Carole Wedge, FAIA
David Salafia/courtesy Shepley Bulfinch Carole Wedge, FAIA

Want to hear wisdom and advice from Carole Wedge herself? Listen to her 15-minute podcast episode, "Shutting Down Sexism and Other Hallmarks of Leadership."

At some point in your career, people will start asking how you got there. Though I started 33 years ago in the mail room at the firm of which I’m now the CEO, my response is simple: I put one foot in front of the other and kept showing up, sharing ideas and pushing for the good ones.

But serendipity played a role. Where I worked, women of my generation were treated as architects, not “women architects.” We were encouraged to get registered and grow into leadership roles. My generation had grown up with Title IX and were told we could do anything as career women. It never occurred to us that this was not true everywhere.

That said, the generation of women before me did face biases. They noticed when their ideas were ignored or ascribed to a man in the meeting. But in our office, people didn’t just notice things—they also made an effort to change them.

When someone challenges your values, intellect, creativity, academic qualifications, inclusion on a team, gender, race, sexual orientation—the list goes on—it often indicates ignorance, an unchecked bias, an inflated ego, or an insecurity. And yes, you can address it.

I recall on a flight when a slightly older man sitting next to me asked about my work. I told him I was an architect. “Oh,” he said. “They let women be architects?”

Keep in mind, this was around 2010, I was about 50 years old and the president of my firm.

“Are you kidding?” I replied. “Yes, we do encourage women to become architects—and African-Americans, Latinx, Asians, Native Americans,” et cetera. Not only did he quickly apologize for the bias that slipped from his mouth, but he also thanked me for correcting him.

These are important interventions—the idiotic comments that you have to be prepared for and willing to address when your values won’t let you stay silent, no matter how scary it might seem. You may need to rehearse a prepared response, which can be as simple as “Wow, that comment made me uncomfortable.”

And there will be times when it feels difficult to respond in the moment, and you miss the momentary chance to speak up. But if the opportunity remains, prepare your thoughts, write them down, muster your courage, go back to that person, and say, “I regret that I didn’t say this when it happened, but that was not OK with me. I do not want that type of thing to happen again.” Make sure they understand you. Ask them to repeat what they heard from you so it’s in their own words and so you know you were heard. Make a plan for moving forward.

Of course, the more power you have, the more people will listen. However, you might be surprised to know that many firms do listen closely to their new hires and emerging designers—they represent the future after all. If you are worried about being fired for speaking up, then you are in the wrong place. (And if you are fired for defending equality and fairness, you can explore legal channels.)

It is never too early to develop your vision for how you want to inhabit your career. I recall reading in The Art of Possibility (Penguin Random House, 2002) about the idea of “servant leaders,” the people who help when there is an accident or a problem, and authorize themselves to help fix it. I want to work with servant leaders. Not only do they take a project from good to great and create lasting relationships that help generate repeat work, but they also speak up when someone makes a racist, sexist, or misguided comment. They stand up for their values.

The ability to articulate values and vision is a leadership trait, and one that is improved with practice. Only you can stand up for your values. Don’t be a bystander in your life.

Want to hear more wisdom and advice from Carole Wedge herself? Listen to her 15-minute podcast episode, "Shutting Down Sexism and Other Hallmarks of Leadership."

Editor's note: We regularly publish opinion columns that we think would be of service to our readers. The views and conclusions from these authors are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.

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