Ann Sobiech Munson and Danielle Hermann are Greater Des Moines architects who have spent much of their careers - both as working architects and as instructors at Iowa State University - watching the rapid drop-off between the numbers of women receiving architecture degrees and those who actually enter or stay in the profession. The overriding question has been: why? In 2011, they helped to form Iowa Women in Architecture, (iaWia) a nonprofit group that organizes educational programs. In 2012, the iaWia assigned a task force to conduct a survey that asked, among other things, why women were leaving architecture and what challenges they faced on the job. Working on volunteer time, the task force also searched for solutions. Later this month, the group will release its final report, “Striking the Balance.” The report will be available Feb. 25 at www.iawomenarch.org.

Many people think of climbing the career ladder, but you found a desire to move laterally, which you call the “lattice” approach. Where did that term come from?

Sobiech Munson: A couple of things with that idea is that we first heard about it during the first events we held, and I think we heard about it from my dad, who is a retired executive at Deloitte and Touche. The story he had was that at some time in the company’s history, the company thought that women who had families were staying home to raise their children. What they found was that the women were going to work at different places because they perceived that the company would not be a place where they could continue their career. He mentioned ladder versus lattice in that context. Being architects who are super-visual people, we were like: “That totally makes sense. That’s exactly it.” It was an easy way for us to find our way. There’s one book that is cited in the study that revolves around giving people multiple paths, depending on where they are in their life stage. But a second thing that was the biggest surprise as we started doing this work is that it is relevant to many more people. When we started the study, we asked why aren’t women staying in the profession, but what we wound up with was a totally different thing. What do emerging professionals need, what do people who are burned out need? It becomes more of a practice proposition than a gender-related proposition.


When did you begin working on the study?

Sobiech Munson: Our first panel discussion was in June 2012. Our organization was founded in August 2011.

Hermann: As the organization was being founded, we early on started talking about issues about how to improve and how to begin the discussion.

Sobiech Munson: Our first thematic approach to educational programming was this question of work-life balance. Are there differences between the challenges faced by female engineers and architects?

Hermann: The culture is a little bit different. In some cases, you might be able to point to experiences we have on construction sites; a lot of engineers are making that leap out to the site. We are similar in that we use time-based billings; some of the things that came up result from being in male-dominated professions.


What has the reaction been from firm leaders?

Hermann: They haven’t seen the full report, but they have participated. They are very interested in seeing the report. They seem to have a strong interest in understanding that they need to get in front of knowing what the next generation coming in wants or needs. Not all firm leaders are human resources experts or whizzes. One of the things they are looking forward to is a precise reference. This can be a tool or a reference or guide or a kit that they can go out and find information if they need it. They are not policymakers by profession; they are architects.

Sobiech Munson: At least a half-dozen firm owners have said thanks for doing this work. They have been very supportive of this effort and getting the word out there. There has been a lot of support from major architecture and engineering firms, maybe more than I anticipated. Sometimes their questions have more to do with the cultural shift that is required to support these broader ranges of policies. It’s not like someone can follow a recipe and do it. You can have a lactation room or mothers’ room or health room, but if your employees are concerned about how the time they spend in the health room is being tracked or perceived, then it’s not going to do anything. Some of these things are going to be a little harder to implement.

Hermann: When we had firm leader roundtables, one of things people wanted to hear about the most was flexible working hours. For architects, a lot of what we do is based on collaboration, so there is some anxiety around if everyone has their own schedule, how do you do team-based work. Our response is that having a flexible schedule doesn’t mean that you don’t work with other people or that you are not there. It’s that you communicate very clearly about when everyone is going to be in the same spot, or when somebody needs to be out of the office on another project. Even given technology, there is some anxiety. Those concerns are fair, but what we heard overwhelmingly was that communication is the cure.

Sobiech Munson: The anecdotal evidence we have is that people who are allowed to have that flexibility become much more productive.


Are younger leaders more prone to support your work?

Hermann: What I have witnessed at different firms is that it has little to do with age and more to do with personality and management style, and it can range within the firm. 

Sobiech Munson: I would hesitate to make broad generalizations. Someone in a newer firm might be a little more free to establish the culture differently. The circumstances vary greatly.


There are a lot of younger firms in Greater Des Moines.

Sobiech Munson: Substance is a case where the partners, from the get-go, one of their goals was to really think about how they designed the practice as much as they figure out how to do the work of the practice. When they developed their human resources manual, they asked women who had recently had children how to write a maternity policy. It’s a small group of people, but the size of the company is a big variable on how this can work. Size, structure of ownership and management, all kinds of things can come into play. 


How will you watch this play out?

Hermann: By giving best practices, then alternatives. The intent is not that it is a one-size-fits-all kind of solution. We have talked about whether we should do another survey in a few years. We are very interested in tracking the progress that we have made.

Sobiech Munson: People are interested in following the flexible work policy. Who has flexible work hours? Who has telecommuting? How do those policies work? What kind of satisfaction do they have? We’ll have a section on the website that is devoted to this topic, and there has been some discussion that this will become a living document and that we hope to start collecting case studies that would fit into some of these best practice areas.