Women share their paths to architecture

Panelists talk about how they entered male-dominated field.

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  • | 7:20 a.m. July 25, 2017
From left, moderator Audrey Moran with panelists Mary Tappouni, Brooke Robbins, Martha Moore, Becky Morgan and Joanna Cenci Rodriguez.
From left, moderator Audrey Moran with panelists Mary Tappouni, Brooke Robbins, Martha Moore, Becky Morgan and Joanna Cenci Rodriguez.
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In a meeting with a high school counselor to prepare for college in the early 1970s, Joanna Cenci Rodriguez was told she should “go into home economics.”

But in the back of her mind, Rodriguez had always thought, “If I were a man, I would be an architect.” 

Now the owner of Rodriguez Architecture in Jacksonville, she has been an architect for four decades. But when she began her career, less than 10 percent of architects were women. 

Rodriguez’ story was one of many told Thursday by the Jacksonville Women Business Owners Panel, five women architects, engineers, contractors and interior designers who broke into the male-dominated construction field. 

The event was hosted by Jacksonville Women in Architecture, a new organization that’s part of the Jacksonville chapter of the American Institute of Architects. WIA promotes the professional development, advancement and visibility of women in the field.

The panelists discussed topics such as how to choose and deal with clients, manage expectations and charge appropriate rates for their work. But the stories of how they broke into the field grabbed the most attention from the audience of about 60 people.  

Rodriguez said she was encouraged by a college professor, who pulled her aside following an interior design course and told her she was doing just as well as his architecture students and that she might want to consider changing her major.  

“I have to give him the credit for that,” Rodriguez said.

She was one of six women in her University of Florida class of that graduated 100 architects.

Martha Moore, a transportation planning and traffic engineer who has led planning and implementation studies for the Florida Department of Transportation, said she once was mistaken for a secretary. 

Another time, after she and a female colleague completed a presentation to a client in Orlando, the client said, “I thought you were going to bring the engineers.”

Brooke Robbins, an architect who helped remodel the Jessie Ball duPont Center in the former Haydon Burns Public Library Downtown, said it takes time to build relationships and credibility with people in the industry, especially when you’re a woman. 

But it was colleagues, mostly male contractors and engineers, who encouraged her to launch Robbins Design Studio in November and who are sending business her way. 

Becky Morgan, founder of Bmorcreative, an interior design firm that specializes in commercial space and historic preservation, said she opened her business in 2014 because it was the only way to truly reap the benefits of her hard work.  

 “It took my owning a business for people to notice me,” Morgan said. 

Mary Tappouni, president of Breaking Ground Contracting Co., said she has gotten used to being the only woman in a room of builders and architects.

She opened her business in 1997 after repeatedly encountering comments in job interviews, such as, “Are you going to start a family?” and “We’ve never had a woman in that position.”

Tappouni said it took years to gain credibility and to be taken seriously as a woman business owner in the construction field. But the industry has evolved and most of those companies now employ women in project management positions, she said. 

She encouraged women to consider the construction industry, noting they’ll make more money there than in many other fields.

“It’s a great career for women,” Tappouni said. “It helps me to stand out as a woman.”