not as employees but as independent contractors. Frederick found herself babysitting for one of her co-worker’s kids to try to make ends meet. At her next job, Frederick was happy to discover her first female co-worker, but her boss ran into a cash flow problem yet again. “Then I worked in another job where I was not only the only woman but the youngest employee,” says Frederick. “That was the most challenging job I ever had. It wasn’t like they were unkind or anything, I just didn’t fit in at all.”
Back at SOM, Casburn-Brett started noticing that there really is a difference in how people interact with men and women in the industry. She says: “One of my favorite stories is about one of the leaders in my studio, an older gentleman who had been practicing hospital architecture for almost 50 years. He had this habit of micromanaging everything that I did. I had been out of school for a year and I wasn’t a licensed architect, so it made sense that he would want to keep an eye on his younger employees. But everything that I did, he would follow up my email with additional information or constantly insert himself, even when I was doing my job well. It drove me crazy because he didn’t do it to one of my male colleagues on the team.”
Instead of writing it off as something she would “just have to deal with,” Casburn-Brett took action. “I marched upstairs to his office and I told him that what he was doing, whether or not he was aware of it, was undermining my ability to do my job well. I said that if he would let me just do my job, I would take responsibility for any mistakes I made and we could re-visit the conversation, but if I didn’t make a mistake, it would save him a lot of time and effort,” she says. After that conversation, Casburn-Brett says he became her greatest mentor: “At that point, I don’t think he really knew the way that his behavior and training were coming across. To his credit, as soon as I brought it to his attention, he immediately changed the way that he interacted with me and treated me on the team. I learned that sometimes you just need to be a little more assertive.”
Of course, being an assertive woman also puts you on a tightrope of sorts. In her next job at a small development company in the South, Casburn-Brett was once told by a male colleague that her attitude was “very I-am-woman-hear-me-roar.” She remembers thinking, “Wow, that is an extremely inappropriate and a horrible thing to say,” but also taking it as a lesson on how to interact with different types of people. She explains: “What was a direct, business-oriented, confident approach to my work in the setting of New York wasn’t translating the same way here. My confidence level didn’t change, my competence level didn’t change, but the way I was being perceived did. I don’t want to suggest that you should necessarily change your behavior based on the people around you, but you do have to have an awareness about the best way to interact with certain people. So now that I’m a business owner and I interact with so many different types of clients and vendors, I find myself trying to actively at least show the warmer side of my personality if I’m being that direct all the time.”
Becoming Your Own Boss: “You get more control that way, but it’s tough.”
Without any female mentors in architecture—let alone those who had started their own firms—Frederick just became one herself. “I was 26 when I got my license, and six months pregnant when I passed my test,” she says. “And I was like, ‘I need to pass this test because once I have a baby I’m not going to be able to,’ which is what a lot of young women find. It’s very difficult to do with a family because you need that time to study.” She passed. And when her oldest daughter was born, Frederick set out on her own, doing freelance work from home that amounted to about six hours a day. A few years later she moved to South Carolina and opened Frederick + Frederick alongside her husband—a firm that has been going strong for almost 30 years.
Both Frederick and Casburn-Brett appreciate the freedom they have found by starting their own firms, though the challenges are many. “You get more control that way, but it’s tough,” Frederick says. “You have to bring the work in, and if there’s a recession you have to figure out how to make it through, but if that’s your temperament, it’s a really good route.” She acknowledged that at major firms you’ll have the opportunity to work on bigger projects, but that can be difficult as well. “One thing I’ve heard from other women is that in large firms they sometimes tend to get pigeon-holed doing interior architecture instead of doing say, big tall buildings,” Frederick says.
As she approaches the four-year mark of her company, Casburn-Brett is grateful that her client relations have been overwhelmingly positive. “I’ve definitely been fortunate that my story has brought to me the types of clients that I really want to work with,” Casburn-Brett says. “Being a woman is a part of that story, but it has more to do with being tenacious and young and going after something that other people may not have had the gumption to go after, like starting a business and getting a license at this stage in my career.”
What No One Tells You: “I have learned to talk hunting and fishing and SEC football.”
Casburn-Brett says the most important thing she’s learned is to come to the table prepared. “I want to make sure that I’m the person at the table with the answers, because I don’t want to give anyone any reason to doubt me and think that it has something to do with my gender,” she says.
And as Frederick has learned in her 35 years in the industry, having street smarts is just as essential. “One thing that’s really different is doing construction site visits—typically you are dealing with men, so I have learned to talk hunting and fishing and SEC football,” she says. “The other thing that might make a difference is I’m really tall—I’m 5’9—and I think that’s an advantage for me.”
Frederick urges young women to consider something she didn’t have the opportunity to consider when she was applying to architecture school. “Even though most schools now are mostly 50-50 male-female overall, I would check and see how many women there are who are full professors,” she says. “Not that you can’t have a man that is a mentor, but having some women there too is really important.”
Once you graduate, she adds, keep doing that type of research. “When you’re looking for your first job, really look at what the culture is like,” she says. “Make sure that it’s a diverse office, which will have a broader mindset and often have more flexible policies, particularly if you have small children or want to have children. Those types of firms can be large or small.”
As for architecture’s youngest entrepreneur, Casburn-Brett’s best advice is to make like Nike and just do it. “This is exactly what I knew I wanted and I went for it,” she says. “So whenever there were times that I could have given myself an out or it seemed hard or even impossible, there was no, ‘It might be easier to XYZ.’ I’ve never had a plan B. I was going to get into architecture school, I was going to be an architect, I was going to be a small business owner. I didn’t waste any time thinking about whether or not I should try to execute a different plan. I found a way through.”