The managing director of the firm’s office in Dallas talks about the role of women in architecture and real estate, gender balance at IA, and champagne.
In honor of Women’s History Month, IA is highlighting female leadership within the firm. Where the conversation around women in architecture has recently bubbled to the surface—AIA’s posthumous Gold Medal award to Julia Morgan in 2014, and the proliferation of advocacy organizations like The Missing 32% and the Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation, for example—IA Interior Architects demonstrates a position unique in the practice of architecture. Approximately half of IA’s offices are managed and operated by female architects and designers.
I didn’t take the most conventional path to a career in design and architecture. I started college as a Biomedical Engineering major but realized during my junior year it wasn’t a good fit for me. I desperately wanted to stay at Texas A&M and the architecture school was willing to accept a lot of my engineering credits to transfer into its program. So, I switched majors in the mid-‘90s at a time when no one I knew was getting jobs in architecture. With this in mind, I customized my degree and took a lot of business and real estate finance courses. I thought specializing would help me find work with a Big Six accounting firm, in case I wasn’t able to find work in architecture. It was my Plan B, but that actually helped me accomplish Plan A. Immediately after graduating I was hired by a large architecture firm to join a newly formed consulting group.
Being the youngest person in the room at meetings—and a woman to boot—was a challenge early in my career. When I started presenting (instead of just sitting quietly and taking notes) everyone seemed shocked, which amused me more than anything. I was one of three in a consulting group, so I had to present and program at a young age. People never expected me to contribute, but my bosses had a lot of confidence in me. That helped me quickly grow as a professional.
I’ve noticed more women on real estate and facilities teams now than when I started my career 20 years ago. At times, I think there can be a professional disadvantage for women based on gender, but I don’t think that this is an issue that is unique to our industry. There’s a tremendous wage difference in entertainment, for example, and I see it in a number of other places. But I actually enjoy the challenge; it doesn’t bother me nearly as much as it used to. Is it getting better? Or is my skin getting thicker?
I am proud to be part of a firm that values diversity in leadership. Our gender balance is very unusual, and it’s one of the reasons I like being at IA so much. Commercial design teams in big architecture firms tend to be led by males—many of the C-suites are also filled with men. With IA’s growth model, we’ve had growth through both internal and external hires to maintain our trajectory. Today almost 50 percent of our offices are led by women.
I think both men and women experience challenges with work/life balance. My personal challenge is making time to spend with my family; I’m a workaholic and will keep sending out emails all night and into the weekend if no one stops me. I find myself having to make time for my family but I never have to carve out time for work. That’s just how I am and choose to be. I have to force myself to step back from work. As leaders, regardless of gender, you have to stay on point. I feel a personal obligation to be there for my team.
My favorite part of my job is seeing happy clients that love to show their IA-designed space off to others. Well, that and winning work. I tend to do a little dance at my desk (the team teases me for it) and then pop champagne. I keep bubbly in the fridge for those occasions.
I would advise young women who are interested in architecture to “just do it.” This is such a fun business; every day is different. We have a unique opportunity to influence the lives of many people through what we do.
Frances Bruns, IIDA, holds a Bachelor of Environmental Design from Texas A&M University. Throughout her career she has overseen projects for Active Network, Imagine Communications, Lockton Companies, and Caldwell, Cassady Curry. Outside of architecture, Frances is passionate about cabernet, cooking, and travel.