Newsletter | Sep/Oct 2014

Fifty Women Architects and Design Professionals Gathered for 2014 Retreat

OWA Retreat - Living Proof that We Can Do It

by Sara Mae Martens

Sara Mae is a young and enthusiastic architect who wrote this article after attending the retreat for the first time. Ed.

The first architecture firm I worked for, which employed slightly more women than men, was a lovely work environment. A small firm, we got to know one another well, we chatted every morning, ate lunch together daily, celebrated birthdays and did a lot of wine tasting (we designed wineries). Every year we had a Napa Women’s Weekend where the women rented a house and drank wine, swam, watched movies, cooked, talked about work and architecture and life. Sound familiar?

I was in undergraduate school in architecture at the time and my professors were so pessimistic about the profession – warning that the only way to survive in architecture is if your pure love for form-making overcame the inevitable long hours, low pay, difficult agencies, obstructive neighbors. But every Monday Tuesday and Friday I took BART to the office and it wasn’t anything like that. We were happy, social; it was proof to me that the profession can indeed be enjoyable. I credit my experience at that firm for keeping me in the major and the reason I’m an architect now. If it weren’t for those women cultivating an enjoyable community at our office, I would have left a long time ago and probably would have spent years not knowing what my true calling was. We still keep in touch on occasion.

Fast forward ten years, I’ve now worked for a few different firms, all predictably dude dominated, none with quite the lovely culture I experienced at my first office. When I was studying for the ARE’s I realized that I could count the number of female licensed architects I knew on two fingers. I really needed to find some role models and friends. Through the AIA I got matched with an all-female mentoring group and met Margaret, Esin and Allison, who introduced me to the OWA. They gave glowing reviews of the retreat, telling me how wonderful the ranch was, the company, the arts & crafts, conversations and especially the food! A few more encouraging emails from Patty sealed the deal, and I signed up for the retreat. And just as soon as I sent the check in, I got an email from the women from my old firm who wanted to get together, of course, the weekend of the retreat. Murphy’s law, right? I sadly had to decline but I told them I would report back and probably make them come next year.

The retreat was lovely. For those of you who have been to many of them, please rest assured that it’s a pretty magical experience to the newcomer. It’s so basic, but the best part of the weekend was just seeing, hearing, feeling the presence of women who have done this before. Sometimes at work alone at my desk I think I must be crazy, wondering if I can really put up with this firm, these projects, those contractors etc. It was so comforting to see living proof that a) I’m not the only one struggling with the various issues related to this profession and b) It can be done! Some of you have made it to retirement! It is such a comfort just to know you women are out there, real evidence that it can be done.

I returned to work after the retreat with such confidence. After talking to so many of you who started your own firms, managed your own projects, started firms, switched jobs, created adorable children, traveled, left the profession, came back, it’s all evidence that I can do it too. Whatever it may be. That assurance is actually fairly difficult to find out there. People of like minds getting together in a truly comfortable setting is an extremely special thing.

So thank you for having me; thank you for creating this group and keeping the spark alive for a whopping 40+ years. The OWA is still relevant and valuable to my generation. I look forward to hopefully introducing my old and new friends next year at the retreat.

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