Why Architecture Is a Career for 'the Young and Childless'

Julie Engstrom, a designer in Cleveland, Ohio, talks about why her field is such a challenge for people with kids.

Julie Engstrom (Rebecca Clarke )

Being a woman in a white-collar job often means navigating office cultures that make it difficult to rise to senior positions. It also in many cases means making some sort of peace with pay gaps, insufficient parental-leave policies, and inflexible hours that are incompatible with society’s expectations about child-rearing.

Female architects feel these burdens particularly acutely. In a study earlier this year, the American Institute of Architects found that female architects largely believe that there isn’t gender equality in their industry, and cited familiar concerns about work-life balance, long hours, and inflexible schedules as reasons for the underrepresentation of women in the field. When The New York Times surveyed some female architects among its readers in April, one woman noted, “As a new mom, I feel like I must choose between advancing to a principal, or being there for my child.”

Julie Engstrom, an architectural designer, agrees with these representations of the demands of her industry. For The Atlantic’s series of interviews with American workers, I spoke with Engstrom about her job, the industry’s difficulty with retaining female designers, and how she stays motivated through months-long projects.The interview that follows has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Adrienne Green: How did you get started as an architectural designer?

Julie Engstrom: When I was a little girl, probably in fourth or fifth grade, my art teacher said, "Oh, you're doing nice work and you get good grades too. You should be an architect." Being an obedient little girl at the time, I thought that made sense and ever since then, I've pursued that. My high school offered a studio-art major, so I was able to take four years of art.

When it came time to choose a college, I went with University of Cincinnati, which has a co-op program, and it was really appealing to to be able get right into this field where there are jobs and on-the-job training. It's very much a part of my identity. I've always pursued architecture, so to speak, whether I knew it or not.

Green: What exactly do you do as an architectural designer?

Engstrom: Architecture's a very time-consuming field; it's a lot of apprenticeship. Registered architects go through a testing process, which I’m actually going to go through soon. I am considered a designer, or a drafter, or depending on who you ask, an intern architect, even though I've been in the field for many years.

My current job is a project architectural lead—so from conception to completion of construction, I'm leading a team of engineers, acoustical designers, lighting designers, audio/visual [technicians], IT consultants, and so on. It actually takes a huge group of people to make every space come together, which requires a lot of project management and coordination.

A mock-up of one of Engstrom’s designs (Julie Engstrom)

Green: What is an average day like for you?

Engstrom: I can work anywhere from 40 to 60 hours a week, depending on the flow of milestones for the project. Work-life balance is always a question within our building, and within the industry at large. In a lot of ways, [architecture] really favors the young and childless. I'm recently married, and I don't have any kids yet. It’s really interesting to see people who eat, sleep, and breathe their work, but who then have kids (or something else about their life changes), and they have to draw back a little bit. It's great to see more and more people successfully balancing their personal lives and their careers.

I happen to work for a great company that practices what they preach in terms of flexibility. It was founded by a woman, and she had young kids at the time, and she really believed that if clients are happy and people got their work done—how, when, and where they need to—that ultimately, she’d be happy.

Engstrom: People always assume that I must be good at math, but there's just a huge range of roles possible in the field. When I sit down at a table with my coworkers, there’s an interior designer, who is talented at picking out colors and finishes, another interior designer that cares about the technical aspects of the lighting. There is a lot of flow between architecture and interior design. I think most people are surprised that an architect doesn’t always go out with a hard hat into the field and point at skyscrapers. Most architecture projects are about places and residences that are not a skyscraper in Manhattan.

Green: Architecture is a male-dominated field. Have you felt affected by the gender dynamic in the profession?

Engstrom: Even in just the 12 years that I've been working, I've actually seen a huge difference. I feel barriers or any kind of surprise that I'm the woman who a bunch of guys on a construction site are taking orders from less and less, because I think as soon as a conversation gets going about how to solve a construction problem hopefully everyone can forget about gender and just focus on solving the problem. Part of that might be my own development and ability to walk into a room, know what I'm talking about, and be confident in my own skills and information.

I think that I do envy some of the men in the field, who somehow have a different innate confidence. The women in the field have to work a little bit harder to get to that same point and not apologize for something, whereas male coworkers don’t apologize for something that maybe they should have.

Even though I happen to work for a really well-balanced firm, the numbers are still off in the industry. If you look at the more senior positions in the field, the number of women starts to drop off. I hope to still be in the field a long way down the line, but I also know that people do zigzag for good reasons. I've had various friends leave architecture to do real estate, or facilities management, or furniture distributorship, or other kinds of related things.

A mock-up of one of Engstrom’s designs (Julie Engstrom)

Green: How have you seen your industry change over the last decade?

Engstrom: When I entered freshman year in the architecture program at Cincinnati, we were the last year that they started by teaching hand-drafting. In the last eight or so years, 3-D drafting and model building is much more typical. We use software called Revit, and we build the building virtually and produce construction documents from that.

Nowadays, all parts of the design process are digital. We are building a real building that has materials, lighting, structural steel, ducts, and pipes in the virtual space. We're able to look at furniture together with the client and develop the design, so that's a huge change. When I started working during my cooperative education program more than a decade ago, I still ran real blueprints, which does not happen anymore.

Green: What is the most challenging and the most rewarding part of your job?

Engstrom: The most rewarding part of the job is that moment when the work is complete. You walk into [the new building] and witness people finding their new desk, or grabbing a cup of coffee at the new café, and people are so excited. Then, in the following days, to hear how excited people are to come into work is hugely rewarding. It makes a year or two of hard work well worth it.

I think because projects go on for many months, you can burn out. You have to be able to shake it off, and come in the next Monday, and remember what you're there for—which is to create a great space that is going to be functional and last over time.

Green: How is your work tied into your identity?

Engstrom: Everywhere I go, I see the world through the lens of design. Just try to go out to a restaurant with architects without them commenting on the lighting, or acoustics of the space, or the traffic flow from the kitchen. There are lessons everywhere, and there's inspiration everywhere. You don't stop designing when you go out for dinner or when you go to a museum or walk down the street. It's very much a 24/7 way of thinking.

This interview is a part of a series about the lives and experiences of members of the American workforce, which includes conversations with a construction worker a real-estate agent, and a office manager.