Women’s History Month Series, Part Two: There’s No One Right Path

March 22, 2022

Our second installment of RDG’s Women’s History Month series explores why representation matters and what it looks like to carve your unique path to success.

Last week, we officially kicked off our Women’s History Month interview series, with a conversation focused on how women can use their voice to advocate for themselves and each other, and how important it is to find a place where you can be your authentic self. This week, we continue our series with our second round of interviews, highlighting a new group of women and their unique perspectives on work/life balance and what it means to create the kind of professional environment where women can thrive.

  • Collin Barnes, IIDA, senior partner and interior designer, has been with RDG since 2008. Collin has more than 15 years of experience and brings exceptional design ability and acute analytical skills to work for projects in the firm’s Workplace Market.

  • Sam Edmundson focuses on interior design for work in the firm’s College & University Studio. Passionate about designing and living sustainably, Sam has brought out-of-the-box thinking to projects and teams since joining the firm in 2019.

  • Naura Godar, AIA, WELL AP, LEED AP, is a senior partner and licensed architect with a focus on construction administration, working to ensure project design intent is implemented during the construction process. She joined RDG in 2013 and uses her 20 years of experience and infectious enthusiasm to design for a multitude of building types.

  • Though she was trained as an architect, Shelby Klooster found a passion for lighting design shortly after she graduated from college. In the nearly 10 years since, she established a deep knowledge about effective lighting solutions, bringing her expertise to RDG when she joined the firm as a lighting designer in 2019.

  • Andrea Ytzen, AIA, has been with RDG since 2020. A licensed architect with experience designing corporate, retail and multifamily housing projects, Andrea is an avid learner and passionate about developing accessible, sustainable design solutions.

Thank you all for taking the time to speak with me for our Women’s History Month interview series. Let’s start as we did with our previous installment: tell us about how you got where you are today. What inspired you to pursue a career in your field?

Collin Barnes: There was never an aha moment for me necessarily. I come from a long line of self-reliant, self-sufficient women – my grandmother raised five girls all by herself, and my mom did the same for me and my sister after my father passed away – and I believe this is part of why I was drawn to interior design. Even if I didn’t always know specifically what I wanted to do, I did know that I wanted to be in a profession where I could carry my own weight.

Andrea Ytzen: I wouldn’t say I had a specific moment that led me to my profession either. I’m very logically driven by math and science, but I also enjoy art, and it’s the combination of those things that ultimately led me to architecture. I see architecture as a pragmatic artform: problem-solving with creative input.

Naura Godar: I pursued this career on luck and instinct. My original plan was to become a school counselor, and I even have a degree in psychology. I ended up changing my major four times in two years before transferring to Iowa State to focus on architecture. When I was a little girl, I didn’t know any architects, and my parents were so unfamiliar with the profession, they didn’t realize it was even a job women did.

Sam Edmundson: In college, I was inspired by a woman named Karin Bohn; I used to watch her YouTube videos all the time. She started her own business, House of Bohn, and has an amazing eye for design as well as a huge entrepreneurial spirit.

Shelby Klooster: I’ve been fortunate to have many mentors throughout my career who have helped to inspire and support me. I love lighting because of its ability to transform spaces, and the constant innovation of the industry has pushed me to learn and experiment with new technology and techniques. The combination of this innovation and transformative experience is what drew me into the lighting world and what continues to inspire me in my work today.

A huge takeaway from this: there’s no one right path to finding your calling. For young women who might be thinking about their career, and may be considering a career in the AEC industry, what advice would you offer?

SK: Mentors are not to be underrated – a good mentor can really make a difference in this industry. Get connected and stay connected because so much of the world relies on the personal relationships we forge and maintain. Don’t forget your sense of self and put yourself first. True passion can’t be taught and that’s what will ultimately help you succeed. Focus on honing skills that help you demonstrate your specific talents, rather than spending time on developing qualifications you think you need to be successful.

AY: Don’t be timid. It’s easy to put your head down and just do the things you’re being asked, but it’s important to ask the “why” and the “how.” Find people who you can trust to ask questions, or challenge how a process or approach could be changed.

NG: I would say be yourself and be proud of your accomplishments. And like Andrea said, don’t be hesitant to step forward when you think you can improve a process or advocate to make things happen.

SE: Yes, and to that point, be confident and own your individual personality and style. Don’t be afraid to do something different or uncomfortable – that’s when design gets interesting.

CB: As much as you can, avoid falling into the trap of thinking you must “have it all.” Establish your own priorities and come to projects, firms and teams with those priorities in mind. I was always driven to move up into a leadership role because I wanted to set an example for my daughters that they could be and do anything. In recent years, and especially during the pandemic, I’ve realized this need to “have it all” was taking me away from time with my family. So, it’s important to understand your priorities and nurture them in the right way. More directly, I would tell young women (and women in general) to stop apologizing for things that aren’t their fault or that don’t need to be apologized for.

Owning who you are, cultivating your specific talents and establishing priorities are all so important. These are life lessons many of us learn much further in our professional lives and often wish we had known earlier. What positive changes in the industry have made it easier for women to navigate the challenges of being a professional 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?

AY: In my first job, I was one of two women, but I think we’re seeing an increase in women in general in the field. More presence means more awareness, which then leads to more women in leadership positions and positions of power. In terms of challenges, there are still barriers tied to unintentional bias. These biases can impact how people perceive a woman’s role on a project or women being interrupted, talked over or not being seen as equally qualified.

NG: I think there’s been considerable change in the industry over my 20 years of experience. In the first years of my career, I was often the only woman in the room. Today, this isn’t always the case. I also see more of a shared approach in people’s personal lives, especially with household duties and parenting, which frees up time more equitably. But I would say there is still work to be done (in our industry and more broadly), to support women who are caretakers.

CB: I agree, Naura. In many places, there are still gendered biases that require women to make difficult choices, which can impact their overall compensation and advancement opportunities. RDG is an example of an employer who is actively working to enhance parental leave benefits and instill a supportive environment for working parents. But it can be difficult to be a working mother or a professional woman in our industry because it continues to skew male. I have a lot of gratitude for the women who have paved the way for future women to be in leadership positions. Without those women in those positions, I wouldn’t have a position in the field of interior design. My generation has a lot of opportunities, and now we have a more even playing field to welcome more women to the table.

SK: In terms of lighting design, we’re seeing more women than ever before. I hope to continue to see growth and diversity of representation within our industry so that young professionals are encouraged to explore their talents within the lighting world. I do believe diversity is still an issue within the lighting profession, even among women. We need to make a conscious effort to change this if we want the industry to continue to thrive, and it starts with holding each other accountable and having hard discussions that lead to actionable change.

SE: When companies are transparent and open closed doors, it shows that they are willing to grow and accept areas where they could improve – especially as it relates to gender equity. Within the last several years, I believe there’s been a push for companies to be transparent with their values and day-to-day operations and actively seek out women for leadership opportunities. One of the biggest challenges is the lack of knowledge or recognition of women’s historic contributions to the architecture profession  (just Google “famous architects” and see how many women show up). As women in this field, especially those in leadership positions, it’s incredibly important that we share our stories and show other women support, and we also need men to advocate for the inclusion of women. Even more so, extending the support to not just women, but people of color, the LGBTQIA+ community and people with disabilities. The quality of design is much better when a more diverse group of individuals has played a role in creating that design – only then can we truly design for everybody. 

Thank you for these insights. Representation really does matter, and it can have a huge impact in allowing us all to see what’s possible. This is a diverse group of practitioners, so let’s end with some insight into your day-to-day life. Tell me a little bit more about what each of you does and what you enjoy the most about your job.

NG: There’s no “typical” day in my job. Being versed in both architecture and construction administration means I’ll go from a meeting to discuss programming with an owner, to a job site to check out the field with a contractor. What I like the most is that I can problem-solve in multiple different ways with different people – whether that be an owner in a suit or a contractor in overalls.

CB: Echoing what Naura said, my job is different nearly every day. It runs the gamut from collaborating with clients and teams to marketing to job site work. I enjoy the variety the most and being able to work with a lot of different people.

AY: I’m solving problems on a daily basis. The core components of projects – people, problem-solving, communication – are the same, but the methodology differs and that’s what I enjoy. Being able to continually learn and reflect are things that always excite me and help make each day unique.

SK: Every day is different for me, too. It’s what I love about lighting design and probably why I continue to stick with the profession. Some days I’m on-site fine-tuning lighting on a 16-foot ladder; other days I’m constructing a fake ceiling and hanging it 22 feet in the air to create a visual mockup for contractors and architects. Some days I’m creating presentations for owner reviews; other days I’m receiving and testing samples with the interior finishes. My typical day can take me from a job site in the morning to a client meeting over lunch, to a site aiming in the afternoon and happy hour with our sales reps in the evening. I love the flexibility of the job and the fact that I get to see a design through from the early schematic stage to the final aiming and programming of the lighting in the space with the owner.

SE: I’ll keep the trend going: each day is a little different for me, depending on the project phase. My current project team is in the construction administration phase so a typical day for me consists of looking over construction documents to find areas that may need more clarification or coordination with our consultants. I really enjoy the beginning phases of a project where the concept and design are being created. Each concept or idea has its own uniqueness, and I enjoy coming up with a ton of different ideas. It’s fun to dream of all the possibilities.

This was great, 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.

Written by Erin Van Zee, Communications Director