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Why We Need 'Well-Built' Women

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Through the release of the documentary 'A Girl Is a Fellow Hereʼ - 100 Women Architects in the Studio of Frank Lloyd Wright, Beverly Willis, the film's producer, is seeking to set the record straight -- that female architects have contributed much more to the well-built environment than they have ever been given credit for. Omitted from the history books, the work of these 'well-built women' has never been clearly chronicled, clouded by a society that tends to honor women more for their physical measurements rather than for their ability to actually take measurements.

But for many decades, female architects have proven themselves highly skilled at mastering compasses, protractors and other professional measurement tools, carving out blueprints for some of the most creatively designed buildings gracing the twentieth century landscape. From downtown Buffalo's Lafayette Hotel (completed in 1905) to the Lookout Studio at the Grand Canyon National Park (completed in1914), to Saddle River, NJ's Alford/Nixon House (completed in 1971), just to name a few, female architects have long-been transforming industry culture through architecture, design and construction.

So why is it so important to now set the record straight? "Because the future is based on the past," Willis says, "and young female architects need mentors, just like anyone else." That is one of the main reasons why Willis launched the Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation (BWAF) because, even today, only a small percentage of women are entering professional degree programs such as architecture, engineering and construction management. And, even when they do, their representation in leadership at the largest of these firms is still under 5 percent, succumbing to what Willis calls a 'leaky pipeline' of low retention rates. "And, if not patched correctly," Willis says, "this leak will submerge growth in other important areas as well, affecting our economy as a whole."

Just take a look at recent research showing the impact of higher gender diversity on levels of business success. Research from Deloitte suggests that investment in women is the next source of substantial economic growth, for firms and countries, with direct correlations between increases in women in the workforce and increases in National GDP (Gross Domestic Product). Termed the 'Gender Dividend,' a positive and often double-digit difference was found in productivity between those organizations with more women as leaders, compared to those with fewer. But numbers on a spreadsheet tell only part of the story. A 2011 study conducted by researchers at Catalyst, a leading women's think tank, and Harvard Business School further suggests that what's good for women is not only good for business, but also for society as a whole. The study, 'Gender and Corporate Social Responsibility: It's a Matter of Sustainability,' indicates that companies with more women at the top may be better practitioners of corporate social responsibility (CSR), thereby supporting a much more comprehensive 'triple bottom line' which includes people, planet and profit. For not only do responsible, sustainable and transparent business approaches help build brand and reputation, they also help strengthen the community and thus the marketplace, helping to build a sustainable and profitable future for all.

Further, according to a newly released study by the Institute for Women's Policy Research (IWPR), three of the most common occupations for women, 'cashiers,' 'waitresses,' and 'maids and household cleaners,' have median earnings for a full week of work that provide less than 100 percent of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' federal poverty levels for a family of four. Add this to the gender wage gap within occupations (where women currently earn 82 cents for every dollar a man earns), and the gender wage gap between occupations only amplifies this discrepancy. Tackling occupational segregation is therefore just as important as tackling the gender wage gap, and engaging women in the field of architecture provides a strong opportunity to help bridge this divide.

But no one knows this better than Beverly Willis. After having led her own firm in the male-dominated architectural field for over 35 years, her foundation is now documenting womenʼs work, educating the public, and transforming industry culture through collaborations with museums, professional organizations, and others in the areas of architecture, design, engineering, technology, real estate, and construction. Viewing today's economic times as particularly crucial, Willis hopes to illuminate this enormous transformation by blending opportunities for the future while documenting the past, and will be advancing this message at BWAF's upcoming June 5th event aptly entitled, 'A View from the Future.'

And let's hope this works, since it won't be good for anyone if we have to go back to the drawing board.


Lori Sokol, Ph.D., is the founder of NY Residential, Green Matters, and Work Life Matters magazines. Her book, The Agile Workplace and Workforce: The New Future of Work, was published by Bonnier Corporation in 2011.