August 28, 2009
Carole Wedge, FAIA

by Sara Fernandez Cendon

Summary: In 2004, Carole Wedge became the first woman president of Boston-based Shepley, Bulfinch, Richardson & Abbott, one of the country’s oldest architecture firms. Today the firm, including its ownership, is about 50 percent women.

Where did you go to school?
I have a bachelor’s degree in environmental design from the University of Colorado and a BArch from Boston Architectural College.

At a time when women didn’t have many role models or mentors in the profession, how did you decide to become an architect?
I was raised in the ’70s. The women who graduated from high school when I did, in 1977, were really educated to think they could do anything. The Women’s Movement was alive and well, and, if anything, we had mothers who felt like their options were not particularly open, and they encouraged us to embrace opportunities. When I went to school, the university was probably 50-50 male-female.

The architecture department was a little less even. My class was about 25 percent women, and we probably had a smaller percentage of women professors. But by the time I got to the BAC, it was the mid-eighties, and there were lots of faculty who were women. When I joined Shepley Bulfinch there was one woman principal, Elizabeth Ericson, [FAIA]. I thought it was a good sign and felt like that was a cultural signal to me that it could happen.

The tricky thing for women today is that there definitely are still firms that are completely male-owned. I don’t think that sends a signal of inclusion, especially if all the principals are white men.

But I feel like there’s a much more open environment now, and the real issue is: Are there pathways in a firm for people? I often said to folks I worked with that I was pretty sure I would be successful in architecture because I loved it as a profession. I just wasn’t quite sure what my career path was. I was always very lucky that my colleagues at Shepley Bulfinch were worrying about my career right along with me, always encouraging me to take on something more, to think about what else to add to my portfolio of skill sets and experience.

I think the best mentors aren’t always necessarily people who look like you, but people who appreciate the breadth and depth of experiences that make a career a rich one and keep encouraging you to grow in whatever career you’re in.

You started out on a different career path before you joined Shepley Bulfinch as an architect. Describe your trajectory before and after you joined the firm.
I graduated in ’81 from the University of Colorado, and was pretty dead set that I was going to be an architect. But I went to Europe for a year, and when I came back to the U.S. in ’82, the recession was in full force. Most architecture firms were laying people off. They certainly weren’t hiring entry-level architects, so I took an entry-level job on Wall Street.

I started in a program as a portfolio assistant and eventually got my stock broker’s license and was a portfolio manager. I did that for three years. For the first couple of years, it was really interesting because I was learning and growing, and the last year-and-a-half was less so, as it became sort of repetitive. I realized that the newness of it was over and that I didn’t see it as a life path.

I started thinking about going back to school and looked at graduate schools. What I liked about the BAC was that I could work in a firm on real projects while I was going to school. This was attractive to me because I was hungry to test architecture as a profession: Did I really like it, or did I just theoretically like it?

I started at Shepley Bulfinch in the mailroom. The BAC placement office directed me to firms that were hiring. I talked to Shepley and to some other firms in town, and started at the beginning—running prints, opening mail, carrying models and boards, and coloring site plans for interviews.

In a way, I grew up with the firm. When I was starting as an early draftsman there were principals who had also started at the firm as early draftsmen. So there was a cycle and culture at Shepley. Hugh Shepley, [FAIA], Otis Robinson, [a former principal] and others had done every job in the firm and learned through their clients. It always felt like that option was open to me.

So, what can you say about your experience with the oft-cited “glass ceiling”?
I think there’s a difference between a natural progression of educated women moving through a profession and tokenism. For me, it never felt like tokenism. It felt like a genuine process or progression in my career. There were a couple of different people who did the hiring when I joined the firm, and there was a lot of discussion in retrospect about how many of them had daughters our age. Many of the principals running the firm had daughters who had recently graduated or were ambitious to have careers, so I think they saw it as a natural occurrence; it didn’t feel as if there were obstacles to our advancing.

I also think it can be a matter of temperament: You can clear obstacles by choosing not to see them. I definitely felt like my role models growing up were my working grandmothers and great-grandmothers who ran businesses and were seen as powerful women. So powerful women leaders were always part of my worldview.

I’ve definitely met people since then who were told that they couldn’t do things. There was a lot of sexism just like there was a lot of racism. I’m sure people were exposed to that, so I think I was pretty lucky. But I also felt that a better approach to contrasting or working against bias was to show capability. I thought that the best evidence would be success, so it would be better to focus on doing a better job than obsessing about whether there was bias.

Do women have a specific contribution to make to the practice of architecture?
I never know how to answer this question. I’ve definitely heard a lot of speakers talk about how women process information differently, how women work with others differently, and I definitely see that—but I also see women who don’t.

I do think that there are inherent differences in worldview and world perspective based on experience, and I see those as more relevant. What’s most important to me is that architecture really reflects the society it serves.

We do have a diverse society, so if you’re missing voices in the design and development and envisioning of architecture for that society, that worries me. I certainly know that in our firm, people who have grown up in different environments, whether it’s the other side of the world or just a very different perspective in the United States, add a richness to architecture.

Anecdotally, or experientially, I can say that when I’m on a team with a diverse group of people, I feel more energized. That means that it’s also troubling to me if we have a team that’s all women. I worry that we’re not getting the benefit of a diverse perspective. We’re lucky enough that half of our firm is women, so there are definitely times where there are all women working on something, and I think, “Hmmm … we should get some other perspectives in here, because I don’t think a myopic view is the best view for design, architecture, or planning.”

What kind of policies has your firm implemented to attract or retain women?
The most important thing for us has been to give people flexibility to tell us what they need, and I think architecture is a field where it’s pretty easy to give flexibility. You can give someone a job assignment that is a little less demanding in terms of hours—you can couple them with other team members to take advantage of what they can accomplish on a project—but it doesn’t necessarily have to be a full-time assignment. That doesn’t mean that those people don’t work hard: I would say a working parent is the hardest-working person we employ. They don’t fool around, they don’t fritter away time. Time is very valuable to them. So they get the job done. They really care about it; they need it. The loyalty you get from the flexibility you give is a substantial value—you get much more back than you give.

It’s also about benefits and being a supportive employer—to extend the concept—and not freaking out when, in the first two years of people having babies, their kids are sick all the time. Because everybody’s kids are sick the first couple of years they’re either in daycare or school.

The hardest part is that you can’t do everything. If you’re going to work full time and you’re a parent, you have to prioritize. One of the things that has been trickiest in my career is just encouraging people to stick with architecture. Sometimes, people who don’t get their license pretty quickly after graduating in any field, whether they’re male or female, lose momentum. So one thing we really encourage people to do is get registered as quickly as they can. Keep pace with the track of your career so that when you do want to think about a family you’re not feeling like you have to make a choice between one or the other.

As a woman, how do you succeed in a male-dominated field and retain a reputation, as you have, for being nice?
I don’t know, I think it’s genetic. I’m from an Irish family, so storytelling and socializing always came naturally to me. My grandfather was a police chief, and he managed a lot by walking around and caring about people—that solved many more problems.

I genuinely like people. I can work at home for a day, but it gets kind of lonely. I feed off of the energy of others. I thrive on my clients and the people I work with.

Maybe it was the books I read. I did find a time when I was reading management books and parenting books at the same time and realized the similarities between parenting and management. By learning parenting, delegation, and management all at the same time, I realized that they’re all related.

I don’t think I hide what I think just to be nice, but maybe I grew up in an environment where delivering it in a politically correct way was more helpful. Where I went to a school played a part, since the University of Colorado was very inclusive. I’d grown up in New Jersey, where there was a little bit of “keep your elbows up.” Colorado is a very laid-back place, and I really thrived.

Final thoughts?
The interesting thing for me is how important it is for the AIA to be a voice that shares the richness of architecture as a career. I can’t imagine any career I could have had that would have been as interesting, as diverse, or has taken me to as many interesting places.

The richness of architecture as a profession isn’t always articulated. It’s an amazing career to have an impact on the buildings built in your community—including colleges, universities, and hospitals—and the incredible pride you feel when your firm contributes to that. I think architecture and the AIA in particular need to let people know across the board, regardless of gender or race, what a rewarding profession architecture can be.

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