Challenge → Progress → Leadership

Challenge → Progress → Leadership

Today we are featuring the second in a series of posts exploring Women In Design. As supporters of and believers in gender equality, Shook Kelley asked a couple team members to share their perspectives and experiences working as women in the design industry. This second post is written by Jennifer Reynolds, who shares her personal point-of-view of working in the architecture industry and offers insights into the challenges, progress and leadership opportunities in design.


It’s never been a more exciting time to be a woman in design. The industry has continually evolved to increasingly embrace women in every aspect of the design process—though it hasn’t always been that way. When I started out 20 years ago (OMG!) it was typically assumed that I was the interior designer in the room. And while I have great respect for my interior design colleagues, it’s frustrating for a lead architect to have to challenge stereotypes when getting a project built is already a big enough challenge. That said, I don’t really hear that assumption any longer, nor do I see it happening for other women in the industry. I feel women are now increasingly accepted and respected both in the office and in the field, the majority of the time.

According to reports, women only make up 25% of the architecture field today and female architects earn less than their male peers. And at the same time, when I go to meetings or visit design and architecture studios, I’m seeing more women contributing at every level of the field, and I feel very fortunate to be working alongside them. There are plenty of articles out there describing gender based inequalities in the work place, and it’s definitely there. But I also believe we are slowly moving in the right direction.

In this piece, I want to talk a little bit about the history of women in design, and the challenges we’ve faced. I also want to talk about my experience, and share some insights on how women can navigate the design process. But these aren’t insights only about women, as much as they’re insights about improving the design process, too.


Women have long been a part of the design world, though we haven’t always been recognized. Similar to the written histories of many other fields, architecture has largely failed to celebrate the contributions of women until relatively recently. But today, historians have come to recognize the contributions of women to the design world. 

Going back to the 19th Century Art & Crafts movement, design work by women was largely uncredited or overshadowed by men. At that time, men and women were producing similar work and had similar skills, but men had more formal training through guilds and apprenticeships. Women were not allowed to join the guilds, and so design training for women was a more organic extension of their domestic duties. Early art and design development for women was a “ground up” movement, which eventually resulted in them creating their own guilds. When women were finally admitted to art schools, those institutions were divided between “decorative arts” and “fine arts.” Women were encouraged to go into decorative arts. They received very little fine arts architecture training until later in the 20th century.

Fortunately, architecture and design greatly benefited from broader cultural and political shifts, especially since the 1960s, that has opened up the field for women.

Women did not design soaring grandiose buildings, but enhanced spaces by making them more habitable, through smaller discrete moves.

Women have consistently brought a unique perspective to design, perhaps in part informed by the challenges they’ve confronted and negotiated in their everyday lives. Designers like Eileen Gray (1878-1976) and Florence Knoll (b. 1917) have become early guide posts for women in design. Their work analyzed how space operates at the human level. They did not design soaring grandiose buildings, but enhanced spaces by making them more habitable, through smaller discrete moves. The pieces they designed and moments they created in these spaces are recognized as equally impactful as the grand gestures they inhabit. 

Another pioneer, Jane Jacobs (1916-2006) was a rebel rouser in 20th century urbanism. Her analysis and criticism of cities was vastly different from other urbanists of the time. While most touted clean straight lines or perfect circles as solutions to urban sprawl, Jacobs asserted that life was not experienced from 20,000 feet above the ground. Rather, she described urban life from the street, stitching together all the smaller events that create the character of the street and give life to the community. This imperfect and layered approach to urban street life acknowledged the individual’s need to connect and convene with others in more intimate ways. 

Zaha Hadid (1950-2016) is perhaps the most iconic model for many women in design today, but she breaks the mold of those earlier pioneers in some ways. Hadid’s world-renowned designs are revered as some of the boldest and most beautiful structures in the world. Her take on how humans inhabit these spaces is debatable and sometimes even polarizing. And at the same time, it’s been disheartening to see how her behavior and personality was consistently tied to her process—I don’t know that I have ever heard this type of narrative around a male architect’s work. For example, this 2013 article both praises Hadid in many ways while undercutting other women architects at the same time. It is very disappointing that conversations about how women dress or cut their hair needs to be included in articles about their design work. Clearly, there is still much work to be done when we talk about women in design. 

I chose these women to reflect on because they changed the paradigm in their field. They challenged norms and enhanced design by making it more human and sensitive. Today, with all of the complexities of our modern world, it does not make any sense to leave women out of this conversation. In our contemporary context, multiple perspectives can only serve to make design better. 


By and large, I have personally felt empowered by the design studio environments I have worked in, including at Shook Kelley. So it’s always disappointing to hear about a woman who does not feel valued, no matter the industry. Fortunately I have heard fewer problems today than in the recent past. Still, I’ve encountered some troubling situations as an architect and I’ve had my challenges, too.

Probably my last challenging experience was on a job site a few years back, dealing with a person who was dismissive of my approach and my thoughts. This occurred well into the process, even through I had consistently lead all the design efforts up to then and we were nearing completion of the project. As I attempted to ignore his comments and attitude, he became increasingly belligerent and disruptive. The situation finally came to a head at a meeting, when I needed to ask him to be quiet in front of a lot of people so I could simply finish my thoughts. It was confrontational and messy, but it got the point across. And I did not have any more disruptions from him afterwards. Of course, it’s hard to say conclusively if this person was being difficult and disruptive because I was a woman or because they were generally rude. In either case, I’ve been fortunate that experiences like this do not happen on every project, and I do not feel that there is a systemic challenge.

As a Principal at Shook Kelley, I feel like this is a supportive environment. Shook Kelley is incredibly inclusive and supportive of women—and a generally empathetic atmosphere. For example, as a working mom, my schedule can be a bit strained at times. So I feel fortunate to have a supportive office that sees family as a strength. We have people with many different perspectives and backgrounds here, and there is a general sense that my personal situation can actually contribute to a broader base of knowledge from which we can draw and sometimes even use in our design work. I liken this to the way we approach design more generally at Shook Kelley. We go out of our way to understand the perspectives of others. We constantly ask questions like: What is appropriate for this given condition or problem? Who are we solving problems for? How will lives be impacted by this? How can we make a difference in those daily lives? 


On a certain level, the design process is psychologically challenging for anyone. But I was recently reading Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In, and I felt that Sandberg articulated an important problem that many women in the design world should take heed of: Namely, that women are often afraid to make mistakes, and this can sometimes hold us back. Granted, this is not the only challenge that holds women back, and the external challenges of gendered discrimination are certainly a major problem, as well. But Sandberg’s insight started me thinking more about how the design process works in reality, and how women in particular can prepare for the challenge of mistake-making while also leveraging certain other skills to our benefit.

Women are often afraid to make mistakes, and this can sometimes hold us back.

Mistakes are part of life for everyone, but especially in design. You will design it wrong on paper 20 times until you design it right. That’s how you grow. Still, that’s a hard lesson to learn. It’s easier to rely on others, to give up or feel like your work is not good enough. The design studio has a process to flush ideas and bring good ideas to the fore, but the idea has to be put out there in the first place. It’s important for designers to remember: Don’t hold back, get your ideas heard. Some ideas don’t get realized for many reasons, but that should not prohibit an idea from being voiced. You must be tenacious and dedicated to learning a craft and skill set that communicates your design to others. 

Women in design have to bravely navigate group dynamics. As designers, we don’t work in an autonomous world where we are free to execute ideas as we see fit. We work with groups of others, including many doubters and skeptics. It’s hard to explain design ideas, exactly because they are ideas. And that’s especially the case in the qualitative, aesthetic-based world of design. In this field, there is no perfectly right answer and there are always a lot of opinions. 

Women in design also have to more boldly state their vision and tell the story of their ideas. We ask our clients and everybody involved in a design to jump on a plane with us. We show a client the direction and the vision, but they ultimately have to either understand the ideas or simply trust us. Most of the time, it’s the latter. Clients are not always well established in the design process, and often don’t understand the totality of the design until they actually walk a finished space. 

And that brings me back to one more necessity for good designers: compassion. Having the patience, empathy and understanding to bring non-designers on this creative journey is critical to having work realized and built. It takes a lot of confidence to lead an entire group of people. And it takes compassion to listen to other perspectives, translate their ideas and find creative ways to integrate them into the design. 

These are some key qualities essential to design and architecture, whether produced by women or anyone else. But they can take many years of experience to learn and master. 


Women today are making an immense impact in the world, whether it’s in the realm of business, politics or design. But according to statistics comparing architecture and design to other professions, our industry has some catching up to do. There are all types of conversations happening now about women’s rights and women’s roles in the workforce, and it feels like the conversation has just begun. 

We are now starting to ask the right questions: How might we support women better in the design field? How can we get more women into more leadership positions? It’s important that we keep having these conversations, constantly ask how we can better support women in design and find more ways to encourage their voices to be heard. 


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