Women’s History Month Series, Part One: Speak Up and Be Who You Are

Our inaugural installment of RDG’s Women’s History Month series encourages women to use their voice, advocate for each other and seek out ways to be their authentic selves.

Every March, Women’s History Month offers the opportunity to honor and celebrate the contributions and impact of women The month also challenges us to consider how we can combat historic and systemic inequities, raise awareness about biases and act for equality. In recognition of this month, I sat down with a group of women from RDG to get their perspectives on the state of the industry, advice for young women coming up in the AEC world and what inspires them to do what they do each day.

Highlighted above: Bailey Aldridge, Catrina Cook, IIDA, April Reinhardt, AIA, LEED AP and Lauren Stokes.

On deck for our first feature are four women who work in architecture, interior design and landscape architecture:

  • Bailey Aldridge joined RDG in 2021 and focuses on landscape architecture for the firm’s Parks & Recreation Studio. She earned her degree from Iowa State University. After graduation, Bailey spent a year in Australia and then two years in Texas before making her way back to Iowa and joining the firm.
  • Catrina Cook, IIDA is a senior partner and has been with RDG since 2017. Not only is she an interior designer with nearly 20 years of experience, she’s also well-versed in the art and science of human capital and leadership development and serves as one of the firm’s primary HR leaders and is focused on recruitment and retention strategies.
  • April Reinhardt, AIA, LEED AP is a licensed architect and LEED-accredited professional with nearly 20 years of experience. She joined RDG in 2019 and brings her talent and experience to senior living and public safety training projects.
  • A recent graduate of Iowa State University, Lauren Stokes joined RDG in 2020. Her focus is on architectural design, specifically as it relates to work for the firm’s Sports Studio.

I’m so thrilled to be joined by each of you for the inaugural entry of our Women’s History Month interview series. First things first, I’d love to know how each of you ended up where you are today. What inspired you to pursue a career in your field?

Bailey Aldridge: I was inspired by one of my college professors, Heidi Hohmann. During my freshman year, she spoke about Iowa State’s landscape architecture program and as I was listening to her, I realized the discipline combined two things I was interested in: design and making a difference for people.

Catrina Cook: Originally, I went to college to do human resources. About two years in, I decided to shift my focus to something a bit more creative and changed my major to interior design. Though my teenage self would hate me to admit this, I think I was partly inspired to go into design because of my experiences as a youth (begrudgingly) helping my mom rehab houses.

April Reinhardt: I echo Catrina’s sentiment about her mother playing a role in career choice. Growing up, my mom was a nurse practitioner and a working mom at a time when that was far less common than it is today. Her pursuit of and passion for continual education were things she instilled in me, and these played a vital role in my decision not only to go into architecture but also to pursue licensure, LEED accreditation and most currently Fitwel ambassador certification.

Lauren Stokes: I’m in camp mom as well. Growing up, I had always enjoyed math and science and I grew to love art while I was in high school. My mom suggested architecture as a good career option because it blends math and art. While in college, I also found friends who happened to be women in architecture. Their support throughout my collegiate, professional and personal life has inspired and kept me going, especially through challenging times.

Sounds like a lot of women inspiring women. Speaking of women supporting women, as a female in the AEC industry, what advice would you give to younger individuals seeking a career in your field?

BA: I would definitely say don’t be shy to stand up for yourself, your ideas and your work. More women are entering the industry, but it’s still very male-dominated, which can sometimes be intimidating. It’s important to be confident and use your voice to gain respect from your colleagues.

LS: I echo that. There’s a high likelihood that you may be one of only a few women or the only woman in the room – don’t let that scare you from speaking your mind. Our perspective is powerful, and we can use it to set ourselves apart and contribute valuable insight.

CC: I do a lot of mentoring and teaching of younger designers, and one thing I always tell people –especially young women – is to learn to trust your gut. As you begin your professional journey, pay attention to what excites and energizes you and pursue opportunities based on that as much as you can. At the same time, if something doesn’t feel quite right, don’t be afraid to step back and evaluate why it feels that way. Likewise, I think it’s also important to find a place where you can be your authentic self. We are all judged in different ways – based on appearance, experience, etc. – and while we need to be mindful of how we’re presenting ourselves to the world, it’s also vital that we’re able to come to work every day and be authentically us.

AR: I agree with Catrina. Don’t shy away from being or pursuing the best version of your authentic self. Everyone has something different and valuable to offer, and when people can be themselves, they’re more apt to push boundaries and innovate.

So, speak up and advocate for yourself and be who you are as much as you can. Easier said than done sometimes, but so important. In terms of the industry, what positive changes have you seen in recent years that might make it easier to do these things as a woman? What ongoing challenges or barriers still exist that might make it more difficult?

CC: I would say there’s more awareness about gender equity. We’re seeing a lot of conscious, intentional efforts to position women in leadership roles, both within design firms and in professional organizations. We’re not exactly where we need to be yet, but there’s certainly a heightened recognition from existing ownership/leadership that more diversity is not only needed but also good for business and culture. Continuing to recognize this and advocate for ourselves is important if we’re going to continue to shift the paradigm. 

AR: When I first started out, women made up less than 20 percent of the profession. It feels like we’re getting closer and closer to an even split between men and women, something that’s reflected in the increasing number of women I see at job sites. To add to what Catrina said, I think we’ve made good strides in representation, but there are still opportunities for equity in leadership roles.

BA: Unlike April, I’ve only been in the industry for a few years, but I’ve spent time working for a few different firms and I’ve noticed an increasing number of women in landscape architecture, which tells me we’re making progress. I think again advocating for yourself and using your voice is important –  even if there are times when you’re interrupted, or people are trying to talk over you.

LS: I agree, Bailey–there are sometimes challenges in making sure we as women have a seat at the table and are being heard. The best thing we can do is stand up for ourselves and other women. I believe gender equity in the profession is on the right path, especially given the balance of men and women I saw in my architectural program. For me, seeing women in positions of power and leadership at RDG is encouraging. Representation is what empowers me, and I’m sure others, to believe we have opportunities for advancement and growth.

Great insight from you all. I want to end on a fun note and get a little more insight into what your day-to-day professional life looks like. Tell me a little bit more about what each of you does and what you enjoy the most about your job.

BA: I spend a lot of time in production: working with AutoCAD, making diagrams, designing master plans for different parks and sites around the Midwest. I enjoy that I get to contribute to a variety of projects because it keeps the work interesting.

LS: Like Bailey, I’ve had the chance to work on several different projects, which, as a young professional pursuing my licensure, has been immensely helpful. I’ve even had opportunities to branch out from day-to-day design work and use coding/computation skills I learned in college. Any opportunity I get to further strengthen these skills is always exciting, and I love that no day is the same.

AR: Typically, I’m drawing. I spend most of my time drawing and that’s what I love – it’s where my passion started. When I’m drawing, I’m helping not only guide the direction of a design but also tell the story of the design.

CC: In my role, my goal is to create an environment where RDG is full of amazing professionals who can come in and do their job without obstacles or barriers. So, I spend a lot of time meeting with different people across our organization to strategize how we can put the right processes and teams together. Oh, and have some fun along the way. The best part of my job is that I get to bring people together and carve and find ways to make our firm the best it can be for everyone.

Thank you all so much for taking the time to sit down and talk with me. You’ve inspired me, and I’m sure many others with your insights and perspectives.

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We continue our Women’s History Month feature series next week when we’ll be joined by another group of women bringing their exceptional talent to RDG. Stay tuned!

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