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Student Group Increases the Visibility and Voices of Women in Architecture

Student Group Increases the Visibility and Voices of Women in Architecture

Historically, architecture has been a “man’s world.” But as times change, and even more women enter the field, the next challenge is keeping them in it—and providing them the encouragement to move up.

“It’s one thing to be an architect,” says Franca Trubiano, an associate professor of architecture. “It’s another thing to be an architect in leadership.”

A student group at the School is tackling the subject head-on. PennDesign Women in Architecture (PWIA), formed organically by determined female graduate architecture students in 2016, has quickly grown into an inspiring powerhouse for the school, and the University as a whole.

Its goal? To create a community that increases the visibility and voices of women in architecture, brings awareness to the gender disparity in the profession, and empowers female architects to grow, succeed, and become leaders in the industry.

“When we look up, and we don’t see as many women in the field that we aspire to be, it resonates,” says Ramona Adlakha. “That’s something that drove us to start this group.”

Adlakha, along with classmates Ramune Bartuskaite, Rose Deng, Kirin Kennedy, and Mary Swysgood, spearheaded PWIA—with mentorship from Trubiano—from the ground up.

They even recall an early meeting with Dean Fritz Steiner, where they asked for initial departmental funding. It just so happened to be the day after the last U.S. presidential election.

“That wasn’t a great morning for us, and it was pretty intimidating to go in front of the dean and ask for funding for our group,” says Adlakha. “But we explained how this was needed now, more than ever, given where we are.” Since that momentous meeting, the school has and continues to provide continual encouragement and support to PWIA.

Adlakha and Bartuskaite graduated with their master’s degrees in architecture from Weitzman last May, and have successfully passed the torch for PWIA to a new group of student leaders.

Today, PWIA boats a mentorship program that pairs 56 students with 56 mentors in the profession—across Philadelphia, New York, and even touching the West Coast.

“I think the sooner students start getting a mentor and understanding how they can fit in and transition from academic to professional work, the sooner we’re going to see our profession change in terms of how we treat equality,” says Caitlin Dashiell, a third-year master’s architecture student and PWIA’s current communications chair.

PWIA also provides various opportunities for Weitzman students to visit architecture firms, helping to boost important connections.

The group hosts events, too—both big and small. One, held on campus on April 10, featured a conversation with Madame Architect’s Julia Gamolina and Winka Dubbeldam, Miller Professor and chair of architecture. During its first two years, PWIA held daylong symposiums titled “[Re]form: The Framework, Fallout & Future of Women in Design” and “[Re]action: Empowering the Future Leaders in Design.”

The idea behind [Re]form, says Bartuskaite, was to bring female architects the students admired together in one place.

“That helped us build momentum,” she says, “and we just kept growing the next year.”

Within PWIA, there are five committees, including communications, outreach, professional development, marketing, and finance, and each group has two chairs, and between two and three subcommittee members—a system in place to make for a seamless yearly transition. The entire leadership team, today, totals about 20 people.

Not only does it give students real-life experience at the helm, but it also helps them find their groove in a school with such a rigorous curriculum.

“The organization is really helping students find their own place at [the School],” says Nicole Bronola, a third-year master’s architecture student and the group’s outreach chair. “It’s inclusive, and it encourages students to push forward and bring their best.”

Originally from Barcelona, Marta Llor, PWIA’s professional development chair, and a second-year master’s architecture student, has always been interested in the field, which she first pursued as an undergrad at Parsons School of Design in New York City.

“I think that representation matters a lot,” Llor says. “I was lucky to grow up in a time where I could see women being architects, and at the core of what we do [with PWIA] is bringing women forward and encouraging other people to step up and be the leaders they want to be in this diverse world.”

Trubiano, a leader in architecture for many years, and a “champion” for PWIA, as the students often say, notes how impressed she has been that those who make up the group intuitively understand the gender disparities within the field, and want to make a difference.

“There’s an initial fear that they’ll be at school in a comfortable and safe environment, but they know that the profession they are about to walk into is a little bit less than safe,” Trubiano explains. “They have such a thirst and desire to be able to share and be in a community trying to work through these questions.”

Trubiano adds how the Graduate Architecture program at Penn is home to more than 50 percent women students. Yet, this has not yet resulted in significant shifts in architectural curricula, particularly in its ability to recognize that the education and practice of architecture is not gender neutral, Trubiano says.

Following the [Re]form and [Re]action symposia, Trubiano, along with Adlakha and Bartuskaite, began editing a book together titled Women [Re]build: Stories, Polemics, Futures. It will be published by ORO Edition’s AR+D Series, and available for purchase at bookstores in the fall. It features articles, interviews, and projects of leading women thinkers, activists, designers, and builders who’ve asked: “Where are the women in architecture?”

“There’s a lack of women role models in architecture, but not because they are not there,” says Adlakha. “It’s because we don’t hear enough about them. So, with this book, we wanted to highlight women out there doing amazing things within the profession.”

Another project to come, also grown out of PWIA, focuses on 50 years of women in architecture at the School, says Trubiano. A research position next school year is being generously funded by Penn alumna Mary Keefe (W’81), of Philadelphia architecture firm MGA Partners.  

“We’ll be looking through the archives and alumni list, seeing where these women are, where they’ve been,” says Trubiano.

Adlakha and Bartuskaite are proud to see PWIA evolve, and thriving today. Working in the field now, they note the lack of women in leadership, but are hopeful for the future.

“It’s been the question we’ve been asking and trying to solve,” Adlakha says. “And maybe one day, we’ll be part of that culture that turned that around.”