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Q&A: Gensler Dallas' Newest Female Principals Talk Ascending The Career Ladder In A Male-Dominated Field

Kirsten Cessna and Emily Gossett took very different paths to get to where they are in their careers today. Despite drastically different backgrounds, both women say their road to success in the architecture and design industry was paved with ambition, the pursuit of knowledge and a lot of support along the way.

In conversation with Bisnow, Gossett and Cessna, Gensler Dallas' newest female principals, discuss their experience and roles, how young women aspiring toward leadership can make their mark and what it's like to be a female in a male-dominated field. Despite accounting for almost half of all graduates from U.S. architecture programs, women make up just 20% of licensed architects and only 17% of partners or principals in architecture firms, according to the American Institute of Architect's most recent survey.

The following has been edited for style, grammar and brevity.

Gensler's Kirsten Cessna and Emily Gossett

Bisnow: Start by giving a brief synopsis of your background in the industry and the events that led up to your promotion to principal. 

Gossett: I didn't take the traditional intern route into architecture. I had a very close family friend, who was an architect, and he really encouraged me to work in construction. So I started out as a field superintendent for a contractor at the very young age of 22. I did that for about two years and really learned how things come together in the field. From there, I took a design manager role and have been in design management almost my entire career since then. I've been at Gensler for about seven years now — I started out as a design manager, then I became senior design manager on our Walmart account. That’s the project that gave me the exposure within the firm for leadership ability and project management. 

Cessna: From age 7, I thought it was architecture for me. Then, after graduating from high school, I had moments of doubt. I interviewed an interior designer and realized I really identify with people and spaces and how they work for them. That led me to interior design. During my career, I've only been with two firms. [The first] was a great foundation for me, but it was really just doing design work and technical work, and I really wanted a change. I had been doing aviation for seven years. When I came to Gensler, I came in as a senior interior designer brought in specifically to lead the interiors for our retail practice area. I hold a design management leadership role in our region, and I run several of our large automotive accounts. I'm running about 25 projects at one time in various stages of design and construction. 

Bisnow: What have been some of the proudest moments of your careers thus far? Are there any projects or milestones that stand out?

Gossett: We're doing Walmart's new headquarters campus in Bentonville, Arkansas. Our relationship with that client started out with a small, 8K SF, interior renovation for their executive suite and that grew into us developing a 350-acre campus for Walmart. To start with a very small, tight project that a lot of architects may pass on … and then to be able to use that as a stepping stone to become the executive and design architect for their new headquarters, for me and my career is huge.

Cessna: At Gensler, one of my proudest [accomplishments] is … Sewell Lexus Dallas, a project that our studio has been working on for about 10 years. What I really appreciate about it is the symbiotic partnership between the owner, architect and general contractor, and the product was absolutely beautiful. Another very recent, very proud moment for me is [a project for] Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth. We got a phone call from them to do a small, 1,800 SF admissions lounge renovation. They had already started demolition and were in the process of construction, but they needed someone to come in and help with finishes and furniture. We have now done six or seven additional small renovation projects with them, but that has developed into us kicking off the master planning of their 200-acre campus. I've been very proud of developing that relationship and where that's continuing to take us.

Bisnow: How do you feel attitudes or perceptions toward female members of the industry have changed over the course of your career? 

Gossett: It's been refreshing to see more and more women come into the architectural field, although the numbers in senior leadership are stagnant, and they've been stagnant for about 20-plus years. They call it the “Missing 32,” where we see almost absolute parity in colleges, but we don't do a good job of retaining [women] once actual life happens. Eighteen percent of women are in senior leadership positions across any architecture industry. So where do those 32% of women go? … They exit the industry due to demanding deadlines and time crunches. It is not an easy industry for women to stay in. Gensler is unique in that we have so many women in senior management roles, but as an industry as a whole, we really have a lot of work to do.

Cessna: We have a long way to go. I'm extremely blessed to be here, as I did not feel this type of support before Gensler. And it's not just females supporting females, but it's also the males supporting females and being our advocates as well. We are encouraged and respected to voice our opinion and be part of the conversation. I think that's huge. It's one thing to just put women at the table to meet the quota, but it's so much more impactful when our perspective is heard and valued and implemented.

Bisnow: As women, there is a balancing act that comes with being a mother and being a professional, especially in a leadership role. What has been your strategy to ensure you give 100% in both roles? 

Cessna: I want to blow up this myth of balancing everything perfectly because I do not and I cannot. There are days where I'm an amazing employee and a really crappy mom — and vice versa. Breaking that myth that I am a superwoman, and I can do it all at all times — recognizing that, acknowledging that and giving each other grace and understanding, we've got to do that for one another. As long as your kids know that you love them and support them, and work knows that you're committed to delivering and pursuing your career, that’s what is important.

Gossett: I believe balance is a myth, and we have to break that myth. I had a client that called it “work-life harmony,” and I think that's a more interesting model. I built most of my career as a single mom. You're going to have some days that are more successful than others in your private life versus your professional life.

Bisnow: How critical was mentorship in the advancement of your career? 

Cessna: When I look back on the moments of struggle in my career, [those are] when I lacked mentorship and an advocate. And when I look back on my happiest moments, I had very strong mentors and coaches along the way. I encourage everyone to identify a mentor — whether it's in your firm or outside of your firm — just someone who can give you that perspective and insight and encouragement. 

Gossett: I've been very lucky to have men in my career who have supported me. Having men in senior leadership positions recognize talent and do what they can to support and push that talent to the front is critical in our industry, because they still lead the way. Women can't do it alone, we've got to have support from men. The other thing that is unique to architecture is we are very much based on a traditional apprentice and master model. That model requires mentorship and, whether you want to be a senior leader or run a company, you have to have someone at your elbow showing you how to draw [and] helping you to communicate things effectively on paper or verbally to a client who may not be spatial or visual in the way that we are. 

Bisnow: What advice would you give to young women looking to work their way up the ladder of this industry? 

Gossett: Stay curious and be open to new opportunities. Get a variety [of experience in] practice areas, building types, scale complexities [and] different types of clients. Don't be someone who's asleep at the wheel — use those opportunities to gain knowledge. Once you have that knowledge, and you're confident in your ability, you naturally ascend the ladder as you build those relationships and you prove your value to a project team and a firm.

Cessna: Always be open for a challenge. Know your opinion and voice your opinion. Be reflective of yourself and define success for yourself — and stay true to that. A lot of time we compare ourselves with other people, and it's not fair because we all have different talents. My hope is for everyone to identify what their success looks like and what it means to them. That's when they're going to be the happiest. That, to me, is true success.