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#BreaktheBias: Empowering Women in Design – Judith’s story

Only 17 per cent of professional architects in Canada are women [1]. In acknowledgement of International Women’s Day and as part of our efforts to #breakthebias, we are showcasing some of the exceptional women architects and designers at Kasian. Throughout the month of March we’ll showcase how these women have overcome obstacles, created impactful designs across Canada, and continue to advocate for gender equity.

Judith MacDougall, Principal

Originally from Canada’s East Coast, Judith MacDougall has over 20 years of experience in architecture and design across Canada. Educated at Dalhousie University in Halifax, NS, Judith attained both her undergraduate degree and Master of Architecture from the institution.  

 

Joining our Calgary office from 2003 to 2011, Judith moved on to gain experience at other firms. This gave her the opportunity to expand her sector knowledge and run a company. We were keen to welcome Judith back in 2016 as our Senior Living Sector Leader. 

 

Specializing in LEED certification, sustainable design, and LifescapeTM Judith is a founding leader in sustainable design, having led the design of the University of Calgary Child Development Centre which was the first LEED Platinum certified building in Alberta (2008). She has worked on many important projects across multiple sectors.  

 

This is her experience as a woman in architecture.

Q and A

Q: What do you think about the fact that only 17% of architects in Canada are women? 

 

JM: A statistic like that, usually means there’s something in the process where people are dropping off. It’s not necessarily about the design profession. It’s likely more about the situation seeking balance. For women, it’s always about balancing family. It’s about what you give up in order to do something else.  

 

It took me a lot longer to own my power in this. It’s not something that women were consciously brought up with. Women were told to be nice people, to be easygoing with everybody, and to compromise. I felt like there was a lot of compromise when I was younger. And then I got older. Now I think: “well, this is not getting us anywhere.” 

 

Q: What inspired you to get into architecture and design?   

   

JM: I think anybody you ask about this always starts really young with making something. I like the feeling of creating.  

 

Construction was a big thing for our family. I grew up with my father, cousins and family who are still builders. I was really influenced by an uncle who was a construction worker. He built homes and became a master builder. He designed my parents’ house, so the roof was separated from the main building so we could add on another floor as the family grew. He basically took the roof off and put a second story on to it. To me, that was so cool. I grew up with my father, cousins and family that are still builders. Construction was a big thing.  

 

Q: Can you tell me about some of the more meaningful and interesting projects that you’ve had the opportunity to work on in your career?   

   

JM: I always go back to the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts.
 

I started as a student in 1990 with Bing Thom in Vancouver, when his firm was probably only 10 to 12 people. My job with the Chan Centre was to preserve the centre’s ecology and to help design the lobby space, which was created to emulate a forest.  

 

When you work for an architectural firm, you do a lot of overtime and a lot of work. But the pursuit is to get to a certain standard of detail. You don’t give up because you’re trying to figure out how to make something meaningful. The Chan Centre gave me a really great beginning. I think it’s probably memorable because of its impact on the community.

 

I would say the same thing about the University of Calgary’s Child Development Centre. I saw how people would go there because they just loved being inside the building. It’s the same for the University’s Taylor Family Digital Library. People love to study in there. Most recently, I saw this with the YW Hub. What’s great now is our team members (like Meghan Larway, Joanne Sparkes, and Esther Rivard-Sirois) are each taking on these thought patterns of sustainability and community impact to what they do. They believe in all of that, too. 

 

Q: Can you tell me about a time when you experienced bias as a woman in architecture?  

 

JM: Bias in this industry is so subverted. It’s there all the time.  

 

I’ve been ‘mansplained’ – where I’ve just said something, but people didn’t hear it until it gets repeated by a man. Somehow even we, as women, are conditioned to think there’s more authority when it comes from a man. It’s often reflected in how we speak. For example, if you raise your voice at the end of your sentence, you lose the power of what you’re saying. It’s really interesting.  

 

We need to consider who hears us, how things are being said, and how often we need to repeat ourselves. It’s these types of things where I often see bias in our field – this sort of silencing or not listening to women.  

 

Q: The recent stats say there’s more new grads but less women in leadership positions. Do you have any insight as to why there are so few women in leadership positions and what do you think can be done to improve on these figures?   

   

JM: I wish I had that answer. I think it’s critical for women to support each other in our movement to leadership.  

 

Our economics are run by a masculine-dominated society, and capitalism really follows that. It’s really hard to talk about women in leadership and ensure that it doesn’t feel like it’s just token leadership.  

 

I think we’re getting there, but we’re always behind. It’s been 20 years of talking about women in architecture. We’ve got a long way to go. The system is flawed: The manner of communication, the biases… It’s systemic. I always thought, ‘we can get there’, but that’s less so now. Everything feels a bit more subversive.  

 

Q: How has Kasian supported you in achieving your career goals? Why did you come back to the company after being away for six years?   

   

JM: When you’re in this company, it’s your company too, and Kasian has supported me with what I want to do. We’ve got a spirit that gets stuff done and the company is more than willing to support employees.   

 

When I returned, I wanted to focus on building things; building up the Calgary office, ideas, like Lifescape, our sectors, and more design influence. At Kasian, we don’t see limits in terms of what we can do. We can do big, big, things and very small things, well.  

 

The company’s vision that was developed when I first joined the company, has come true. The company has evolved to integrating architecture and interiors together, which is very powerful. That’s how we run our Calgary office and it seems to be amazingly balanced in that way.  

 

Q: Do you have any advice for women looking to get into the field of architecture?   

   

JD: If you love it, if you’re thinking about it all the time, if it’s your happy place, then pursue it. It’s a great feeling to go and see the things that you’ve made.  

 

If you want to impact how people engage with the world, it’s an incredible space to be in. It’s a long journey, but there are so many ways to get into it today. It’s all part of design. Leadership, in terms of planning universities or cities is another avenue. I think these are great spaces for women in architecture, to be part of the economic generators that run our institutions. It’s so far-reaching. You can touch so many different things.  

 

Q: What kind of advocacy do you think is important for women right now? And how would you like to see this field evolve over time? 

   

JD: I think a big part is discussing how impactful good design and its longevity is for everybody. It’s why we love our old buildings. Having more conversations about design every day – whether it gets wrapped into economic development, art, ongoing education – having conversations around it is important.

 

Design is a very noble profession to be in, which is great. But we need to consider how we keep the conversation alive and evolved for everyone. We need to find modern avenues, like podcasts, for these conversations as we further develop our communities.  

 

Q: Can you tell us about a time that you faced a major barrier or challenge in your career? How did you overcome this?   

   

JM:  There’s always a challenge.  

 

Our business is relationships. Sometimes there are situations where you just don’t vibe with another group. Often, I’ve had to recognize that and acknowledge that I’ve done as much as I can do, and it may be better to put someone else in place to make it work.  

 

It’s also important to know yourself. Lean into and understand where you struggle, then find somebody who complements you on those parts. It’s hard in a world where everybody wants to be the single hero. The problem with the single hero is you’re limited because you’re not able to get as much scope or reach on a project.  

 

Q: How do you address unconscious biases?

 

JM: There seems to be a lack of awareness because we can’t see what we can’t see, and we don’t know what we don’t know.  

 

This is apparent when we work with vulnerable populations where nobody speaks. In those situations, when I hear someone’s true voice come out, I recognize the importance of this. It’s important to be open to that and create space. When I hear those voices, I know it’s precious. Today there’s a lot of silence. It may seem like everything’s great, but there’s a lot of silence. I think we’re just getting an awareness of that right now.   

 

 Q: What does International Women’s Day mean to you? 

   

JM: International Women’s Day has made me pause and consider how global our world is and how diverse our influences are. The impact of culture is huge in design. Culture humanizes us and celebrates our differences. Look at how unique we all are! Seeing all the different women, their backgrounds, families, and education inspires me. It’s really fun to talk about design with diverse people. It reminds us to support everybody and think more holistically. 

Judith MacDougall has worked on the following projects: 

At Kasian, we thrive in a culture of curiosity. Our clients are visionaries, passionate and courageous ― together we achieve results that make a difference to entire communities.  

 

At the heart of what we do are our people.  

 

If you enjoy collaborating in a vibrant and inspiring workplace and are looking for the next step in your career, we’d love to hear from you. 

 

 

[1] Architect at Work, Canada (June, 2021) And the BEAT goes on: Women in Architecture

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