Fighting bias with intent: Rosa Sheng on empathy, mentors for achieving equity in architecture
This article is part of our six-part series of interviews with women leaders in construction for Women in Construction Week 2017. Read the others here.
Rosa Sheng knew she wanted to be an architect the first time she visited her grandparents in China, at 11 years old. As she took in the iconic designs of the Forbidden City and the Great Wall, her grandfather told her that architecture isn’t about one person — it’s meant to last lifetimes. For Sheng, architecture can be looked at as a time capsule for what’s happening in civilizations at the time of construction.
An architect with more than 20 years’ experience in the field, Sheng joined Bohlin Cywinski Jackson in San Francisco in 1997. Now a senior associate at the firm, Sheng has worked on projects from New York City's iconic, glass 5th Avenue Apple store to the LEED NC-GOLD Lorry I. Lokey Graduate School of Business at Mills College and Square, Inc.'s headquarters.
Apart from her widely recognized designs, Sheng is the founding chair of the American Institute of Architects San Francisco Committee, Equity by Design. On the committee, Sheng leads “The Missing 32% Project,” which stands for the fact that 50% of women graduate from architecture schools but only 18% end up becoming licensed architects and aims to bring attention to achieving gender equity in architecture. Sheng’s work seeks to confront bias in design and architecture, and to work toward equity through supporting those whose identities have historically been unsupported in the industry.
Construction Dive spoke with Sheng about her career as an architect, The Missing 32% Project and how her work confronts bias head-on to bring equity to the field.
Editor's note: This interview has been edited and condensed.
Can you talk a little about your own experience getting into the field — your education, early career and what brought you to where you are today?
SHENG: I went to Syracuse University but graduated during a recession. When I graduated, there was a disconnect between what I thought I’d be doing and, being the lone architect, what I was actually doing, like menial tasks. I asked myself: “Am I in the right profession? Did I make the right choice?”
I went on to design the Pixar headquarters in its early stages. One of our clients respected our opinion and talked to us a lot. At the time, we were based in Pittsburgh, but I’d always thought they should move us out [to California] for the project instead of flying back and forth. Everyone laughed and said it was a crazy idea, but the faculty director said it was a good idea, so they moved us out to California and we finished our project. The lesson learned was not being afraid to speak up, because you’ll have people who will champion you.
What are some other projects you’ve worked on and who has helped champion you in your work?
SHENG: I also worked on Apple’s high-profile retail stores where there was a common theme of doing things that had never been done before, challenging what’s possible and suspending disbelief. I worked on the original Apple store, in New York City’s SoHo, and it was an amazing project. I worked on five or six Apple stores after that. Until that point, I hadn’t believed there was sexism or inequity in the field, but that changed after I got married and had my first child.
When I worked on the 5th Avenue Apple store, it was more apparent than not there were times sexism came out. The head landlord representative made a comment about my pregnancy, and it was uncomfortable but I kept working on the project and I also found champions — Steve Jobs was one of my greatest champions.
When I was on maternity leave, I visited the cube store for its grand opening. Steve Jobs asked me to go to dinner with him and the cube team, but I couldn’t bring my family so I graciously declined. I thought I had given up the chance of a lifetime, but then he asked me a second time and said I could bring my husband if I got a babysitter. I was struggling with, well, I could try and find somebody to take care of my baby, I don’t want to, I want to be with her and I want to be with my family, so I declined again. I was kicking myself, but at the end of the day, the store is crowded and then he comes through, parting the Red Sea like Moses, to me and says, “All right, you drive a hard bargain, the kid can come.” The lesson learned here is that one of the greatest visionaries of the world, of our time, had the sight to see my value when I was blind to my own value.
You’ve mentioned feeling discouraged about being in the industry. What other difficulties have you faced during your career?
SHENG: There was a point in my career during the recession where I was questioning whether I should stay in the profession because I had a second child, and it was hard to be good architect and a good parent. I was depressed about not being able to do either well, frustrated with where my career was going and the profession was not culturally set up to support that dichotomy.
Instead of quitting, I had a good mentor who encouraged me to talk at The Missing 32% Program. It was only a symposium, there wasn’t an actual committee, but after our group presented there was so much energy, so we started a committee. We wanted a way to prove things were happening in gender equity, beyond just anecdotes. We found there was no research on the topic, so we started a research study [the Equity in Architecture Survey] in 2014 that got 2,280 responses. The national survey with men and women sparked a conversation and the key findings talked about not just a lack of women in the industry, but what makes women want to leave.
From that, we presented the information all over the U.S. and internationally as a global discussion. The second survey last year got 8,664 respondents, which was even bigger and roughly 50/50 male and female, and tabulated for race and ethnicity. We’ve been asked to continue [the Equity in Architecture committee] as a permanent committee. In the last three years, there has been a surge of people interested in and passionate about the topic in firms, but also sponsorship from small firms and the AIA itself.
Can you talk about The Missing 32% Project and the Equity by Design report?
SHENG: Fifty-one percent of the U.S. population is made up of women, but architecture programs, by the time we graduate, are 42% women. Later on, women compose only 12% to 18% of AIA members, licensed architects and senior firm leadership.
For women, there is an early career drop-off — within zero to five years, the greatest number leave the profession. The report looks at the likelihood of burnout versus engagement. Having transparency in the way of constant feedback from leadership and having mentors who are senior leaders, along with friendships, can help mitigate burnout and ensure workers' engagement with their projects and firms. People want to be connected with meaningful work — part of that is coming up with ways to reorganize such that everyone has a leadership role so people have accountability.
Another way is through licensure support. Getting licensed early helps people stay in the field longer. It's kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy of those who don’t believe in attaining licensure dropping off more from the industry. Licensure can be seen as an affirmation of skills and getting it before life happens — like later on when caregiving and finding a work–life balance — or implementing it as a firm-wide policy that meets the needs of all types of people could afford better flexibility that covers everybody.
How do you think being a woman shaped that experience for you?
SHENG: In the beginning, there was a kind of denial that there was even a difference. Culturally we’re taught to look at everyone the same, but now the architecture is different. At that time, I think of me going into college and into my early career — a lot of people probably still go through it — and thinking, “I want to be a good architect,” not “I want to be a good architect who is also a woman.”
How do you think your male colleagues experienced it differently?
SHENG: In my own personal practice, I tried to develop a practice in teams that’s very transparent — everyone declares their schedules up front instead of hiding them. We’re supposed to have a shield and air of perfection, but this is about authenticity. We are architects and experts. But we have a charge to listen to the clients and users that we serve, and to empathize with what they need so that what we’re designing for them addresses inclusivity and spaces that are healthy and support productive learning or work.
If you want to talk about gender, because there are a lack of women representatives in the industry, there’s a general overlooking of things that affect gender whether it’s scale or utility. When designing restrooms, for example, men and women use the space differently. So when an all-male team designs restrooms, that space might not be as productive because no women were there to discuss their needs. We could be more empathetic to surrounding equitable practice and making sure we’re not overlooking anyone’s needs.
How do we look into creating more well-balanced and empathetic teams?
SHENG: You can’t change the human aspect of the fact that we’re going to be biased. It’s more about how do you change the processes to mitigate the inherent bias our brains produce. In hiring, whether by using blind resumes or a rubric of defined criteria for hiring people, you can do that for design as well. Having an intentionality about these spaces rather than going about it as an afterthought makes the difference. One good example is nursing rooms for mothers. Some places of work will have a temporary space that’s usually a meeting space or an area not designed for the purpose of nursing. Having a space specifically set up for that use facilitates equity by giving mothers returning to the workforce support.
What are some ways women can approach equity in the industry?
SHENG: Direct strategies include finding champions and mentors who speak up for you intentionally. Find a group of people who agree to help each other when they feel like they aren’t being heard. There are ways to effectively mitigate that, like the amplification strategy used by women in the White House where women in meetings repeated each other’s thoughts and gave credit to the women who said them. There are more strategic initiatives such as forming groups like our own [Equity in Architecture] or other women in architecture groups.
What is one of the biggest challenges to working toward gender parity in architecture and construction?
SHENG: Knowledge of [a workplace's] power [dynamics]. Doing pay equity audits to see if there’s a problem and having a diverse group of leaders who are bias-aware and culturally competent to use some kind of system or rubric in judging what determines a certain tier of pay, or what qualities or skill sets would earn a bonus or jump in pay can act as a solution.
What are some ways companies can work to better support their employees from underrepresented groups? What are some ways you’ve seen or implemented such programs?
SHENG: As a supervisor, I try to be cognizant of needs and certain skill sets and lobby for them to get access to that. Mentorship and championship are key. If there are social events where people of other cultures don’t feel comfortable, we need to be more inviting and inclusive, whether it’s a happy hour, going out to golf or other alternative activities. Constant feedback is also important, along with having a support group.
What advice do you have for women in the industry?
SHENG: One is just learning how to discover your voice and be authentic and true to it. Be honest with yourself in creating a roadmap of getting as much information about the field itself, and getting knowledgeable about that research is important. A lack of knowledge about people’s lives is the big hindrance, so we should be encouraging people to share it and have a conversation about it. The worst thing is to assume that people know your challenges because they don’t. The best thing to do is to be transparent in talking about those challenges and having a solution to them. There can be this perception of, “Oh, you’re just whining.” We need to transform that and become an advocate for others and see if, across the board, this is something that is culturally in the firm and if this is something we should change.
Another is articulating your values and becoming better negotiators — finding skill sets that are deficient and trying to figure out your edge and where you’re needed, and thinking about how you get out of your comfort zone to give something everyone needs. There are ways to negotiate for yourself. Have a mindset of the greater good and think about how your value can contribute to the success of the firm.
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