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BSA News

Jun 01, 2023

Women’s Leadership Summit Returns to Its Roots

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Photo courtesy of AIA.

A summit that brings together a diverse community of women professionals in architecture, design, and the allied building industries at various stages of their careers to share ideas, network, mentor, and inspire is coming home to Boston this September. Don’t miss it.

The largest nationwide gathering of female architects, the annual AIA Women’s Leadership Summit (WLS), will take place for the first time in Boston this September—a coming home, if you will, since Boston is where the seed of the idea for this summit first took shape almost two decades ago.

The Power of Women Gathering

The AIA puts it simply: “The Women’s Leadership Summit is a premier event that brings together the industry’s largest network of diverse women who are breaking down barriers, making themselves visible, and manifesting the careers they want—while making a difference in the world.”

Carol Wedge FAIA and former principal at Shepley Bulfinch was among the original planners of the first summit in 2009 and speaks candidly about its evolution: “For me it became a great network of professionals; after the second or third summit, it started to turn into mentorship…. There was something great about talking to other firm leaders, owners, and principals about business development and design strategy and how they were addressing any design issue they were up against.”

After attending the San Jose summit in 2022, Sarah Oakes, a designer at the Boston firm Perkins Eastman, said in an article her firm published after the summit: “I don’t think I’ve ever met a female group of structural engineers here in Boston. I’ve only ever worked with guys, so it was nice to see other parts of the industry—not just architecture—that are getting more women represented in leadership roles.”

Kelly Ard AIA, partner and president at designLab Architects, describes the value of the summit: “Even if you have a firm that is supportive of women, you still might not see them in leadership roles, i.e., talking about the business and industry topics. The summit is a great thing, though, because it also addresses design and technology. It’s not just about why the industry is not more equitable—that’s part of it—but there’s also these other facets of who we are as people within the profession; we spend a lot of time talking about that, which is refreshing.”

Summit’s Origins

In 2006, Sho-Ping Chin FAIA, then a principal at Payette, cofounded the Women Principals Group at the BSA. The group, comprising Boston-area architects and allied colleagues in the profession, met quarterly to discuss issues facing senior women leaders. The group expanded the conversation nationally with the AIA’s support, and the first Women’s Leadership Summit was born in 2009. The two-day summit in Chicago focused on leadership and design and attracted 150 attendees. Over the next decade, the summit was held biennially until 2022, when AIA Executive Vice President and CEO Lakisha Ann Woods decided the conference should happen every year to keep pace with change and learning, and to focus on gender and equity.

A Ripple Effect

For attendees, there is “an indescribable energy” that many feel while at and after the summit, Wedge says. Yanel de Angel FAIA, principal and managing director at Perkins&Will, concurs: “One of my colleagues came back from the summit and renegotiated her salary. She finally had the confidence to advocate for herself. She understood she wasn’t alone.”

Also riding that ripple effect are recipients of the Sho-Ping Chin Women’s Leadership Summit Grant, which was created in Chin’s honor after she died unexpectedly in 2015 and sponsors women who may not be able to afford to attend the summit. The grant has been in effect through three summits; the first group of recipients comprised five women. “These five women have been AIA presidents, served on the AIA Strategic Council, and been embedded in leadership in the AIA in ways we didn’t anticipate,” says AIA President Emily Grandstaff-Rice FAIA. “We have witnessed these women grow and advance specifically as a result of the connections they make at the leadership summit, and the commitment they then have to the Institute afterwards is just delightful to see.”

Adds de Angel: “The summit brings together a network of women who say, ‘Yes you can do it’ and push each other, [while saying,] ‘I’ll be your reference; I have your back.’ I think that has been super powerful.”

It’s in Boston!

The summit being held in Boston, returning to its origins, only increases the anticipation and excitement surrounding this event. When asked if there is a message that she wants to get out about the summit, Grandstaff-Rice says simply, “Come…. We’ve been talking about bringing this to Boston for 10 years. To be able to have it here on the year that I’m also serving as AIA president is extraordinary.” The summit will be held September 12 through 14, and registration will open in mid to late June.