‘Put fear behind you,’ female architect advises women in male-dominated fields

Dawn Ouellette Nixon, Contributing Writer//August 17, 2020

‘Put fear behind you,’ female architect advises women in male-dominated fields

Dawn Ouellette Nixon, Contributing Writer//August 17, 2020

MKSD Architects is something of a “unicorn,” according to founding partner Silvia Hoffman.  In a world where barely 20 percent of practicing architects are women, the Allentown-based architecture firm has two female partners and employs a staff of architects that is evenly split between men and women.

Crowned the Lehigh Valley Business Women Owned Business of the year in 2019, MKSD is not just a leader in architecture, but a towering example of what women-owned businesses can and are achieving. The firm has designed buildings for St. Luke’s University Health Network, East Stroudsburg University, Northampton Community College and the borough of Emmaus, to name just a few. The company increased revenue nearly 25% last year, placing well above the 6.5% median for the Top 100 companies.

Silvia Hoffman says she may have encountered discrimination in her career, but ignore it. “Black, white, male, female, whatever. When you do a good job people will recognize it.” PHOTO/SUBMITTED

Hoffman recently spoke with LVB about her career, the future of American workspaces, and why it’s important for women to advocate for themselves.

LVB: When did you first begin to think that you might want to be an architect?

When I was a 17-year-old student at Freedom High School in Bethlehem, I took drafting. I was the only girl in the class. I got good grades. The teacher said that I was very skilled and I began to think about becoming an architect.  My guidance counselor, however, tried to discourage me, and said that architecture was a male-dominated profession.  That guidance counselor also said that I probably would not get into Lehigh University even though I was 10th in my class. (Hoffman graduated from Lehigh in 1994). I did not let anyone discourage me. I’m passionate. I’ve always been a go-getter.

I think the most important factor is that a seed was planted that it was a possibility, and then I took steps to continually challenge myself and grow.

LVB: Not only did you become an architect, but you became a partner in your own firm. What qualities do you possess that you believe have helped you to get where you are today?

I believe that limitless opportunities are out there for everyone. It’s a matter of putting fear behind you, advocating for and distinguishing yourself (women are not really good at that), surrounding yourself with people who support you, and having a great work ethic. If you do those things, opportunities and success will come. 

There will also always be people against you, but focus your energy on those who support and advocate for you. They are MUCH more valuable to you in your personal or professional growth than those who don’t believe in you.

I am sure that I have encountered many people along the way that doubted my ability as a female architect. I mostly tried to ignore those people. I have no doubt that if I won the opportunity to prove myself, that I obliterated their doubts very quickly.

LVB: Women are underrepresented in architecture, not just at the top of the field, but at all levels. Were there many instances in your career that you felt you were discriminated against because of your gender?

I never had a clear situation of discrimination.  It was always in the back of my mind though. I’m sure discrimination did go on in some circumstances. I just focused my energy on doing my best work. Black, white, male, female, whatever. When you do a good job people will recognize it.

Fifty percent of architecture college students are female but only 20% of registered architects are women and a dismal 17% are owners in firms. MKSD is a unicorn…super unique…we have two female partners, myself and Jill Hewes, and half of our staff are women.

LVB: MKSD is known for designing spaces for health care and academic institutions. What trends have emerged when designing for these industries?

Health care spaces have a more hospitality feel today. There is a lot of regard to patient experiences, with a focus on patient care. It’s also important to make space for technology in health care and to make it integrate seamlessly into the space. 

With academics, it is no longer just about the classroom.  It is about the experience of living and being on campus. Students are looking for unique classroom experiences.

LVB: The coronavirus pandemic abruptly changed to our work lives. Many of us are now working from home.  Companies are realizing that this may be a more efficient and less expensive way to do business, reducing the need for large office buildings. What do you think this means for the future of commercial office space?

I wish I had a crystal ball. It’s hard to say. After the pandemic subsides, I think we will end up somewhere in the middle between working from home and going into the office.  Actual engagement with people is very important. I do however see so many more businesses making less people come in. The open office environment is also coming into question.  Germs spread more easily in an open environment. I see the future as being about more flexible spaces that can be open or closed depending on the need.

LVB: How have you seen the field of architecture change over the years?

Family and personal lives are more of a priority today than they were years ago. That has been a huge change.  Employers are recognizing that work/life balance is important and that they need to honor that if they want to keep their employees. 

LVB: How do you maintain a healthy work/life balance? 

I go out to eat with my husband and spend time with my two daughters, ages 14 and 13.  We love to go to Dewey Beach in Delaware as a family.  We love to travel. Prior to the pandemic, we took a family vacation to Italy. l also love to do creative things and to garden.

Hoffman maintains her work-life balance by spending time with her daughters and husband at Dewey Beach, Delaware. PHOTO/SUBMITTED

Work is not always creative. There are a lot of not so fun things about running your own business. But I love what I do so much. It’s such a part of who I am. It’s a pleasure to me, to engage with staff and clients.  I’ve accepted that it is a tough job. It has made me who I am. I know it takes sacrifice and I honor that. I love my job.

LVB: What advice do you have for other women who are coming up in the field of architecture? 

Be easy on yourself, not every day will be perfect.  The future of women in architecture holds a lot of promise. We need to be responsible for change. It is up to ALL of us to make space for women.  Change is not going to happen by itself.