International Women’s Day 2019: Finnish Architects Discuss Mentorship in Design


On occasion of International Women’s Day, ARCHITECTA and VOW hosted Mentorship in Design, a panel discussion with Finnish Architects at Oodi Central Library in Helsinki, Finland.

Moderated by Architect Marco Steinberg and Caroline James, Associate AIA, participants included six women who are firm leaders, project managers, academics, and senior urban planners in both governmental agencies and private companies: Pirkko-Liisa Schulman, Chair of Architecta (2015-2017), Freja Ståhlberg-Aalto of JKMM Architects, Anu Pustinen of Avanto Architects, Ulla Kuitunen of Sitowise, Miia-Liina Tommila of Tommila Architects and Kaleidoscope and Kirsti Sivén of Sivén & Takala. The object of the panel was to discuss Mentorship in Design in the context of Finland: What… Mitä se tarkoittaa? How… Miten? Why…   Miksi? What’s Next…Mitä seuraavaksi? 

Some discoveries included that mentorship is often informal, casual,”lucky”. For some, it’s about “that first door opening.” For others, mentorship has been all about communication–the ability to give and receive feedback. Mentorship is often the essential topping up of skills rarely taught in the schools such as business development. One panelist noted needing to learn many things “by jumping in water and learning to swim.” As someone who has had a strong mentor since graduating from Harvard GSD, I have tapped into her expertise and wisdom for everything from running a business to how to interact with consultants and contractors. 

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An interesting thread discussed is how interrelated mentorship is to collaboration and teamwork. Many have noted students are rarely given opportunities to work in teams and develop these skills in Architecture school. Or if they’re in teams, often they are graded individually, which defeats the idea of teamwork as it becomes an issue of “who did what” “who did more” etc.

Architecture would be more effective, more profitable and more inclusive if mentorship were a more rigorously defined and implemented part of our training, profession and discipline. Steinberg briefly described the organizational consulting he is doing, and how forward-thinking companies and institutions are crafting psychologically “safe”  environments to learn and work in . Another Panelist noted that in their workplace, there are “no stupid questions.” These are all steps in the right direction. 

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Mentorship is critical, both at the schools, and in the profession. It’s the difference between knowledge sharing, development. As next steps, we will be learning more about organizations such as SAFA’s efforts to build out a mentorship program in Finland. It would be interesting to learn how different regions and professional bodies are developing these programs. 

Hosted by Architecta and VOW Architects. Thank you to Oodi Kirjasto for hosting us!

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