How does anyone choose a career path? Family precedents, inspiration from a teacher or mentor, a chosen course of study, or even an opportunity that opens new doors—any of these can be decisive.
At the age of sixteen, for no discernible reason, I decided I wanted to be an architect. I loved art, but ever the practical thinker, I knew I was no prodigy, and I wondered how I’d ever make a living pursuing the fine arts. I did not particularly want to be a teacher. I knew no architects and had only the faintest idea of what the profession was about. I thought it was a combination of art and geometry, and that mix was appealing. I applied to colleges with that potential course of study in mind, and have not looked back since.
Twenty years have passed, and after finishing college and earning a master’s degree in architecture, I have now been working in the field for fourteen years. I have worked on master plans for entire college campuses, coordinated systems for world-renowned museums, and have recently focused on designing educational institutions. My early attraction toward a profession that combines creative expression with practical problem solving turned out to be a good fit.
As with any job in the secular world, there are challenges that arise as a halakhically observant Jew on a 24/6 schedule in a world that is increasingly expecting 24/7 availability. Most of the challenges I have encountered are likely similar to those experienced by lawyers, accountants, engineers, or anyone in a client-focused corporate environment. However, as a woman in a field that is currently grappling with the lack of women who stay in practice, and as an observant Jew in a field with few Jews compared with other popular fields, there are several challenges that may be unique to architecture.
However, as a woman in a field that is currently grappling with the lack of women who stay in practice, and as an observant Jew in a field with few Jews compared with other popular fields, there are several challenges that may be unique to architecture.
Challenges Unique to Architecture
The study of architecture, and the culture that accompanies both study and practice, are uniquely rigorous. As I moved through my years of training, I began to glimpse some of the challenges of being an observant Jew in that culture. The challenges of being a woman would largely reveal themselves once I entered the workplace, as my classes in school were largely balanced in terms of gender. The culture of architecture school, particularly at the graduate level, is similar to the culture of a yeshiva. Each school has its own philosophy of education (its own hashkafah, as it were), with its own set of well-known, often magnetic, brilliant leaders who are likely famous beyond the walls of the institution. The commitment to the pursuit of architecture is expected to be 24/7. Whatever you are designing can always be better, the design is never finished, and it is never good enough. There is always another angle to probe, always a way to further the development of a concept.
Architecture students were expected to spend as many hours as they could endure in the studio, for years at a time. My friends who were training to be doctors or lawyers worked hard and studied hard, but when their exams were over, they took a break. When their on-call shift ended, they were expected to go home and rest, even if for just a few hours. For the architecture students, though, there was no beginning and no end. We ate, drank, and often slept in the studio building. Some schools enforced a time at night when the studio would close, thus forcing students to go home and sleep, but where I studied this was not the practice.
I had an entire life outside the studio, and this perplexed many of my fellow students. They could not easily understand how I felt the liberty to take such a long break, or how I had developed any friendships outside the building.
Thus, in such a culture, it is easy to imagine how difficult it was to develop an outside life! I took my 26- or 27-hour break for Shabbat every week, leaving the studio an hour or two before Shabbat began and then often returning on Saturday night, shortly after havdalah. I had an entire life outside the studio, and this perplexed many of my fellow students. They could not easily understand how I felt the liberty to take such a long break, or how I had developed any friendships outside the building. This set me apart immediately, and although I did make several close friends in graduate school, the fact that I was immersed in a whole other community that was not the architecture community identified me as an outsider far more than my kashrut restrictions or observance of the hagim.
This tension of balancing two communities continued into my professional life, but once I was out of school, I largely chose not to pursue extra opportunities to be involved in the architectural community, even though this would have helped me professionally. I view my Jewish community as my primary one, and in my limited free time, I look for opportunities to contribute to it. Participation in the architectural community is highly encouraged and considered a great way to network outside the office. It may be that I am missing out on key opportunities by not getting involved with this network at this midpoint in my career, but that is a choice that is right for me at this time.
Finding the Right Work–Life Balance
Architecture is a profession that takes the long view. It is not a profession in which people often rise to prominence at a young age. For most, it starts with several years of study, followed by years of practice, during which one navigates a complex set of requirements, including a series of exams, to reach the status of “registered architect.” It is not uncommon at all for an architect to work well into his or her seventies. Design tools and building technology are constantly evolving and changing, which makes architecture a hard profession from which to take a break, if one intends to return to the workforce.
The profession is currently struggling with the lack of women in senior positions in the private sector, and many important conversations are happening at major conferences as well as online and in trade publications. I am fortunate to work in a firm with a large percentage of women colleagues, including at the senior management level. My company has many policies in place that support workplace flexibility, and numerous members of the staff have availed themselves of those benefits. For example, I have been working a 32-hour work week for seven years since the birth of my oldest child, and I have not felt that it has affected my ability to contribute at a high level or to support my clients. However, I have watched many talented women change course as a result of their inability to strike a work–life balance that they felt was sustainable, particularly once they became parents. This is not unique to architecture per se, as many industries struggle with the same imbalance, but despite individual forward-thinking companies, it will likely be another generation before we see significant progress across the field as a whole.
A final mundane aspect to the industry that has implications for observant Jewish women (and their families) is that of compensation. Despite popular opinion to the contrary, architecture is not a particularly high-paying profession when compared with other client-based professions that are built on project work and billable hours.
A final mundane aspect to the industry that has implications for observant Jewish women (and their families) is that of compensation. Despite popular opinion to the contrary, architecture is not a particularly high-paying profession when compared with other client-based professions that are built on project work and billable hours. An observant Jewish architect who intends to start a family and send her children to day school will need a spouse who earns at least a comparable living to make it work.
Many years ago, I participated in a panel on architecture and engineering for Stern and Yeshiva College students who were interested in the profession. There were four of us on the panel and we answered a wide range of questions from a packed room. We then asked everyone in the room to raise their hands if they were planning to have kids and to send them to day school. Nearly all hands were raised. We proceeded to make it clear that architecture is not a breadwinner profession in our community; it is realistic to think about it only in terms of a two-career household. Few college students want to even think about paying day school tuition, but as we know from conversations happening nationwide, the cost of day school is a key issue facing our community today, as well as the magnitude of student debt after college and graduate school. Understanding the earning potential of a given profession is a necessity in today’s world.
Challenging, yet Fulfilling
Personally, I never experienced any familial or communal pressure to pursue a less demanding career. With the exception of one rabbi from my high school years who, upon learning I was an architect, exclaimed, “That’s not a job for a good Jewish girl,” no one in my life has been anything but supportive. I am fortunate to have lived as an adult in Orthodox communities full of women with varied and challenging professions.
A career in architecture can be challenging, yet fulfilling. To walk into a building or space you contributed to as a designer can be immensely rewarding. For some, it is that tangible sense of achievement that is most appealing. For others, it is the problem-solving aspect in a profession in which there is always something new to learn. I have spoken to several young women and men over the years who are interested in pursuing a career in architecture, and I have encouraged them to follow their dreams, with the caveat that it is a long and often uphill road and it demands a serious passion and commitment to the profession.
Atara Margolies is an associate at Quinn Evans Architects in Washington, D.C.
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