Subtle Sexism in Design/Build- Need Advice

Landscape Architecture for Landscape Architects Forums PROFESSIONAL PRACTICE Subtle Sexism in Design/Build- Need Advice

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    Catherine Riley

    I’m writing in hopes of gaining insight and advice on a sexist work environment. It’s not overtly sexist; no one is asking me to make coffee or do the dishes. I have 6 years of experience and a graduate degree in landscape architecture. I work in a small office and am the youngest by about 20 years (I’m 35). The culture is very old school/boys club and I am the only female LA in the group. The office manager is female but is accepting of the boys club atmosphere. She refuses to touch the printer and I have been put in charge of ordering paper and ink, and answering the phone if she doesn’t. I’ve had meetings with my boss about the “lesser tasks” assigned to me, such as ordering the ink and paper, and things change for about two weeks and then go back the way they were. I’m having trouble finding a different position because I am currently in design/build and don’t have the right type of experience that firms are looking for. I don’t gain experience in my current role because I am not given opportunities at work, and as a result my salary doesn’t grow. I’m caught in a catch-22.

    I started my own mini design/build company this summer to create my own experiences and things are going well, but I know I don’t like design/build and long to design parks (even if its just creating construction docs). I’m installing my mini design/build projects on the weekends and meeting clients after work. I’m so eager to learn and grow and design.

    Are there other female LA’s in design/build experiencing this?
    How does one get from design/build to a firm?
    How do you smash the patriarchy?
    Any advice will help!


    July 12, 2019
    Hello Catherine;

    Well, no, I am not a “female”, but, a male who has been practicing Landscape Architecture since 1977. I’m about to turn 70 years old in a few months….and I definitely sympathize with your situation.

    You really DO need “design experience” to move forward in your design career. And, it doesn’t sound like you’re going to change the minds of the older guys running that company…concerning your role.

    I’d “suggest” that you try to find a large enough Landscape Architecture Firm…where you could have many opportunities to design projects…where there are experienced & talented LAs on board who are willing to mentor you…male and female LAs you can learn from. With experience you pick up from an LA firm like that…you’ll be in a better position to establish your OWN LA design practice. Though, you will need to be a Licensed Landscape Architect. However, here in Texas, if you ONLY use the title “Landscape Designer”, you’re allowed to design some types of projects…like Residential projects.
    Also, having a pretty good LA design portfolio will help on job interviews…and there’s an inexpensive book you can guy on called “Hire Me”…excellent book to help people give a perfect job interview.

    Not sure what your experience is with regards to “Residential projects”, but, it’s probably the easiest way to get design work and generate income. Good to build up your Professional portfolio. You’re not too old to establish your own LA design firm…I established my LA private practice here in the Dallas area when I was 41 (though, I did have about 13 yrs. prior design experience).

    Of course, you don’t want to leave a job like you have…..until you find another descent paying job OR until you feel like
    you can earn enough income from designing on your own. I have never wanted to be employed by a “Design – Build Co.”, though there are some I know of here in the Dallas area who have very good design staffs. But, for me, I wanted to stick with the LA design firms (design only). There are a TON of Job Boards on-line…besides the LAND 8 Job Board with many LA design jobs around the Country.

    But, IMO, I would be looking for a way OUT of your situation. You just have to plan for it carefully.

    Not sure any of this info. is helpful to you, but, let me know if you think I might be able to help you further.

    Kind Regards,

    J. Robert (Bob) Wainner

    Mark Di Lucido

    Not to minimize your predicament, but when I started out, I also was asked to perform grunt work even though I’m a member of the ‘y’ chromosome club. In my case, the culprit was the 1990s groupthink of the design professions (think Madmen) to heap tedium, long hours, low pay, and lesser tasks onto apprentices so the partners and owners could do the fun work and then go drink martinis. Regardless, it’s disappointing that the old boy club mentality (and yes, old girl club thinking exists too) with their ‘pay your dues before we give you meaningful work’ groupthink, is still with us.
    As Bob says, look for a way out, but while you’re there, “pay yourself first” as much as you can. And don’t discount DB firm employment or better yet, ownership. After you’ve designed parks for a while the novelty may wear off—it did for me. Now, if I had to choose between owning a DB and doing park design, it’d be a no-brainer—DB ownership would be my choice, hands down.


    P.S. from Bob. I agree with you Mark…good suggestions. I really don’t know the DB business for LAs very well. My background has been ONLY with LA design firms (and my own). Like you, the first several yrs. working in LA firms (about 5 plus yrs.) I was mostly producing final construction/planting plans (that were by senior designers); and base sheets, plant take-offs, etc.
    It’s not FUN work for sure, but, you still learn a lot in the process…and that experience goes a long ways.

    In my situation, it just made more sense to go out on my own “as a 1 person LA firm”…work out of my home design studio (which I’ve been doing since 1991). No employees, practically zero overhead…just have to pay the IRS quarterly.

    Catherine, IF you could pick up 4 or 5 good years of experience working for an LA design firm OR a good Design-Build Firm that has several talented LAs on staff who you could learn from…that exp. would serve you well…and put you in a good position to create your own Company. I don’t know how many years of LA experience you have so far…or the types of projects you’ve been involved with, so, you may only need 2 or 3 yrs. of working for an Design Firm to pick up some extra design

    I do have an LA friend in Florida, who passed the L.A.R.E. exam and worked for a Licensed LA for 2 yrs. (required) to be eligible for an LA license in most States. He also took and passed the Florida LA State exam. Though he graduated with an LA degree 10 yrs. ago, he worked in other types of jobs for about 5 of those years. So, he now has 3 additional yrs. of experience…but, they were designing on his own (not with an LA firm). And, his LA business is very busy. I just don’t feel he yet has enough design experience IMO. I personally don’t recommend this path…as I don’t believe anyone can teach themselves Landscape Architecture. I just feel it’s important to learn from some exp. & talented LAs before you make an attempt to go out on your own.

    And something every LA should know. When you do decide to go out on your own…regardless of how much experience you have, how much start-up money you have…it will take you at least (2) years to get your design firm up and running. That’s how long it took me. I marketed like crazy all over the Dallas-Fort Worth area, every week…and just designed every little job I could get my hands on…until 2 yrs. into it, I began picking up BIG projects…like large multi-family developments (I had approx. 12 yrs. of previous exp. designing Apt. projects), so, I had built up a portfolio)…from then on, I was off to the races…up to my eyeballs with design work. Putting together a “professional website” is a must today, I think. And keep adding content to that website as you move forward; and of course, there are many other ways to market your design services.


    Andrew Garulay, RLA

    I have begun to write on this thread several times and held back because it is a touchy subject, but it should be discussed.

    I see a lot of diversity in this profession. There is some type of discrimination in every aspect of our lives. It is also true that whenever any of us are not advancing as fast or feel like we are not getting treated the same as someone else we can sometimes jump to conclusions as to why that is. It may be sexism, racism, ageism, ….. but sometimes that conclusion can be incorrect and can get in the way of ourselves focusing on what we do have control of.

    Fighting discrimination is a good cause and something we should all be putting some effort into, but that is not your most compelling need in advancing your current position at this moment and it may or may not be the actual cause of what is holding you back. If you are mistakenly believing that you are discriminated against for something beyond your control it can be become a self manufactured obstacle to you doubling down on your efforts to do everything you can to advance yourself within your control.

    You will build resentment to your co-workers more and more if you spend a lot of energy looking for discrimination against you and it will affect your behavior and demeanor which will become more and more apparent to those whom you work with. That will in turn make them more negative toward you which will also make you more negative and it just gets worse.

    I’m a white male, so when things didn’t go so well for me in the many jobs that I have had in my life I could not feel like a victim of racial or gender discrimination. I had to come up with other self manufactured reasons, but I still sometimes managed to come up with them. However, as I learned more in life I figured out that people are people and they all have bias to or from one thing or another and there is nothing you can do about that on the individual level except prove them wrong for thinking it.

    Prove to them that they are mistaken if they believe you are not capable. Don’t focus on the individuals you are working with as whom you are working for. You are working for the entity of the firm. Do whatever you can to benefit the firm. Make other people’s (even jerks) work easier any time that you can and make yourself the best that you can be. Maybe it will work out there, but no matter what your career is going to be based on you being the best you can be. Do it for yourself.

    Discrimination is a societal issue that is bigger than one office and has to fought in that bigger arena.

    Having been within the inner workings of a number of companies and part of the management I have been privy to the inner thoughts of some of those running a company. There are a lot of reasons why different people are treated differently including biases held by individuals nearer to the top. Some apply stereotypes to certain types of people when they come in, but my observation is that those stereotypes fade as the familiarity of individuals increase. If that is the case in your circumstance, you need to be careful that you don’t feed any stereotype.
    One of the biggest concerns that I observed working closely with landscape business owners regarding women in the work place was that they believed that some women were too quick to blame gender discrimination on anything that did not go in their favor.

    I think that you will find that if there are any biases toward you for your age and/or gender it will all erode as you work hard and strive to be the best you can be. Good luck. If it does not work out, take your best efforts somewhere else. Just don’t break yourself by not being the best you can be under any circumstance.

    Catherine Riley

    Thank you Andrew! I’m grateful that you took the time and thought to write such an eloquent answer. I will continue to do my best work and be the best I can be.

    Catherine Riley

    Thank you to Mark and Bob as well!


    It sounds like you’re at the bottom of the totem pole. That happens. But your victim mentality isn’t helping. Neither is your baseless accusation of “sexism.” Nobody is going to give you opportunities if they don’t like you. That goes for everybody. I’ll repeat that one more time: if you’re the new kid on the block working for a bunch of old timers with more experience and tenure than you and nobody likes your attitude you will get zero opportunities.

    Catherine Riley

    Hi everyone,
    I got a job at a large firm and am loving the company culture. I’m still at the bottom of the totem pole, but I’m treated very well. I’m learning a lot from my supervisor and experiencing career advancement. It’s a wonderful change.

    I’ve re-read my post and I think I didn’t explain the extent of the subtle sexism very well. It’s hard to put into words because it’s not tangible. My former employers didn’t break the law or sexually harass me. A few replies to my post focused on my perception of being an entry level employee and having victim mentality. I think they made good points. It’s important to do your best work and not make excuses. Now that I have a new job I can look back and see the millions of microaggressions and unprofessional comments that I experienced much more clearly and differentiate between sexism and being entry level. Some of it is wording. If you’re given an assignment to do a planting plan, that’s awesome. If you’re given an assignment because it’s softscape and they, as men, handle hardscape, and you need to “beauty it up because you understand that type of thing,” its weird sexism. Likewise being called “CAD-girl,” “office gal,” or “toots.”

    Then there are situations where I can’t differentiate between the two. Such as the time I showed my boss the runoff calculations and explained why the underground cistern with no outlet would overflow. He said I am inexperienced and he knew better, and not to argue. And by that point I knew any response was in vain, so I waited for the rain. It rained that week. An entire yard flooded along with the basement of a 1900’s mansion.

    What I want to say is this:
    1. If you’re an entry level LA, just keep learning. Learn from your boss’s mistakes, their assumptions, their meetings, how they run an office, and how they handle catastrophes.
    2. Pass the LARE.
    3. If and when you finally crack because you’re job is bananas and you’re poor from choosing life as a LA, and the good old boys club is getting you down… write a post on Land8 and keep working. You’ll get there. And you’ll have amazing stories from being the lowest of the totem pole when your knowledge was ignored and a mansion flooded.
    4. It’s not about you. The older generation grew up with gender stereotypes and while they don’t get a free pass, I try to keep in mind that it’s not personal. My boss isn’t implying that I, specifically, am capable of less than a man, he actually believes this to be true of all women. Not great, but not personal.
    5. STAND UP FOR YOURSELF. The first time my boss called me “toots,” was the last time. Same with “hun,” and “dear.”
    6. Have a good attitude but STAND UP FOR YOURSELF. This one is in response to bdbspeed’s post above. If you are young and need to gain experience, a good attitude is important. But it is better to be safe than well liked. Know when it’s time to bail. Bosses don’t need to hug or touch their employees. You can gain experience somewhere else, preferably somewhere with an HR department.
    7. Know that you aren’t alone. Although only men have responded to this post, I’ve spoken to many women I’ve gone to school with who have battled this in one form or another. One said I needed to read Feminist Fight Club. Read it! Especially if you’re a man. You can become a male feminist and let women share their ideas without interrupting them or taking credit.

    Thank you.

    Barbara Peterson

    Hi Catherine,
    I literally just saw your post yesterday and like you, am surprised that no female LA’s replied. I also see that you have moved to another firm: seems to have been a wise move.
    ‘Yes’, female friends of mine (me included) have experienced either overt or subtle sexism or ageism during our careers. We vary in how we address it … that is, what we say and do. Therefore, there is no one right answer.
    So as far as advice, I wish that I had something deep or profound to give you … I don’t … but you are right in saying that learning, experience, and attitude are key.
    The LARE, though, will not solve these problems. That said, DO get your license and find someone that you respect to be your mentor. Also, focus in an area that you like… become “that” expert. And ask contractors questions BUT also explain why your plan or detail is important as shown esp. when it may reflect a new way of doing things.
    Also, this is not about “old men”. You will have support from “older” men, and you will have disrespect from “younger” men or “older” or “younger” women. It’s about perceived status. So, yeah, don’t take it personally. If you do, your work relationships with other colleagues, contractors, even projects will be negatively affected.
    And finally, join female ASLA or AIA networking groups. These groups are not “complaint groups” but instead provide networking opportunities as well as support, advice, and learning.
    See: nothing deep or profound but hopefully a bit of support.
    Good luck and keep doing “your thing”.

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