Women’s History Month Series, Part Three: Find Your Purpose
In our third and final installment of RDG’s Women’s History Month series, we discuss the value of purpose-driven work and how supporting and lifting up others benefits us all.
We officially close out our Women’s History Month interview series with a conversation focused on finding meaning in your career, how important it is to pursue work that excites you and what it means to be supported and offer support to others in return.
Molly Haas, AIA, is a licensed architect who has been with RDG since 2017. In her work for the firm, she focuses on designs for RDG’s Early Learning Market, creating safe, inviting spaces that encourage play and exploration.
Amy Haase, AICP is a principal and experienced planner with more than 20 years of experience. She joined RDG in 1999 and is a trusted leader in developing plans and managing public engagement processes and has extensive experience developing comprehensive studies that positively impact communities.
Molly Hanson has served as RDG’s Conservation and Community Outreach Specialist since joining the firm in 2019. She works across RDG’s markets to support facilitation, public engagement and conservation-based project management and currently co-chairs RDG’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee.
As a landscape architect, Sara Poetting, PLA, ASLA focuses on work for various projects across RDG. With RDG since 2016, she uses her strengths to create compelling and visually engaging graphics that blend design, art and science to create usable and memorable places for people of all ages.
Originally from Hangzhou, China, Weishi Wang, AIA, LEED AP joined RDG in 2018. She earned her Master of Architecture from Texas A&M University and has experience designing internationally, having spent time interning for several architecture firms overseas. At RDG, Weishi focuses on design for the firm’s Senior Living Market.
Thank you all for helping us close out our Women’s History Month interview series. I’d like to start the same way we did with our first and second installments and learn a little bit more about what led you to your profession. What drew you to your particular field?
Molly Haas: I had always had an interest in manipulating spaces. Anytime I had the opportunity to play, rather than scripting doll interactions or playing pretend, I liked to set up the dollhouse space. I was very particular about the furniture in my dollhouse, and I also really loved to build little forts in my backyard. In my mind, spaces are always very honest – I know what they are and how they work, and so I was very drawn to a profession that allowed me to lean into that.
Molly Hanson: I wanted to “do good.” I have always felt called to make the world a better place, even as a kid. I taught my fourth-grade class how to recycle; I was active in student council starting in middle school and throughout high school. This strong moral compass combined with my love for nature and my drive to protect our planet led me to where I am today. Every change I’ve made in my career has given me access to a larger platform and more resources to do more good.
Amy Haase: I got into planning in a weird way. I had gone to school planning to teach, then I realized I didn’t want to take that path, so I went to talk with my undergraduate department chair (who also happened to be a woman), and after our discussions, she suggested I switch to geography as my major. I ended up leveraging that pursuit into a career in planning.
Sara Poetting: For me, it was a combination of the program at Iowa State University that helped me find the landscape architecture field and my early mentors, both professors and fellow students, who helped point me to the landscape architecture program. I was drawn to the opportunity to combine art, science and design to make a difference in the outdoor spaces that communities use every day. Landscape architecture presents a new challenge every day – I’m always learning and problem-solving.
Weishi Wang: My mother – she’s a structural engineer and she suggested I go into the field. As I was heading to college, I considered it, and I also explored other fields, including psychology and translation. I found that those possibilities weren’t continually interesting to me, and so I decided to pursue architecture.
Guidance from others can be so helpful when we’re first starting out. As many of you pointed out, it’s also important to find meaning in your work and pursue opportunities that excite you and offer a sense of purpose. What advice would you offer to young women who were once in your shoes and who might be pursuing a career in your industry?
M. Haas: If you love it, then stick with it. I graduated in 2009 into a recession economy and did not get to work in my field until many years later. But I never stopped designing spaces – I would always look for opportunities to flex those skills, whether I was helping friends build an outdoor patio or rearranging the rooms in my house. Bottom line: don’t stop designing just because someone isn’t paying you to design. Eventually, you’ll find your path as I did.
WW: I agree, and I would also say, don’t give up on something just because it’s not immediately interesting to you. The more time and energy you put into it, the more interesting it may become over time. Seek out advice from different people – classmates, mentors, friends – but know that you don’t have to take every piece of advice. When I was in school, there were plenty of times that people gave me advice and I ended up going in a different direction and I was better for having made that choice.
SP: To echo what Weishi said, ask questions and always look for opportunities to learn, grow and build your skills. I would also say to seek out a variety of mentors, whether they are from within your organization, professional organizations or are experienced local practitioners. Don’t be afraid to bridge the gap and engage leadership or look to your fellow emerging professionals. Mentors in different stages of their professional careers will give you different perspectives. In this industry, we communicate with fellow designers, clients, allied professionals and community members who all have different needs, so it’s helpful to practice presenting your ideas in a variety of formats and to many audiences.
AH: Yes, becoming adept at effective communication, both written and oral, is extremely important. We need to be able to tell a story and articulate facts.
M. Hanson: Go for it and do it your own way. As my colleagues discussed in the last article, the “right way” is a myth. What really matters is that you show up enthusiastically and unapologetically as yourself and that you’re kind to others. Listen more than you talk and speak up for those who are marginalized and historically excluded.
Mentorship, advocacy and communication are absolutely important, especially for young women coming up in their careers. Have there been positive changes in the industry you’ve seen that have made it easier for women to advocate for themselves or better themselves reflected in the AEC industry? And on the flip side, what do you see as ongoing challenges or barriers that still exist that might make it more difficult for young women working in the field?
AH: I’m very lucky in that I work with a lot of women in my area, especially given that I work a great deal with economic development groups, which tend to be dominated by women. But I’m also starting to see more women in positions of city leadership as well. One of the opportunities we still have yet to fully address relates to whether we’re designing with women in mind and how we can create places that are more accessible. Even as a woman, there are times when I have to remind myself, we need to design for more than the perspective in mind.
SP: I’m still fairly new in my career, but as time goes on, I’ve seen firms becoming more diverse as more women graduate and enter the profession, and as an increasing number of women are taking on senior leadership roles. In the last couple of years, I’ve also seen a lot more flexibility in the workplace on when and where folks can work, which ultimately supports both men and women. There’s still the challenge of having to prioritize work and personal life, though. In my opinion, work/life balance is a myth – everyone will have a different requirement for what that balance looks like that only they can define. There’s a workaholic mentality that many of us learn in school and it’s a culture that the AEC field is slow to break. We need to continue offering more flexibility and more support and more workers should feel empowered to speak up about their capacity if we want to move the issue in the right direction. All of this can ultimately allow workers time to build their strengths, focus on their interests and create a more positive and productive atmosphere.
M. Hanson: We’ve seen progress, but I think we still have a long way to go. I like to focus hyper-locally on my sphere of influence and work where I can make a difference. Personally, I want to see more women in charge and more space created for those in the LGBTQ+, Indigenous and BIPOC communities.
WW: I feel very respected and heard at RDG and don’t personally feel there’s a gender gap here. As a non-native American originally from China, I find myself more concerned with accessibility as it relates to working in a foreign country. I’ve been lucky to have support while working here at RDG, but many firms don’t offer support for work visa applications, and I think changing that would benefit a lot of individuals, not just women.
M. Haas: I think RDG is doing a great job of working to be more progressive, not just for gender equity but equity for everyone. I’ve received a lot of encouragement from my team and the firm in terms of mentorship and opportunities to prove myself or take on additional responsibilities and I feel there’s genuine confidence in my abilities. As a working mom, I’ve felt supported in my need to take time to care for my family. On the flip side, I think there’s still work we need to do to address gendered expectations that transcend our industry. For example, assuming women will be the ones to take notes, plan office parties or clean up after events or meetings. Even if it’s subconscious or unintentional, there’s still a propensity to fall into these traditional gendered roles and that impacts women regardless of their position or role within a company.
The work will never be done, but it’s great to hear that many of you feel supported by RDG and can see positive change in the industry as a whole. I’d love to know more about what a “day in the life” looks like for each of you. What does your day normally look like, and what aspects of your work do you most enjoy?
M. Hanson: No day is typical and that’s how I like it. Public engagement gets me out into the communities we serve, meeting with clients to understand their hopes and dreams, learning new ways to engage, writing about what we learn and sharing that info at conferences to help others. On the conservation side, I spend time in creeks with a GoPro on my head, tour prairie project sites and parks, and collaborate with students – it’s the best part of my job.
SP: The beauty of landscape architecture is that every day is different – different tasks come in depending on what stage of a project we are at. I enjoy doing conceptual renderings, the images that ‘wow’ our clients and help bring their projects to life. I also love to learn, so any chance I get to research project precedents, new materials and products means I’m gaining experience that will benefit future designs. When we are working on projects currently in construction it’s always so exciting to visit the site and see the progress being made as it all comes together.
WW: My days are typically spent focused on design: talking through design with team members and spending time in Revit and Sketch-Up creating models. Design is really what I enjoy the most about my job, especially the processes involved in design. It’s exciting because design offers the opportunity to bring many different people with many different perspectives together and create something new. Another aspect of the job I like is getting to hear and tell the story behind the architecture. I like to hear the story of why people want to build the building, what the clients want and then transfer that input into the design of a space. The human part behind the building is what excites me most.
AH: RDG’s planning group is unique in the sense that we are diverse in the kinds of projects we work on, and intentionally so. That’s one of the aspects of my day-to-day work that I enjoy – I can work on a housing study and then shift to focus on writing an article and then shift again towards community engagement efforts related to land use and trail connectivity. I like the variety of types of projects that I get to work on, and an ideal day is one where I get to work on multiple projects. My why has always centered around how I can support both my colleagues at RDG and the communities we serve.
M. Haas: As I’ve taken on more responsibility in the project architect role, there’s a lot of planning and organization for our team and clients. What I love most about the design work I do for RDG’s Early Education Market is that I get to create educational environments for historically underserved communities. We’re designing facilities to not only nurture young minds but also that serve as nurturing resources for caregivers, faculty and staff. Learning from and designing with colleagues and sharing knowledge and ideas with co-workers is very rewarding for me, and I feel fortunate to be doing something that I’ve felt compelled to do since I was a child.
Thank you all so much for taking the time to sit down and talk with me. It’s been wonderful to hear about your experiences and I’ve gained a lot from your unique perspectives.