The Best of Both Worlds: The Challenge of Being an Architect and a Mother

Jen Fumuso, AIA and senior associate at OZ Architecture, helped the firm's leadership develop a family-leave policy.

By Marisa Pooley, APR, Marketing & Communications manager; AIA Colorado

Being both a mother and an architect is a challenge without a one-size-fits-all solution. For some, it’s about finding a firm which allows part-time or flexible schedules. For others, it’s about advocating for family leave policies within their workplace and finding good mentors. But one thing that most architect moms find in common is that balancing it all is no easy feat.

Last year, AIA Colorado began sharing the stories and diverse perspectives of working mothers in the design profession. This series not only gave women a platform to share their experiences, but it also sparked incredible conversations and resource sharing among members. It also helped give birth to new equity, diversity and inclusiveness initiatives within AIA Colorado.

Though many women—and men—have been championing equity within their firms, and there have been major gains, we still have work to do to ensure that women are encouraged to become architects and to stay in the profession.

According to AIA’s research around equity in the profession, as of 2016, approximately half of architecture school graduates were women, but only 18 percent of licensed architects were women. Women also report receiving lower pay and fewer career advancement opportunities compared to their white, male counterparts. Plus, antiquated maternity or family leave policies, combined with the long hours and unpredictable work in the profession, can make being a mother and an architect difficult.

With numbers like that, it’s no surprise that people like Beth Mosenthal, AIA and architect at Anderson Mason Dale Architects had no idea what to expect when she chose to be a mother. “While I aspired to have a family at some point, up until reality hit, I admittedly hadn’t reconciled what it might mean to be an architect and a mother,” she said.

For Jen Fumuso, AIA and senior associate at OZ Architecture, the warnings came long before she even considered having a family. “I was first forewarned that a degree and career in architecture had demanding hours when I told my college advisor that architecture was my choice of major. I was reminded of this again when I took my first job and countless times throughout both my first and second pregnancies. I was warned that moms would have no time at home with kids, would miss all the bedtimes and would have to choose between career and home life,” said Fumuso.

After hearing these types of stories and concerns, new mom Leanna De La Torre, AIA and architect at Humphries Poli Architects wasn’t even sure that she’d want to return to work after becoming a mother. And yet, each of these women have returned to practicing architecture since having children, but it has taken intentional and proactive work. They insist that open communication with leadership is paramount to successfully navigating their new dual-roles.

“Trying to strike a balance, compromising on the number of hours I can realistically practice in order to share my time more fully with my family is something that I have worked hard with my employer, my family and myself to test, and as my age and career stages evolve, will admittedly require continued collaboration to fine tune,” explained Mosenthal. “I have worked with my firm’s open-minded members of leadership to continue practicing architecture while ’piloting‘ different part-time work scenarios, with a goal of finding the best balance for my firm and my family.”

Mosenthal said that by working with her employer to identify short-term realities versus long-term career aspirations, it has helped her chart a personal and professional roadmap for balancing family life with a fulfilling career path.

In De La Torre’s case, being proactive and discussing schedule options with her employer has allowed her to continue her role at Humphries Poli in a part-time capacity. Though she sometimes misses out on the camaraderie that comes with spending 40+ hours leading up to a deadline with coworkers, she feels as though she is getting the best of both worlds: she enjoys time with her daughter while also doing what she loves as a designer.

Fumuso took it a step further and has directly helped OZ’s leadership develop a family-leave policy.

“The leadership at OZ has a large percentage of women/moms who have been paving the way and led by example with five-month-long maternity leaves and flex time upon return to work — even 20 years ago — and now we are building upon their experience to ensure that our family-friendly culture remains progressive in terms of how we support staff,” said Fumuso.

Fumuso has even helped create a “New Parents Handbook,” a one-stop shop for all questions regarding OZ policies. Fumuso echoes Mosenthal and De La Torre’s advice for expectant mothers — engage in dialogue with your firm early and often.

Certainly, navigating motherhood and architecture is a challenge, and unfortunately one that has driven women out of the profession for decades. But open-mindedness and a willingness to have conversations about flexibility can allow Colorado firms to recruit and retain excellent talent, who happen to also be women and mothers. Women — and men — continue to push the profession into the future. They model what it looks like to be a parent and an architect and get us a little bit closer to the equitable future we hope for.

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