In lighting design, women move it forward

Sept. 2, 2022
Designer ERIN DREYFOUS comments on the need for a shift in modern professional culture to focus on raising women’s profiles with mentorship in architecture, engineering, and construction.

My father recently passed away. He was a master electrician who built a successful company. I spent many summers on job sites working with him, pulling wires, nailing up boxes — and becoming an expert on classic rock’n’roll along the way. The work was taxing but fulfilling. I loved being a part of the synchronized 3D puzzle of assembling the built environment.

Though my father treated me like everyone else on his crew, I never did run into another woman on those construction sites in western Michigan. This would prepare me for meetings in my early lighting design career, when I often was the only woman at the large conference room table. Over time, I have seen a gradual shift in lighting, a nexus of architecture, design, engineering, construction, and technology. Yet only 35% of the nearly 3,800 lighting designers in the U.S. are women. In the allied field of architecture, only 34% of registered architects are women and 21% of principals and partners are women, according to the 2020 American Institute of Architects Firm Survey Report.

In 2004, when Suzan Tillotson founded her eponymous firm — where I am currently a partner she and her generation of female designers faced no shortage of gender discrimination. Over time, they laid the groundwork for transformative change. I have the privilege of getting on with the work because they did the heavy lifting to prove that quality lighting design does not see gender.

At our firm, we elevate the next generation of design leaders through our daily practice of mentorship. Leading by example is important, but creating and inspiring good design require rigorous listening and distilling what my teams are doing. Mentoring by the guided consensus of experienced staff generates shared confidence, which is essential and empowering for women in male-dominated fields, such as architecture, engineering, and construction.

We also have support from organizations such as the Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation, which Willis founded in 2002 to advance and elevate women working in the built environment. “We can shift these professions to an inclusive culture by working collectively for equitable opportunities and futures for more women,” says BWAF executive director Cynthia Phifer Kracauer.

How does gender equality materialize in everyday practice in our industry? Attracting and growing female talent open the door to increasing their professional influence. Everyone excels at the highest levels of our organization. We all take chances and iterate. Our process is nonlinear but directed. We fail upwards. The only thing polite about our process is our interactions with clients.

The transition to remote or hybrid work due to the pandemic has further demonstrated how women can operate and lead effectively in the field of lighting. Many people of all genders are thriving with the added level of flexibility in scheduling and work hours. This has become a key opportunity for elevating women in our industry and for nurturing a shared office culture.

Get to know our expert

Erin Dreyfous, IALD, MIES, is a partner at Tillotson Design Associates, which she joined in 2007 after earning an MFA in Architectural Lighting from Parsons: The New School for Design. She has been named to the “40 Under 40” listings as a professional leader to watch, and she has guest-lectured at architecture schools, presented her award-winning projects, and served on design juries. Among the notable projects Dreyfous has led are the Broad Museum, in Los Angeles; the Public Hotel, in Chicago; and the Comcast Technology and Innovation Center, in Philadelphia. 

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