Sonia Sarangi reflects that calling out harassment and casual racism, and learning to say no, has been important for her career – and her mental health.
If I am perfectly honest, I have tried to avoid writing this piece for a while. Looking back can be hard sometimes. While the overarching arc of my career has now landed me in my dream role doing work I truly love, there have been many moments and painful lessons along the way that I have buried deep. Often musing (like the character Scarlett O’Hara), “I’ll think about that tomorrow”.
So, here goes…
Hello my younger self,
Looking at you now, I marvel at the audacity of youth. The audacity of a young person with no links to architecture in her bloodline, blissfully unaware of the response the shade of her skin can elicit in people, and who thinks that her gender will have little to no impact on the professional sphere of her life. Here’s the thing however; all of these are surmountable obstacles. But they will, in the course of your career, occasionally become obstacles. Should you lose heart now? No. Because…
#1 It’s not about you; it’s about them
You will interact with hundreds of people within the first two decades of your career. The vast majority of these interactions will be positive and based upon your intellect – for that is what the person opposite you sees in you. But there will also be many occasions where you will be made to feel less than. Unequal. Spare yourself the self-laceration after every distasteful encounter, wondering if you could have done or said things differently to prove your worth. The problem isn’t you; the problem is their inability to see you through the right lens. These interactions were doomed from the start because all the person opposite you could see was your race, your accent or your gender. Once you accept that, you will finally find that you are comfortable in your own skin.
#2 Embracing the word ‘No’
There is something about the way that girls are raised, which hard-wires many of us to constantly try to be the ‘good’ girl – the one who wants to please everyone and not ‘rock the boat’. Being the good girl – who plays along with unreasonable deadlines, allows casually racist comments to pass by unnoticed, or who tries to awkwardly laugh off harassment – will not change things one bit. You have two options. Either you can bury it all deep down inside and let it erode your confidence to the point where you will want to leave the career you have dreamed about from the age of eight. Or you can set your boundaries from Day 1. You will quickly learn that the latter is not damaging to your career. It elicits respect (often reluctantly) and certainly discourages bad behaviour.
Say No to unreasonable (often illegal) working hours – even if you don’t have children.
Say No to comments that are hurtful – by taking the time to explain your response and recruit allies so that you can change the culture around you.
Say No to being placed alone in bad situations – such as being sent to deal with that creepy client/director/consultant (who addresses your breasts instead of your face), because you have the right to always feel safe in your work environment. Insist on having someone else with you.
Don’t tell your parents this, but being the ‘bad’ girl is good for you, your mental health and your career. Coincidentally, the definition of a ‘bad’ girl/‘difficult’ woman mirrors exactly society’s description of the ‘ambitious’ man. Strange, isn’t it?
#3 Rolling with it
Dreams can be hard to let go. We’re told from the get-go to have a career plan. When things don’t go to plan, we watch our dreams crash and burn – and during these moments of weakness, you will nearly want to say goodbye to the architecture profession forever. In my case, twice.
I’m asking you instead to take the blinkers off and let your vision open up. Keep your plans loose, and base them not on achieving a title, salary level or position but on your own self-improvement. The best opportunities are those that you never even imagined. Do not shut them off simply because ‘that’s not part of the plan’. These will often become the best decisions that you have ever made.
#4 Being competent at everything is more important than being brilliant at one thing (design)
Yes, I know this sounds like sacrilege. Our profession values brilliance – aka the lone, creative genius – more than others.
However, you will quickly realise that there is so much more to being an architect than simply coming up with the most awesome design. You need to be an effective coordinator, negotiator and communicator, and have masses of technical knowledge to execute anything successfully. Your clients will not judge you on your brilliant design alone; they will judge you equally (if not more) on how well you manage timelines, documentation and contracts. You will observe that those who are brilliant at just one thing, and hopeless at all the other roles, are simply putting out fires all the time. (Note: You can also learn a lot from watching people put out fires – i.e. what not to do.)
Good old-fashioned competence is your silver bullet – your best defence, offence and risk management tool. And please do not make the mistake of confusing being competent with being ‘ordinary’. It is anything but.
#5 Taking time away from architecture makes you a better architect
Architecture is a slow and old-fashioned profession. There is so much to learn and so many years of practice before one feels like a seasoned operator. Hence, it can be easy to fall into the trap of thinking that every moment spent not hanging out with other architects or attending architecture-related events is a waste. My dear younger self, I can say hand-on-heart, I have grown more as an architect when I have taken the time to step away from things architecture-related. Research backs the theory that the best ideas don’t come when you’re sitting at your desk trying to conjure them up. They come at unexpected times and in unexpected places, when there is room for reflection.
Having a wide social circle – helps you to understand, communicate and empathise with the needs of people who are very, very different from you. Your future clients are rarely going to be design-nerds like yourself.
Being a partner or parent – will teach you instantly about how to manage time better and think harder about the future implications of your projects.
Taking time to travel – will teach you to look beyond local paradigms and see new patterns in how we live, work or play.
Having other hobbies – will give you a mental break from the demanding muse that is architecture. You will find that you return to your work with a new perspective on that wretched problem that you’ve had on your desk all week.
#6 … and finally – get registered. No, really.
Working life tends to have its own rhythms. Planning deadlines, client deadlines, construction deadlines – all of these little milestones can obscure the big picture. Your big picture. You will easily be lulled into the increasing complexities of your role in both big or small practice and let this slide … until one fine day when it becomes a problem. A problem of not having choices.
You can get lucky (like I did) and have Parlour erupt onto the scene and open your eyes on how you are part of a grim statistic. Or you can be like the other 80% of the registered cohort (men) and simply take it as a non-negotiable in your career path.
So, my younger self – I hope I haven’t been a damp squib and that the above inspires you to keep your chin up and persevere. Hold on to that audacity of yours, because as Judy Garland sang in the classic ’Somewhere over the Rainbow’, “the dreams that you dare to dream really do come true”.
Sonia is co-director at Atelier Red+Black, an emerging practice in Fitzroy, Melbourne, whose practice motto is that ‘Architecture is for Everyone’. She is a passionate advocate for diversity in the profession and a registered architect in Victoria. Sonia is also a mother and an avid photographer who has exhibited her work professionally. Prior to co-founding her practice, Sonia gained experience in a diverse portfolio of projects in Singapore and Melbourne. She is a sessional tutor for Architectural Practice with the Melbourne School of Design (MSD), a mentor with the AIA’s Constructive Mentorship Program (CMP) and a guest design critic for the School of Architecture at Deakin University.