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Working in male-dominated fields, women can inspire each other

Leticia Blaya Fornataro

Leticia Blaya Fornataro

Architecture for me was an accident.

I really wanted to study fashion, but growing up in Brazil you pick your major at age 17 and then take the university qualifying test. Your major is set. Fashion wasn’t one of the offered courses and I wasn’t ready to make the leap and move to New York City to attend the Fashion Institute of Technology.

So I took the university qualifying test for three different majors: medicine, law school and architecture. I was accepted into law school and architecture, but architecture just seemed a little closer to fashion in its artistic potential and possibilities.

So architecture for me, as a career path, was an accident. Fate. Destiny.

Fast-forward four years and I was about to graduate. In Brazil, that means you’re considered ready to practice. Design buildings. Have them built. People occupying them.

I realized then that I still knew nothing and needed to further my studies. I didn’t want to be responsible for structures failing or buildings falling down. Knowing that the extensive process for getting licensed to practice architecture in the U.S. was ironclad and would give me the training and confidence I needed, I moved here to pursue bachelor’s and master’s degrees in architecture.

Despite graduate school statistics showing 50 percent men and 50 percent women in architecture, in the profession, you see a lot fewer women as practicing professionals. During my career, I’ve been incredibly fortunate to know and work with confident and powerful women who have shown me how to succeed in this field based on my talent and work ethic.

My first job in the U.S. was with a woman-owned office in Salt Lake City, Utah — an epicenter of a male-dominated field in a male-dominated culture. Jill Jones, AIA (principal at AJC Architects) was an incredible mentor and role model. She held her own in a “boys club” profession. Jill taught me to have my own voice, to not be afraid to speak up and to hold my own in a male-dominated field.

I also met an incredibly talented and confident young woman, Greta Anderson, AIA (principal at FFKR Architects), who became one of my best friends and an example that it’s OK to be feminine and like fashion, yet go to a job site and work in this field.

After moving to Miami, I met another successful woman, Brazilian-born Ana Paula Ibarra (principal at Via Design Studio). Ana has been a close friend and a great example of perseverance and strength as a professional who built her firm and client base solely on her merits. She’s shown me how grace and kindness can get you far and help you create a rapport with clients so they’ll trust you and know you have their backs.

I’ve been at SWBR since 2008 and know that my work ethic, capabilities and strengths are all valued, and that the firm is supportive and wants to give its employees the tools to succeed. Knowing this, and having been so fortunate to have had great mentors in this field, I’ve been thrilled to help organize WForum, a new initiative we started at the firm to help empower women in the profession.

The “curriculum” consists of one meeting a month, for a total of 12 meetings in a year. Six of the meetings feature guest speakers—female professionals in our community who are willing to share their stories and experiences, especially when it comes to gender bias. The other sessions are a mix between coaching and roundtable discussions where we use our time to empower each other and share stories of how we can advance in a male-dominated field.

I’ve also become involved with Rochester Institute of Technology’s architecture program. For the past two years, I’ve mentored a female student and am now a guest critic in a graduate school studio. I feel it’s important for young women in the field to have an example of a female architect much like I’ve been fortunate to have. And, selfishly, I can be involved early on to try to make sure that the 50 percent of women in the architecture school translates to 50 percent of women practicing architecture.

As a professional designer in a male-dominated industry and a mother of two—a boy and a girl—I feel a responsibility to show girls, like my daughter, that yes, we can do what men can. I want to show her that she can choose her career path based on what she’s passionate about and what she wants to do with her life, not based on what society tells her is acceptable as a profession for women.

I started out as a not-so-sure-I-want-to-work-40-hours mom, and over time have grown into a confident architect with many hats to wear on any given day. It’s hard to juggle all the moving parts, but prioritizing has become a large part of my daily routine. I can still be a productive member of our office, develop business, manage projects and help make our clients “raving fans.” And I can still be involved in PTA-related activities; they just may be the night functions instead of 9 a.m. meetings.

So I’ve strayed a distance away from fashion, but ended up finding my passion in architecture and my own voice to succeed and guide other women along the same path.

Leticia Blaya Fornataro, AIA, LEED AP BD+C, is an associate and project manager at SWBR. Her focus is on housing projects, particularly designing senior communities.

(c) 2017 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-363-7269 or email madams@bridgetowermedia.com.

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