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The role gender plays in the design profession is the proverbial "800-pound gorilla" in the room. Everyone knows it is there, but it is easier to avoid it except when it rears its head. This happened in 2007 when the American Institute of Architects (AIA) bestowed one of its highest honors—the AIA Architecture Firm Award—to Boston-based Leers Weinzapfel Associates. The award “recognizes a practice that consistently has produced distinguished architecture for at least 10 years.” Leers Weinzapfel has been doing that since it started in 1982, but what it has done differently is that it is a women-owned firm. (The current firm structure includes four principals: Andrea Leers, Jane Weinzapfel, Joe Pryse, and Josiah Stevenson.) This was a point made by architect James Stewart Polshek in his recommendation letter: “It would be nice to be gender blind but our social construct is not yet reconfigured to allow that luxury. The fact is that for a woman-owned firm to succeed as spectacularly as Leers Weinzapfel has required persistence, diligence, and inventiveness.” On one hand, while the award to Leers Weinzapfel signifies some progress, at the same time one cannot help but wonder why it has taken until 2007 for a woman-owned firm to receive this recognition.

A YOUNG PROFESSION

As my own career focus has transferred from architecture to lighting, one of the major differences that has struck me is the number of women who hold prominent positions of authority in lighting design and manufacturing. If I were asked to make a list of women practitioners in architecture, it would take a while to come up with a comprehensive list. If I were asked to make the same list for lighting designers, before I can blink I would have a list of more than 30 firm principals. What is it about the lighting profession that has helped women to succeed, while the architectural side of the equation is still unresolved?

It could be argued that in lighting, unlike architecture, women have played a greater role in shaping the profession. Lighting is a relatively young discipline; it really only emerged in the 1960s and 1970s, a time when women were becoming more liberated and fighting not just for greater opportunities, but equal ones. “It might be the simple fact that lighting is newer,” offers lighting designer Melanie Taylor, head of the lighting studio at Seattle-based architecture firm NBBJ. “The [lighting] profession was not so entrenched in a male-dominated era.”

Naomi Miller, principal of Naomi Miller Lighting Design in Troy, New York, concurs: “We are a young profession, and women have been there from the beginning.” In 2008, of the 764 members of the International Association of Lighting Designers (IALD), taking into consideration all categories—fellow, professional, associate, educator, student, and affiliate—312 are women. That's close to 41 percent of the membership. By comparison, 2005 data from the AIA shows that only 12 percent of its members were women.

PROVING GROUND

Young women today have benefitted from the victories of the women's movement. For them, all educational and work opportunities may seem possible. But this was not always the case. For instance, from the 1940s well into 1970s, women who were interested in architecture often were dissuaded from studying the subject and instead encouraged to pursue a profession perceived to be less technical, such as theater or interior design. Many contemporary lighting practitioners point out that lighting offered them the possibility of being able to specialize in a specific area. “It was a way of being able to feel that I was an expert,” Taylor says. Barbara Horton, principal of Horton Lees Brogden Lighting Design in New York City, shares a similar sentiment. “I started as an interior designer, but I wanted to find a specialty. Lighting offered that opportunity.”

Taylor and Horton make an interesting point, illustrating their mutual awareness that a different set of standards applies to women once they do arrive in the workplace: To be taken seriously, women have to prove themselves and their knowledge in a way that is not necessarily required of their male counterparts. Often, at a meeting or on a job site, the lighting designer or architect is the sole woman among a group of men. “There is that extra step,” says Patricia Glasow, principal of San Francisco–based Auerbach Glasow French. “But once you show the construction foreman or the electrical contractor that you know what you are talking about the issue disappears. In a backwards kind of way it actually winds up to your advantage, because in the end they have even more respect for you and take you more seriously because you proved to them you knew exactly what you were talking about.”

As Horton explains, walking into a project meeting to find yourself the only woman in the room, no matter how many years you have been practicing, is always “a big revelation.” Additionally, because architecture, engineering, and construction are still male-dominated fields, the fact that a woman lighting designer can provide focused and detailed information gives her an amount of control in the discussion and project process that she might not have been afforded otherwise.

But it is not just that women have to know it all, they also have to show that they can do it all. “I have this theory that women are better multitaskers,” says Taylor—a speculation that might not be so far off base. As wives and mothers, women juggle work and home life responsibilities. Switching gears at a moment's notice provides a unique ability to assess problems and quickly find solutions, skills well-suited to the practice of design—lighting.

A PIONEER

Because the lighting profession is so young, it is easy to trace its lineage. In the context of this discussion, it should come as no surprise that one of the pioneers of lighting design, and a founding member of the IALD, was a woman—Leslie Wheel. Wheel began her career in theater, noting in a March 2001 interview with Architectural Lighting that “nobody wanted to do the lighting, so I would fill in and do it. I became good at it and slowly, it dawned on me that I had a career.”

Ahead of her time, Wheel sought supplemental training with classes offered by the Illuminating Engineering Society. The seminal moment for her as a designer, which she recounts in the March 2001 interview, was when she saw Richard Kelly's work on the Seagram Building in New York City. That was when she saw “the possibilities of lighting design.”