Mona Johnston Zellers, AIA
Av Goodsell Mona Johnston Zellers, AIA

When I was in elementary school and my brother was just a baby, our parents struck out on their own and founded Johnston Architects in 1991. Inspired by the example set by my mother, Mary Johnston, FAIA, the woman-owned, Seattle-based firm has evolved around a set of core values that supports professional ambition while shielding against burnout and chronic stress. More than 30 years later, I am a partner at the company and a beneficiary of the culture my mother created. I am trying to live up to her example.

With each project, JA seeks to prove that you can design great buildings and still have a life. In fact, we believe that architecture is better when created by people who have the time and energy to do things that are not directly related to projects. We emphasize work-life balance, as well as continuing education and licensure for our staff. Over the years, this thesis has proven out in unexpected ways. We do have award-winning projects in our portfolio, but we also have an organizational structure and employee base that defies national trends for the profession.

JA has now grown to 30 people. Two-thirds of our staff are female and the percentage of women in leadership at JA is also unusually high: 73% of our firm leadership and two-thirds of our ownership group are women. According to a 2017 statistic from The American Institute of Architects, the national average for women in architectural leadership roles beyond project manager is just 17%.

The gender mix in the office was not intentional, but we have intentionally removed barriers that reinforce historical trends in a (still) male-dominated profession. One of the most entrenched of these is the belief that long hours and late nights are required to produce quality work. We believe that the opposite is true and carefully staff our projects to avoid the constant deadline-mode mentality that is prevalent in our industry. We also offer employees autonomy when choosing when and where they work. Although we encourage face-to-face time in the office to facilitate informal mentorship, we also know there is no one-size-fits-all approach to success, and we trust staff to know how they work most effectively. Bolstering our flexible work schedules, we offer a 12-week parental leave policy on top of Washington state’s parental leave.

The culture at JA has also resulted in a higher-than-average percentage of licensed architects on staff. Seventy-two percent of architectural staff at JA are licensed, including 85% of our female architectural staff—a stark contrast to a 2021 NCARB report that found women made up only 24% of licensed architects. The time, energy, and money required for a young architect to become licensed is considerable, but the benefits are clear: At firms that use AIA’s annual compensation guide to evaluate salaries, licensure represents a significant salary increase. For women in particular, licensure can be an important steppingstone on a professional journey of breaking barriers and advancing careers in our industry.

Design firms can learn from JA’s approach and take action to better support emerging professionals, particularly women architects. The COVID-19 pandemic forced many employers to entertain flexible work schedules; although many of these policies are disappearing now, it's clear that employees benefit from hybrid working environments. Continuing to support staff with flexible work opportunities and providing more transparency around mental health and stress management create safer, more inclusive workplaces. Offering resources for licensure preparation, time off for exams, and stipends to offset testing fees can lift a financial burden for designers, too. Fostering a supportive community that celebrates our team’s successes and values licensure as a significant achievement is part of our company culture. By encouraging licensure and professional involvement for emerging designers at JA, we have developed a pipeline of female architects and mentors that spans generations.

At JA, we’ve closed the wage gap and turned the male-to-female ratio in our industry on its head, but none of this would have happened without intention. A commitment from firm leadership is not enough; to create lasting change in our industry, women must be visibly elevated to leadership positions. It is nearly impossible to institute policies for change or recruit and inspire the next generation of women architects if the future isn’t modeled for us. For example, how many architects who are mothers have the privilege of working alongside another woman architect with children, learning from her example? I do—and at JA, there are more of us to come.

This article first appeared in the May/June issue of ARCHITECT.

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