RECAP: Finding Balance? — Women in Design Alumni and Faculty Panel

Women in Design Panel NYC 2
Dean Malo A. Hutson welcomes the panelists and guests to the Women In Design panel hosted by the School of Architecture in partnership with the Virginia Club of New York on March 26, 2024. Alumnae and faculty shared their personal journeys as women in the design, architecture, and real estate professions. Photo: Woody Wingfield.

Last week the UVA School of Architecture, in partnership with the Virginia Club of New York, hosted a timely and informative panel conversation featuring School of Architecture alumnae and faculty titled “Women in Design: Finding Balance”.  This year’s panel, a follow up to a Women in Design panel hosted in 2018, focused on the challenges and opportunities of being a female and a parent in the design and real estate industries and provided insights on creating a more equitable and supportive work environment for women and parents.

This year’s panelists included five phenomenal women in all different stages of their careers, life milestones and parenthood (with children ranging in age from 2 to 26), Yvi McEvilly (BSArch ‘03, MArch ‘05), Serena Nelson (BSArch ’03, MArch ’09, MLA ’09), Jeana Ripple (Chair and Associate Professor, Architecture), Katie Swenson (MArch '00), and Susi Yu (BSArch '88).

Women in Design: Recent Statistics

Malo A. Hutson, Dean of the UVA School of Architecture, welcomed the audience and shared statistics on women in architecture and related fields, in academia and practice. Referencing “Where are the women? Measuring Progress on Gender in Architecture,” researched and written in 2020 by alumnus and Director of Research and Information for the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture Kendall Nicholson (BSArch '09), Hutson shared some key metrics related to women, architecture, and higher education:

  • 48% of all accredited architecture degrees are awarded to females (this number is rising)
  • Women make up 39% of all ARE exams completed
  • 22% of AIA members are female
  • 3 out of every 10 Deans are female (there are 110 Deans and Heads of Schools of Architecture in the US and Canada)
  • 33% of all Associate Deans, Chairs and department heads are female

At the UVA School of Architecture specifically:

  • 65% of our student body identify as female
  • 49% of our faculty and 70% of our staff identify as female
  • 3 out 4 of our department chairs are female

The statistics show a significant percentage of female representation in Schools of Architecture nationwide, yet this number consistently drops as women move into the profession. To unpack some the barriers that may explain this decline, moderator and UVA alumna Robin Dolch (COL ‘94), Founder and CEO of Hundred Stories PR, expertly facilitated a lively and open conversation that offered insights grounded by lived experiences. 

Reflections on the Journey

Each of the panelists shared their personal journey post-graduation, entering the workforce, building their careers, and when children entered their stories. With levity and modesty, they recounted pivotal life decisions and the big changes, challenges and adventures that followed. All candidly commiserating in the ups and downs of working parents, each also echoed the necessity of a self-care, grace, and reflection in navigating both the known and the unexpected. Met with nods of agreement by her fellow panelists and many members of the audience, Nelson reflected, "Yes, life is very chaotic at times, but we make it work, and I'm so grateful."

Dolch also guided the panelists into a thought exercise on what a future designed by and for women and parents would look like, asking each to consider what they have learned and valued at different stages of their careers — and how this may be the foundation of a practice built on community and mentorship.

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Audience members asked the panelists about how they navigated, and continue to navigate, the day-to-day and the pivotal moments in their careers as women and as mothers. Photo: Woody Wingfield

Words of Advice

Work-Life Integration, not necessarily Balance.
The panelists shared that while ubiquitous and often used in our culture and our language, the idea of 'balance' is not always attainable or even, the end goal. Ripple shared how in her life, even before having children, she and her husband did not have work life balance, rather they just worked all the time. She reflected that this is shared with so many of her colleagues, noting, "We all struggle with finding balance throughout our professional lives – with or without children."

Swenson offered the idea of work-life integration, instead of balance. "For me, this question of balance was way out of reach. It was not even healthy for me to think about it...Work and the people I worked with came home with me, and my family went to work. This integration – has been a life where I can invest as deeply as possible with as much love and care to my family, but also to express that through my work in the larger environment through design.”

There is a path to parenthood and practice. I don’t know what it looks like exactly but what comes out of parenthood and practice is something more — they can bring a different perspective to the other.

– Serena Nelson


The importance of Community, Empowerment, and Mentorship.
Work culture is built on concerted actions that create a supportive work environment for women and parents. The panelists talked about the experiences they have had that fed into their successes, and how they have learned to lean into their own community. Nelson said, "Remember that you have teams – you don’t have to do everything yourself.  If you see that someone else on your team that needs a little more support, step in, and you will get it back [in return]." 

Our office didn’t have ‘take your daughter to work day’ – everyday there were children in the office. Family was something that was really important and valued.

– Susi Yu

Modeling a supportive culture and setting the norm for what a work environment can look like was also emphasized. Ripple said, "We have the power to create a culture and empower our colleagues to do the same,” reiterated by Yu, "Create the environment that you want to work in.”


Give yourself grace.
The panelists articulated how forgoing the unattainable quest for balance was a freeing shift in their own journeys. 

Life is a pendulum – sometimes things swing all to one side, and sometimes all to the other.  I was told once, 'Be ready for all of this to hit all at once and you just have to hang in there.'  It is an investment in your future.

– Jeana Ripple

Often the ability to reflect on such life lessons also comes later, not in the middle of the experience, but later. Yu shared how as a working mother with ambitions for herself, she only learned recently after her children have grown, that she should have forgiven herself a lot more. McEvilly concurred, “Give yourself grace," and advised that it things may not look the same day to day, week to week, where sometimes focusing on your children comes first, and other times, work responsibilities need to be foregrounded.

Something Greater than 'Balance'

The panel closed with Dolch asking each panelist to share what they would tell their younger selves. Amidst laughter and acknowledgment by the audience, the panelists continued to offer poignant reflections on how to be accepting and empathetic, to develop interdependent collegial relationships, and to allow work-life integration to evolve into new forms. 

When looking to the future, and building a culture based on collaboration, empowerment, and inclusivity, Ripple highlighted that these are all qualities that are honed when time is spent with our family and friends, those that we love. 

Shedding the 'balance' myth, the audience left with shared camaraderie and hope. Swenson summed up the evening by saying, “It’s going to be ok. When you love things, you somehow find more hours in the day, so love what you do and love the people you do it with.”


Robin Dolch

Robin Dolch

(COL ‘94)
Founder and CEO of Hundred Stories PR

Robin Dolch is a founder and CEO of Hundred Stories PR, and a leading public relations expert and communications strategist who takes great pride in working with members of the real estate community to get to the heart and soul of a story.  As a former journalist and real estate agent, Robin understands all sides of a project.Robin creates local and global press platforms for Manhattan’s most prominent developers but also defines and differentiates her clients’ buildings through innovative alliances and unique programming.  With far-reaching national and international experience, she has worked on projects in Miami, London, Los Angeles and Tel Aviv, and she’s collaborated with world-renowned architects, designers and artists.  She is an alumnus of the Horace Mann School and the University of Virginia, where she graduated with honors with a dual degree in English and psychology. She lives on the Upper East Side, near her childhood home, with her two sons.


Yvi McEvilly

Yvi McEvilly 

(BSArch ‘03, MArch ‘05)
Assistant Commissioner of Design-Build Unit at the NYC Department of Design and Construction

Yvi McEvilly is the Assistant Commissioner of the Design-Build Unit at the New York City Department of Design and Construction (NYCDDC).  She is a licensed landscape architect and expert in delivering capital projects in New York City’s complicated construction environment with over 18 years of experience managing public projects from multiple vantage points within the private, non-profit, and government sectors.  At NYCDDC, Yvi leads the agency’s program for alternative project delivery and is expanding the design-build portfolio for public buildings and infrastructure.  Prior to NYCDDC, Yvi was a Vice President at New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC) where she supervised a $500+ million portfolio of waterfront, public building, open space, and infrastructure projects.  Before NYCEDC, she was Director of Design at the environmental non-profit New York Restoration Project and a project manager at Ken Smith Landscape Architect.  In 2023 she completed the rigorous Coro Leadership New York program.  She holds a B.S. in Architecture and a M. Arch from the University of Virginia. 


Serena Nelson

Serena Nelson 

(BSArch ’03, MArch ’09, MLA ’09)
Senior Associate at Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects

Serena Nelson is a registered landscape architect with over fourteen years of experience in the field, Serena holds a bachelor’s degree in Architecture (2003), as well as master’s degrees in Architecture and Landscape Architecture (2009, 2010) from the University of Virginia. Prior to graduate school, Serena worked in NBW’s Charlottesville office and helped open the New York office. Following graduate work, Serena practiced with Starr Whitehouse Landscape Architects before re-joining NBW in 2012. Serena was a Kenan Fellow at the University of Virginia, where she lectured on the integration of architecture and landscape architecture and completed extensive research on complex infrastructure landscapes of Mexico, Netherlands, and Germany. Serena was central to the design and management of The Public Square and Gardens at Hudson Yards, from concept to construction. In addition, she has led a broad range of other projects within the office, including the Peabody Essex Museum with Ennead Architects, 80 Flatbush – a mixed-use development in Brooklyn, residential projects in the Hudson Valley and the east end of Long Island, and several major masterplans across New York, including Sylvester Manor Educational Farm. 


Jeana Ripple

Jeana Ripple

Associate Professor and Chair, Architecture Department, UVA School of Architecture

Jeana Ripple is Chair of the Architecture Department at the UVA School of Architecture, Associate Professor of Architecture and is a registered architect.  She is principal and co-founder of the collaborative architecture firm, Mir Collective.  Jeana’s work is recognized through international awards, competitions, and exhibitions for the translation of material manufacturing techniques into innovative architectural systems promoting local economic growth.  Ripple's upcoming book, "The Type V City: Codifying Material Inequity in Urban America" examines the role of wood frame construction and building codes in shaping American material and social vulnerabilities.  This scholarship expands frameworks for material resilience in architecture by analyzing the social dimensions often left out of architectural material standards, including the ties between building material and neighborhood disinvestment, health risks, exclusionary labor, racialized assessments, building lifespan, and sustainability.  Her practice, scholarship, and teaching draw upon her combined background as a computer science engineer and architect to frame material resilience through a systems framework with varying scales, inputs, and objectives.


Katie Swenson

Katie Swenson 

(MArch ’00)
Senior Principal at MASS Design

A nationally recognized design leader, researcher, writer, and educator, Katie Swenson has served as a Senior Principal of MASS Design Group since 2020. Katie’s work explores how critical design practice can, and should, promote economic and social equity, environmental sustainability, and healthy communities.  Katie has over 20 years of experience in the theoretical and practical application of design thinking and is a talented global public speaker and thought leader.  A prolific writer, she authored Design with Love: At Home in America, and In Bohemia: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Kindness, both published in August 2020.  She is a contributing author to Activist Architecture: Philosophy and Practice of Community Design and Expanding Architecture: Design as Activism.  Katie was awarded the AIA Award for Excellence in Public Architecture in 2021 and teaches design at Parsons The New School.  Prior to joining MASS, Katie was the vice president of Design & Sustainability at Enterprise Community Partners.  An alumni of the Enterprise Rose Fellowship’s second class, Swenson was tapped to lead and grow the program in 2007.  She also helped found the Charlottesville Community Design Center in 2004.


Susi Yu

Susi Yu

(BSArch ’88)
Founding Partner at Bungalow Projects 

Susi Yu is a co-founder of Bungalow Projects focused on development of purpose-built soundstages and production facilities for content creation in partnership with Travis Feehan and Bain Captial Real Estate.   Previously, Susi was a Principal and Founder of MAG Partners responsible for leading and managing the firm’s development strategy across all asset classes, as well as identifying, evaluating, and closing new development opportunities.  Prior to MAG Partners, Susi served as EVP of Development for Forest City Ratner Companies leading the Residential Development team on execution of Pacific Park Brooklyn.    Trained as an architect at the University of Virginia’s School of Architecture, Susi previously worked for 10 years as an architect, most recently as a Project Architect for Robert A.M. Stern. She is a graduate of Columbia University’s Masters of Science in Real Estate Development Program and is a registered architect in New York State. 

Special thank you to UVA Advancement and the Virginia Club of New York, especially Camille Kielbasa, for their partnership in this event.  Thank you to our moderator and panelists for their generosity of time and insights. Thank you to the School of Architecture Advancement Team, and especially to Kim Wong Haggart for her significant contributions to helping organize this event, and to the writing of this recap. 

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