Translating Ideas Into Action: Takeaways from the 2022 AIA Women’s Leadership Summit

Scholarship recipients Parva Markiw, AIA, Melanie Ngami, Assoc. AIA, Erin Roark, AIA, Esra Abumounshar, Assoc. AIA, and Amanda Bonelli, AIA, gathered at the American Institute of Architects Women’s Leadership Summit (WLS) in San Jose.

2022 marked the inaugural year of the AIA Women’s Leadership Summit (WLS) scholarships funded by AIA Pennsylvania. This year’s five recipients, pictured above, attended the WLS, held in late September in San Jose, and share their fifteen-plus collective takeaways here. 

Leadership is a practice, not a position.

Parva Markiw, AIA

If I had to describe my experience at Women Leadership Summit 2022 in a few words, those words would be inspirational, thought-provoking, and empowering. As a first-time attendee with almost a decade of experience, I found this conference very different from other conferences I have attended. 

I met many inspiring individuals and learned a lot from each of them. The ranging age of attendees, from some who were younger than me to those who had many years under their belt, allowed me to gain more perspective. 

This conference taught me that everyone is a leader and a teacher, regardless of their position. The focus at WLS was on important topics such as activism in architecture (which, in my opinion, is synonymous with Citizen Architect), EDI, and sustainability.

There were many opportunities to network and connect with other attendees, from our first opening reception to the buffet-style breakfast to the dine-around dinners. The setup of the conference allowed me to show up with an open heart and be my true self, and I got the same sense from others; the titles and positions were not the focus of the discussions or the seminars. We were there to listen to the sessions and learn from each other.

Keep sight of your big picture.

The seminar that stood out for me was on the generational wealth gap. Each speaker spoke to their own project with an introduction that provided us some history of where the project was located and how the community was underserved. 

Listening to that seminar reignited the flame inside me, I was reminded why I wanted to become an architect, and although sometimes I get too involved in the trenches to figure out the details, the bigger picture lies in who we are serving. 

Each project that was shared in that presentation had the same focus and goal; serving the community where it was located. After this seminar, not only was I inspired, but I was also fueled with energy. It taught me that every one of us sitting in that lecture room could be an activist.

EDI work is critical to advancing women in the profession.

The 2022 WLS conference also focused on matters of equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI). Although EDI has become a hot topic in recent years, the discussions during this conference went deeper than the surface level. The importance of mental health and sense of belonging at work were discussed, and amongst many who spoke on this topic I was very excited to learn from HKS’s Global Director of Justice, Equity, Diversity & Inclusion, chair of AIA’s Equity and the Future of Architecture Committee, and the vice president of Inclusion, Diversity & Equity for Sherwin Williams. I found each of their stories fascinating and empowering.

The conference highlighted two main topics that I am personally passionate about, and I was very pleased to learn more about them. While at the conference, I also met a number of architects from Iran where I originate from. I was excited to learn that there is a group called BIBI (Banou’s in Building Industry) with many more Women Iranian architects and a standing monthly meeting which I’ll be calling in from now on. 

Going into the conference, I didn’t know what to expect, but I got a lot out of it. I am grateful for the opportunity the scholarship afforded me, and I highly recommend this to other women in architecture. 

Leadership comes in many forms.

Melanie Ngami, Assoc. AIA

Coming from the perspective of an emerging professional, I enjoyed how the atmosphere of the conference was not hierarchical but instead provided a space for one to engage with professionals who are on multiple levels of their career. 

I have always wrestled with what it means to engage the ideas of leadership outside of a hierarchical perspective. While I wouldn’t say there was no social hierarchy present, the presence of that hierarchy did not feel oppressive. This conference gave me hope that there can be a new effective way to lead that doesn’t frame leadership within the confines of exclusivity and an endangered resource. 

The discourse of Zainab Salbi especially inspired me. Through my interpretation of their speech, it felt like they were proposing not only reinventing the concept of leadership but also reinventing the gravity of its relevance in general. That truly inspired me to consider the weight I put upon those labeled as leaders. In questioning this, I am starting to understand that leadership has always rubbed me wrong because I never considered a space where being a leader wasn’t glorified.

Deconstruction paves new paths forward.

This leads me to my other major take away, which is the power of deconstruction. This topic stuck with me after listening to April DeSimone cut into a conversation about how difficult it is to find stakeholders to buy into the value needed to engage disenfranchised communities by saying “redefine it.” Instead of rationalizing where my place should be in a biased system, I am now realizing that a system founded on principles of cis white men will never fully accommodate me. 

Therefore, I need to redefine where I see value and growth in my profession, not in a nepotistic system where “being a schmoozer” gets you places. The problem with this is that it requires history and prior connection, and for groups that have been historically marginalized and erased, the climb is steep.

I truly enjoyed how the conversations moved from looking at leadership as a point of power to framing it through a mindset of a collective which puts it in a role that holds no more or less value than anyone else on the team(if only financially that could be true as well).  

Historical context is critical to understanding sexism and racism.

Also on the note of history I was pleasantly surprised by how the conversations around sexism and racism were framed. Often I hear people engage these issues and it feels ingenuine and cheap. I now know why. This conference provided a good template for how one should engage these topics which are embedded in history. 

As a black woman from the projects of DC, I am so tired of people talking about black disenfranchised neighborhoods with pity as if to help is charity, while not engaging the very recent systematic disenfranchisement that prevented these communities from gaining wealth in the first place. Basically, it’s not charity; it’s reparations!

Overall this conference was a breath of fresh air, it was nice being in a room where someone could point out a systematic issue, and everyone shares a look, nods and gets it.

“Herstory” empowers and inspires.

Erin Roark, AIA

Leadership can be an honor earned from hard work, training, and fortitude. The road to leadership is met with highs and lows, and if you are lucky, mentors that guide your development. While everyone’s experience is unique, women from my generation (20+ years in the profession) share some of the same history. 

Being a leader can be rewarding and empowering, but it can be isolating. The Women’s Leadership Summit provided a community of people who shared my history and whom I immediately felt a connection. 

Over the three days together, I met women who started as strangers and became allies. The importance of this community became evident. Women from every corner of the country and at every stage in their careers attended: some had a harder path; some were starting their leadership journey; and some were forebears of women in architecture. The common thread was their fortitude and the generosity to share their stories.

Embrace feminity as a superpower.

The programs and workshops at the Summit provided an inspiring backdrop for discussions to occur. The use of our voices permeated the inspirational themes to make change happen, whether it be pay equity, gender equity, or climate change. 

Zainab Salbi eloquently talked about a feminine shift toward culture and humanity. She emphasized that this is not solely the responsibility of woman but of our culture in general to shift from dominating (masculine) to nurturing (feminine) the built environment as well as our profession. 

Only our voice can perpetuate this change. If we stand by and try to fit in, we will muzzle our power. Use your voice and be heard to create the change that will foster our profession.

Fortune favors the bold.

That said, these discussions around gender empowerment and assertion as well as climate change have been a part of the architect’s vernacular for decades. The re-addressing of these concerns can be disheartening and exhausting. 

The younger female generations continue to have the burden to work harder and be smarter in a profession with a mono-cultural leadership; and the built environment continues to favor the fastest and cheapest construction over the smartest and ecologically friendly. But there is a shift and a voice… and it is growing. 

The Summit was attended by 750-woman, 10-fold from a decade ago, all sharing an interest in change. The greatest vehicle for this shift was evident in the younger generation. They are less inclined to “fit in” and more inclined to be bold. As much as the young individuals I spoke with appreciated my two decades (plus) of experience, I became heartened by their spirit. They did not have the same reserve or restrictions I felt at their age…they are bold and unique. 

I needed to fit in and prove I was not “other” as a young architect. Gratefully these future leaders are starting their careers as themselves and bringing their talents and voices on day one. I look forward to seeing them and myself grow from this experience.

There is room for all of us at the table if we make it.

Esra Abumounshar, Assoc. AIA

There is nothing more powerful than being in a room full of women eager to find solutions to overcome some of the major social issues regarding women in the industry. From attending the WLS 2022 summit connections with other fellow professional women were easily made due to the unified goal that brought us there initially, barriers were removed, and a common understanding that we are all here for a purpose created a safe environment organically. Our purpose was to celebrate and elevate ourselves but most importantly other women around us to ensure that there is room for all of us on the table in our professional settings. 

Women walk the equity, diversity, and inclusion talk.

What had the most impact on me was seeing Hiba Bhatty opening the Summit. As a Muslim Middle Eastern American, witnessing that moment was inspiring. Zainab Salbi’s keynote was empowering to see how women advocate for other women of different backgrounds, ethnicities, and much more through our actions and reaching across continents to truly ensure that we are all safe, supported, and counted.  

Women have a unique way of approaching some of the most difficult issues regarding DEI, we take the time to draw awareness and we don’t take no for an answer. 

It’s on us to plant the seeds of change for future generations.

Seeing how other speakers have shared their experiences and went on to tackle them rather than giving up, was truly inspiring. My biggest takeaway from the summit is that change will come from within us, women are capable and are strong and together we can work to provide a better future for other women and for generations to come. We get comfortable with being uncomfortable because we understand that the only way to resolve a problem is to address it head-on.

Pinpoint your passions to be an agent of change.

Amanda Bonelli, AIA

The architecture industry is an easy one to critique,

  • Architects are enigmas and no one knows what we do.
  • The profession needs more diversity. 
  • The industry is slow to change.

The list goes on. I was reminded that in order to change the industry we need to be active in that change. We often do not see the potential in ourselves to be exhibitors of change but we can be. And we can start where we’re at. 

I was challenged to consider the things about architecture that I instinctively care about. What issues tug at me when I read about or hear someone talk about them? What am I more sensitive to than someone else in the profession? Figure out what that is and get involved in changing or advocating for that. Once you find those things and do that work, it feels natural. It feels like a part of you because you already care.

Representation MATTERS.

The architecture profession lacks diversity. I learned that only 25% of licensed architects in the US are women and only 0.4% are black women. This is crippling. Kids need to see bigger, older versions of themselves in the field of architecture. They need to know that there’s a place for them, their perspective, their ideas. They are welcome. 

As a world and as a country we are at the crux of a climate crisis, systemic racial inequality and the aftermath of a pandemic. Architecture can provide solutions if we have the brightest minds and the broadest representation to tackle this together. The industry does not need homogenous ideas and has suffered because of this. We need more of everyone. 

I was encouraged to learn about “First500” and other organizations that advocate for underrepresented communities in the profession. We need to support this and other organizations that give underrepresented communities the chance to see architecture as a potential future. 

A beginner’s mindset is a foundation for good design… and leadership.

A good architect knows what they don’t know. We often try to be the expert in the room and this leads to poor design. When we show up to a project with a formulated idea or preconceived solution we have already missed the mark. 

At the WLS I was reminded that in order for architecture to be a lever for change in a community we need to co-design with the people that live there. They are experts and we are experts. They are novices and we are novices. Every project is a new project. And every project will lead to new solutions. 

“Architecting” is about building a team where we all stand on a level playing field. I was encouraged to see the work of Delta Design Build Workshop in the Mississippi Delta that exemplified this. 

Systemic change starts with self-awareness.

At the WLS we were asked the following question, How does my identity inform how I practice? We need to regularly ask ourselves this question. Day after day, year after year, my experiences must change the way I live and the way I work. They must regularly change the way I work. They must always be changing the way I work. We need to build time into our lives to consistently ask this question and to act out the answer. To change. And if we all do this, little by little the industry will change. It will regularly change. It will always be changing. That’s my hope! And this is the hope that the WLS instilled in me! Start with you.