by Christa Schaefer, ASLA, and Tanya Olson, ASLA
You’ve reached that point in your professional life where you find yourself looking for people to connect professionally and create networks with. These special individuals provide a unique dynamic to the depth of our professional lives and may be peers or mentors. They make us feel self-assured and connected, and sometimes become great friends or even business partners. They can be male or female, but there are benefits to finding connection with others of the same sex. Here are two stories from the Women in Landscape Architecture (WILA) leadership team on how they found a network of Women in Design (WID).
WID-Wisconsin – Christa Schaefer, ASLA
I finished my MLA in the Twin Cities and moved back home to Waukesha, WI for job opportunities and to stay connected with family. When I moved I found myself leaving my professional connections behind and felt disconnected from landscape architects in my new home. I wondered who and where they were.
Job opportunities helped me develop a few professional connections, but few were with other women in design fields. I reached out and became engaged with the Wisconsin Chapter of ASLA (WI-ASLA), but still found minimal female connections. Ultimately those opportunities through WI-ASLA expanded my leadership skills and I did finally make some very valuable female connections. These connections have helped support me finding my way through the very male-dominated world I currently work in.
One of the most important connections I made was with a local female landscape architect who happened to be going through similar life changes and challenges. We bonded immediately and over time realized the importance of professional female connections at this point in our lives and careers. Together we worked to bring women in landscape architecture together at casual social outings like meeting up for coffee or drinks, and other events. I used my network to encourage others to attend.
In time, our efforts helped us find and connect with women in other design professions. We found that other architects, women in construction, and women in landscape design in our area were creating and developing their own networks at the same time. Now larger events for women in all design professions are being organized. This group calls themselves WID-Milwaukee. There are other efforts to create similar connections in the Madison area of the state, but for now WID-Milwaukee is the most successful.
The lesson of my story is to be persistent. Keep putting yourself out there and eventually you will find the right connections. Look beyond landscape architecture—we share similar challenges as other design professions. In the end you expand your network and understanding of other professions.
WID-South Dakota – Tanya Olson, ASLA
My story is very similar to Christa’s, except I’m one of the only woman landscape architects in my state and the only one in my region, so I realized pretty quickly that I would have to reach to the other design professions to make connections with other women designers in my area—if there were any.
After college and several years of working at an outstanding landscape architecture firm that I loved (and which had strong female leadership), I moved to a small town in a new state with a new baby and had no idea how I was going to make friends, much less develop professional connections. Since my husband, also a landscape architect, was telecommuting to his job in the previous state, he had no landscape architecture connections to our new area either. But we moved to his home town, so it wasn’t long before we were roped into volunteering for the local community planning organization. Through those volunteer efforts we connected with a local architect and eventually his staff of an architect and interior designers—all women!
After working with the architect from that firm on a landscape design for her own home (and having a great time being design nerds together), I suggested that we start a “women in design” group. We found and invited architects, interior designers, planners, engineers, and landscape architects (there was one other woman LA for a brief time). We discovered that we weren’t the only ones looking for professional female connections. Once a month a group that included most of the woman designers in our area met for coffee and either toured each other’s built work, discussed projects, or helped each other navigate professional challenges in our strongly male-oriented region.
Women from this group not only created strong, long-standing, cross-disciplinary professional connections, but went on to start one of the most popular design conferences in our state. I’m particularly proud that this design conference, though a SD AIA event, is a firmly cross-disciplinary conference (with landscape architects on the planning committee) and every year includes a design charrette where we all get to sit down and design together on a project that benefits the community.
This group was my on-ramp back into landscape architecture at a time in life when many women drop out of the design professions. Over the past ten years we have watched each other persevere through major life events, job changes, health issues, and other challenges that often impact us professionally. We’ve watched our members thrive—some transitioning into retirement and others moving up the corporate ladder to partnership in their firms. When my husband and I decided to start our own design firm at the height of the recession, these women were some of our greatest supporters and now several are our long-time design partners on multiple projects.
I agree with Christa—be persistent. Reach out to other design professionals. And remember—those early tenuous threads of a design network over time will become a strong web that supports you throughout your career.
Christa Schaefer, ASLA, and Tanya Olson, ASLA, are Women in Landscape Architecture Professional Practice Network (WILA PPN) Officers and Past Co-Chairs.