Thoughts on A/E gender bias

Mar 09, 2020

We must inspire, include, empower, and educate all genders, races, and ages to look past biases and change the cultural norms that have shaped and still affect our industry.

When is enough enough? An age old question that is often muttered by someone in my YMCA class as we start the third set of burpees. Yes, I’m sure there are times when enough is enough, but is that ever the case for a leader?

Throughout my career, I have been reluctant to join Women in Leadership groups as I felt my time inspiring change and mentoring those in my own practice was enough. I was especially reluctant to contribute my story to Zweig Group’s ElevateHer movement as I was sure there were many other successful women with inspiring stories that my observation alone was enough. But after sharing my own story and listening to the struggles of a group of young leaders, all of whom were women, I realized I had not done enough.

Having recently left my position as president of a medium-sized architecture firm in the Midwest, I find myself debating how and if I want to re-enter the industry or pivot and apply my skills elsewhere. I spent 15 years working my way up through the ranks of a 50-year-old firm beginning as an interior designer, a project manager, and studio manager, and finally becoming a principal/partner and president charged with strategically leading the day-to-day operations and transitioning the firm’s leadership/ownership to the next generation.

As I earned my stripes, I clearly remember the day I was referred to as “Decorator Girl” during a meeting while my male counterparts were addressed by their names, not being included in after-hours leadership discussions at the bar (until I invited myself), or the unwritten dress code that was visibly different in the studio for male and female architectural staff. Although I realized there was an underlying gender bias, I was lucky to have the support and mentorship of key male colleagues along the way and made a conscious choice to not use gender as a device. Instead, this bias fueled my desire to earn the respect of my colleagues and clients based on my business skills, leadership, and work ethic.

When accepting the role of president, I knew that the hard work was just beginning. Although there were the typical business and operational items to transition, it was as important to evolve the firm’s culture by first eliminating old fashioned societal norms which had been established over the firm’s 50-year history. Our goal was to minimize barriers for women and men working to become not only strong design professionals, but loving parents and community members. To do this, we revamped the benefits package, ensured all staff were equally provided and encouraged to utilize educational stipends, and retooled the technology infrastructure to allow staff to seamlessly work from the office, onsite at a meeting, at the quiet coffee shop around the corner, or from home. We created a part-time professional staff designation for those who possessed great leadership skills but wanted to work part-time. Leadership continued to develop and promote staff, many of whom were women, based on their contributions and skills, not by how many hours they were willing to work. We were striving to create a work environment that supported the staff’s ability to focus on successful design thinking and creative problem solving regardless of gender, age, or race.

A young female staff member recently asked why I didn’t use my position as a platform to promote female leadership in the AEC industry. I remember thinking how overcoming the gender and professional biases throughout my own career had eliminated many barriers for her and other women that followed within the firm. I have always believed that taking action to make the change we desire carries a greater impact than mere words alone will ever have. But, as I quickly realized, actions alone aren’t enough in this case. As a leader, we must now walk alongside, encourage, and coach the next generation of leaders as they work to establish new cultural norms and practices in this ever evolving workplace.

To be successful, the ElevateHer movement must inspire, include, empower, and educate all genders and races, young and old, to look past the biases and make effective change to the cultural norms that have shaped and continue to affect the AEC industry. As we integrate technological advances into our process, we must also integrate transversal (soft) leadership skills into our teams, developing our next leaders to be technically strong, empathetic, innovative, and agile professionals.

Rather than be distracted by gender politics, now more than ever, we as industry professionals need to focus on our design thinking skills and passion for architecture to unite us if we are to reestablish and elevate architectural value within society. That is the type of movement that will benefit us all, all genders of all generations and races, both in the short- and long-term. That is the type of movement that will keep professionals from pivoting out of the industry. That is the type of movement I would be proud to have a voice in. Count me in!

Kristine Dorn, IIDA, Associate AIA, CAL is an AEC consultant focused on leadership transition and change management. She is currently developing a transversal and leadership skills post-secondary curriculum to further prepare tomorrow’s young professionals to be successful leaders. Kristine can be contacted via LinkedIn or at

ElevateHer is about the future of the AEC industry and Zweig Group’s commitment to embrace, promote, and ensure equal opportunities for everyone in the AEC industry regardless of gender, race, sexual orientation, or ethnicity. Click here to become a sponsor or to attend the ElevateHer Symposium in Denver on September 30, 2020.

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About Zweig Group

Zweig Group, three times on the Inc. 500/5000 list, is the industry leader and premiere authority in AEC firm management and marketing, the go-to source for data and research, and the leading provider of customized learning and training. Zweig Group exists to help AEC firms succeed in a complicated and challenging marketplace through services that include: Mergers & Acquisitions, Strategic Planning, Valuation, Executive Search, Board of Director Services, Ownership Transition, Marketing & Branding, and Business Development Training. The firm has offices in Dallas and Fayetteville, Arkansas.