When I was a young professional working in healthcare design, I vividly recall taking conference calls from inside a closet so my clients couldn’t hear my children’s voices from across the room. This was the early 1990s, a time when the thinking on women at work was very cut and dry: Women were either a full-time employee or a stay-at-home parent.  But I had rejected the either/or options and created my own hybrid solution, setting up my own studio in my home and working directly with clients as part of a collaborative team with other independent consultants. This approach gave me a flexible schedule to balance parenting while keeping my career development intact. Still, I couldn’t let clients know I was working at home without it having potential negative implications for my career.

Several decades later, the pandemic has, in some ways, accelerated a shift in our tolerance for working parents as our corporate and familial personas could no longer operate in silos. Children and pets bursting into view during a videoconference is now viewed as endearing and has become the norm. The acknowledgement and accommodation of our larger lives has been a step forward: COVID-19, in some ways, has taught us that people can work effectively and impactfully and still balance personal commitments and interests.

Despite these positive changes, however, it’s hard to believe how far we still have left to go in. While the pandemic facilitated some great strides in changing perceptions in the ability for an executive to undertake familial duties and do their job, it has also shined a spotlight on the gender inequities that still exist and, in some cases, exacerbated them. For example, we know women have been more significantly impacted by COVID-19, with women losing their jobs in greater numbers than men, according to PricewaterhouseCoopers. In addition, more women have elected to leave the workforce after finding it difficult to juggle work and childcare due to the closure or reduced capacity of schools, nurseries, and other extracurricular programs. The 2020 Women in the Workplace study by LeanIn (Palo Alto, Calif.) and McKinsey & Company (New York) found that 25 percent of women were considering leaving their job. Of women in leadership, three out of four cite burnout as the main reason.

Even before the pandemic, these stressors were the norm within the architecture industry. While I have more female company in healthcare leadership than a decade ago, most healthcare planning principals, practice leaders, and senior technical architects in healthcare are men. This is consistent with the data: A 2017 survey by architecture publication Dezeen reported that women account for only 18 percent of partners or principals in architecture firms, yet they represent 50 percent of the architecture graduates and new hires. These metrics, often labelled as “the missing 32 percent,” tell us that the recruitment and retainment of women is still a blind spot. For those women leaving the profession, according to the survey, reasons cited include long hours, lack of support, and lack of creative opportunity.

Healthcare projects are complex, and our work in developing projects is closely integrated with construction management and owner’s representatives. For women, we are often the only one within the team representing the project trades, such as engineering and construction, as they too are very male-dominated fields. The work culture can be tough for an “only one.” It can be an exhausting balancing act to conform to the dominate work culture, while keeping a keen focus on your own path to contribute, have impact, and remain true to who you are.

A recent experience illustrates the issue.  At an onsite meeting to review patient room mock-ups with the client and contractor, the one and only female member of the contractor team who had managed the mock-up process was present for the review. As we concluded the meeting, a male team leader thanked the team and offered a handshake to those in the circle. What was striking was that he ignored the woman, shaking hands with her male colleagues to the left and the right of her.  She had taken a step forward and offered her hand, but she was simply not seen. The sting of invisibility was obvious on her face. Both she and her hard work to coordinate the construction were not acknowledged. When you string together these kinds of experiences day after day is it any wonder that many women decide the fight for opportunity and support isn’t worth it?

But we can change the trajectory. It begins by getting more intentional about our hires and more strategic about how we support, promote, and move women into leadership positions. For example, recognizing that the career path for women may not be as linear as men, we need to craft different career development strategies to provide opportunities for development and advancement. For example, embracing the kind of hybrid work environment that I kept on the down-low years ago can now be one model of working that gives women with young children a different choice, thus avoiding a gap in their resume, their career development, and earning potential. Regardless of the place that work occurs, women can and should be positioned for leadership with clients and project teams to help shift the demographics.

Second, the role of allyship, or the active and consistent practice of advocating and supporting those who have traditionally been left behind, is crucial to fostering a culture of inclusivity. We need men in healthcare design to get intentional about advocating and sponsoring women colleagues and coaching and positioning women as healthcare planners, technical architects, and design leadership.  And crucially, better representation and visibility of women in leadership positions are needed to encourage younger associates or recent graduates to pursue a career in architecture. Women need to be able to see other women to envision a path for themselves.

We know that our best design results when we work as a multidisciplinary integrated team—diversity in trade disciplines contributes holistic solutions. In serving our healthcare clients, we must ask ourselves how might the design solutions of a varied team better address the needs of a diverse workplace where women hold 76 percent of all healthcare jobs and drive 80 percent of industry growth?

When we elevate women, everybody wins.

Brenda Smith is a former nurse and health practice leader for Perkins+Will (New York). She can be reached at brenda.smith@perkinswill.com.