Perspectives 09.05.2019

Do Not Follow the Yellow Brick Road

By Dahmahlee Lawrence

Perspectives from the .4 percent

As a woman of color dedicated to pursuing a technical career in architecture, the path is not clearly defined, if one even exists. Out of 115,000 licensed architects in the U.S. only 464 are Black women (roughly 0.4 percent) spread out over the various practice areas within the profession. There is not much of a blueprint to follow in this case.

By the time I was hired by Perkins&Will this past February, I had carved and successfully navigated my own winding path–one that was fueled by a steadfast adherence to my career goals, even if that meant changing jobs frequently to get closer to what I wanted. From the obstacles I faced, and lessons learned along the way, I have gained valuable insight into how our peers in the building and construction industries can better support women of color in technical careers.

My pre-school spring fashion show....I still wear the same look on my face when I am on site and things do not match the drawings and details.

My penchant for deviating from what I was “supposed” to do started in childhood. Although they might disagree now, I believe my nonconformity was quietly (and sometimes, not-so-quietly) encouraged by my parents, teachers, and friends, setting the stage for what was to come.

For the first three years of high school I took a technical drawing class in which I was the only female. At the time it did not matter much because I was more focused on my work, but the imbalance was hard to ignore. When I was hired at an architecture firm the summer before college, I realized that there were no visible, female architects (let alone architects of color!).  These experiences were a pattern that repeated through internships and part-time roles during my undergraduate education and beyond.

I was fortunate to have professors at New Jersey Institute of Technology who encouraged me to deviate from what would be prescribed to me, to advocate for myself, and carve my own path–while still retaining what I valued most in architecture.  I gravitated to the technical aspects of the work, thrived on problem-solving, and loved being on-site for projects.

Once I entered the workforce and expressed my eagerness to assume a technical role, the bumps along the path started to look more like boulders.

In interviews I was often pushed towards interiors when I explicitly stated that I desired to be taught how to enclose buildings and work on exteriors from the foundation to the roof.  Once in a position, I was often told I was impatient and needed to “work my way up,” while others at my same level were given tutelage and mentorship. At times when I excelled in my roles, my abilities were questioned and even suppressed. I quickly realized that if I was going to have the career I envisioned, I would have to work hard and do something different from the traditional or expected.


Summer in graduate school.

I learned to write specs, door schedules, detailing, and more.  I volunteered for the projects no one else wanted to work on and learned how to make them successful, not only in execution but also for the user.  I took what I learned and knitted it all together to become an architect that could do both fit-out and base building. I made it a point to absorb as much as possible, and continually refine my skills.

I aligned myself with mentors who would teach me, advocate for me, and accept that I did not want a fixed role, but could be an architect who loves watching grade beams get poured, seeing windows installed, and has management experience. I aligned myself with those who could accept that it is possible for a young woman, who is a minority in every sense of the word, to create her own path.

It is essential that not only young people, but also our peers in the building and construction industry see women of color leading the technical aspects of design and construction. Firms need to understand that leading the technical aspects of a job means more than drawing, becoming an expert in Revit, or turning over CD’s quickly. Fully supporting the interests of women of color in the technical design means encouraging them to hone their skills in the expertise of building enclosure, promoting them to speak and teach at industry events, and giving them access to tools to grow, learn, and teach. It also means pushing them to managerial positions in these types of roles and accepting their viewpoints that, in turn, help to create a path someone else might be able to follow. Taken altogether, these efforts are impactful because they do not simply place women of color in these roles to check a box then mute their voices, growth and skill sets.

It is essential that not only young people, but also our peers in the building and construction industry see women of color leading the technical aspects of design and construction.

If I could offer lessons learned during my continuing journey to other women architects of color, and to anyone taking the path less (or never) traveled, they would be the following:

  • Surround yourself with a support system both in and outside the industry, that know you well enough to provide you with constructive criticism.
  • Align yourself with an employer who shares your values and ethics around what architecture should be and who it should serve.
  • Adversity makes you stronger, but it is pointless to stay in positions that turn to suffering and suppress your personal growth.
  • It is important to advocate for yourself and others. If you only advocate for those similar to you, it perpetuates the same issues the industry is trying to eliminate now.
  • Do not accept the limitations others place upon you. Their limited thinking should not hinder your growth.

Last, never apologize for your background, your journey or your story. It shapes who you are professionally as much as it does personally.

What I have found at Perkins&Will is a firm that sees me as a person who does things her way, but also has more to learn and wants to be taught. Providing me the opportunity no firm has ever allowed, Perkins&Will has enthusiastically helped me to continue down my path, refining and reshaping as I go. I built a solid foundation, but it is refreshing to know that I am working at a firm that respects the very crooked path I cobbled together and is willing to help me thrive.

Dahmahlee will share more of her experience as storyteller at at AIA’s 2019 Women’s Leadership Summit: Reframe, Rethink, Refresh on September 12 – 14.  Register here.