Change Can Happen: A Reflection on Women’s History Month

March is Women’s History Month – a month dedicated to celebrating the achievements and contributions of Women in our society. Now entering my fifth decade in the architectural profession, I reflect upon my own personal experiences and realize – yes, much work for woman’s equality has yet to be done. But there has also been advancement. The bar has been raised and it is up to all of us to push it further to create an ever more just, diverse, and equitable world for everyone. Change can happen. Be a part of it!

As an elementary student I had the wonderful fortune to attend Burris Laboratory School in Muncie, Indiana – a K-12 school, which was a training ground for Ball State, a teacher’s college at the time. My early educational environment was fully gender neutral. All the boys and girls walked or rode their bikes to school. Together we took swimming, orchestra, band, and industrial arts, in addition to a rigorous, competitive curriculum. The one significant inequity I experienced during these early years and which continued through my early junior high years – was that girls were prohibited from wearing pants. This may seem minor – but it was a real pain in the backside when competing on the playground or enduring chaffed calves from rubber boots during Indiana winters.

In my early adolescent years, classes and activities became segregated – with boys taking shop and mechanics and girls taking sewing and baking. There was not a choice, it just was. Girls earned extra income by babysitting and boys earned more money with paper routes, lawn mowing, and washing cars. The prevailing wages and culturally expected roles were imprinted early.

During high school, my closest friend (who soon became a lawyer), came to my home frequently donning a t-shirt emblazoned with “A Woman’s Place is in the House – and in the Senate.” The National Organization of Women (NOW) and activists fighting for the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) made headlines. Shirley Chisholm ran to be the Democratic presidential nominee in the early 1970s. Title IX, prohibiting sex-based discrimination in school or educational programs, passed in 1972. Tennis legend Billie Jean King beat self-proclaimed male chauvinist Bobby Riggs in three sets in 1973. Doors were opening and I became more aware of the cultural patterns and norms that were indeed imprinted upon me and my peers. In my junior year, my family traveled to England to meet relatives, four of whom were architects and two of whom were female. I then assumed that architecture was certainly within the realm of possibilities for me.

I chose to attend the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign because of their full year program in Versailles, France. I headed off to U of I, having never seen the campus. The undergraduate Architecture program offered a rigorous curriculum and was heavily male dominated. I am guessing perhaps only 10 percent of my class were women, and of those, most did not stay with the profession beyond 10 years.

My first job after graduation in 1979 was with a six-person architectural firm located in a nondescript outskirt of Pittsburgh. I was grateful to get a foot in the door and was paid a whopping $6,200 annual salary. All of the employees but me were men. I soon moved to a small architectural firm located in the Chicago Loop with the promise of a $9,600 annual salary. The staff of 10 consisted of nine men and me. In those uncertain economic times, I switched roles to follow the work; I joined another big E/A company of about 450 people and 60 architects. I was one of two women in the architecture department. When my firm laid off two-thirds of its architectural staff, I was spared – likely due to my very affordable $10,600 salary – but keeping my job meant moving back to Champaign-Urbana to oversee construction of a $20,000,000 research facility.

At the age of 24, I sauntered onto the jobsite as the only woman, an Architect’s Field Rep with no familiarity with the project and little practical experience. There were incidents during this time which were very uncomfortable – incidents akin to those still experienced by young women in the workplace – but there was no precedent to guide me or my coworkers. There were no rule books that defined or taught how to confront inappropriate behavior or blatant harassment. There was no HR leadership or department. There were no “Workplace/Sexual Harassment” publications in my office. I was fortunate to have a group of friends to rely upon to help me navigate unwelcomed situations.

When the project was complete, I was ready to get off the Construction Administration track and refocus on architectural design. I headed to the University of Minnesota with both a teaching and research assistantship. My graduate studio was small – about 12 people with roughly 25% women. After graduation, I went to work for a firm in St. Paul with about 25 people; I was their first female aspiring architect. Primarily due to some forward-thinking Principals, I was given the opportunity to be fully engaged in projects. The Principal gave me just enough rein to keep me from getting in trouble. At one point the local Rotary Club asked us to present the school design I was working on, but as a female, I was not even allowed to sit in the room during the presentation. Instead, I waited at a local coffee shop. To this day, my ire still rises over this incident.

While in Minnesota, I took my architectural licensing exams. Exams were offered once a year over four straight days culminating with the 12-hour design exam – to which everyone brought their drawing board, parallel, and drawing tools. At that time, it took six months to get exam results and then a recommendation from your employer was required to complete licensure. After completing my Master’s degree, completing necessary hours of experience, working for the company for a couple years and passing the exams, my boss did indeed submit the letter, recommending me for Licensure as a Minnesota “Architette.”

After a few years in the beautiful (but cold!) Twin Cities – we had an opportunity, in 1985, to move to Orlando, Florida. I pounded the pavement looking for employment. This was pre-internet, and it was very easy for the receptionist to blow off a job seeker on the phone or trash a letter – so I literally went door to door, unannounced, in a car without air conditioning, carrying my hand-crafted portfolio and sample lettering. I accepted a position with a small company with a predominantly female staff. Having the camaraderie of other women was a tremendous addition (and new professional experience).  I eventually ended up working with the same company for about 20 years.

My son arrived in 1986. There was no guaranteed leave for women let alone for men. The Family Medical Leave Act, that is the baseline now, was not passed until 1990. My company had no legal requirement to hold my job while I was on maternity leave. However, my employer granted me a 12- week unpaid leave and in addition afforded me much needed flexibility with my schedule when I returned which enabled me to continue to be employed full-time in my profession.  This was really unheard of in the 1980’s. I was able to grow, to lead projects and work directly with clients, to institute a training program for AutoCAD (the new technology at the time) and was promoted.  I was afforded all this while treasuring the joys and challenges of being a new mom.

Over time, my office hired more women but the percentage of those who were licensed architects remained low. And I had yet to work with a developer client, a contractor, or consulting engineer who had women in project leadership positions. (Believe it or not, that is still true for me today!)

When I started work in Florida in 1984, licensed women architects were a novelty.  Human resource departments and policies regarding sexual harassment were in their infancy. The cultural norms for roles, responsibilities, and appropriate behavior were much different than they are today. As an example, it was tolerated in the office where I worked for guys to display centerfolds in their work areas. During the Anita Hill hearings in 1991 – I remember thinking “ I can so understand where she is coming from.” Anita Hill’s testimony of an all-too-common experience undoubtedly had a transformational impact for all women, all workplaces, all people.

When my daughter was born in 1996, I continued working part-time and remotely with the same company. Again, my boss was ahead of the time allowing “work from home” / remote work. My career was on idle – still going but on a plateau- which suited me and my family for the short term as we sought to balance work and home, while allowing me to maintain my professional credentials. Sometime after moving to Charlotte, likely around 2000, I heard Katherine Peele interviewed on NPR. She was introduced as an Architect and an expert in K-12 schools, and it resonated with me – she was a young woman architect in a leadership position. Wow! Terrific!

I set out to find a full-time job in architecture in Charlotte during the 2008 recession. It was scary! I had put my career on pause. Technology had diminished the value of one of my key skills – drawing. Still,  I started making calls, sending resumes, and seeing what I could land.

Somehow, Jim Williams at LS3P saw potential. Jeff Floyd and Chris Ions (who retired in 2019) were willing to think outside the box and give me a chance…actually, many huge chances! As a woman in her early 50’s, I was particularly grateful for the opportunity LS3P offered initially and has continued to offer. Women in the firm were already represented in key leadership positions. The Charlotte office had a staff of about 60 or so – a noticeable percentage of whom were women professionals. I saw plenty of noticeable improvements in the workplace. And I saw opportunities for advancement, even for me.

So, have we advanced, and are we advancing towards a more equitable, diverse, and just world?

At LS3P – we are working on it! Our goal is not merely to push or uphold legislation – but to advance the spirit of all civil rights here and now, and to keep the goal to champion justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion at the forefront.

I recognize there is more work to be done and much still to do to make the workplace more just, equitable, diverse, and inclusive for everyone. Many, like myself have benefitted from both the strident and the quiet activists who have moved our culture towards justice. Yet change is slow. If you are one who is seeking advancement for others – take heart. You may never hear the words of thanks or even perhaps realize all your goals. But the pursuit, the striving, the work – it all matters and makes for a better tomorrow.

About Dana

Dana Speight Reed serves as a Principal and Studio Leader at LS3P. Her leadership strengths are in managing and designing projects from conceptual design through construction and orchestrating cohesive teams that are aligned with the client’s needs and schedule. Her broad portfolio encompasses a wide range of building types including private development, federal, senior living, and corporate headquarters.

In her more than 40 years in the industry, Dana has provided site studies, floor plans, illustrative concepts, and elevations that convey design options. Her design versatility is demonstrated in the many different styles in her architectural vocabulary, and in the different project types that she has successfully planned.

Licensed in NC, MN, and FL, Dana received her Master of Architecture from University of Minnesota’s School of Architecture. She has served as design juror for several American Institute of Architects award competitions.