Leading the Way from Afar

The women leading Perkins Eastman's studios in Mumbai and Shanghai discuss their success in the face of social and professional obstacles in India and China.

When the leaders of Perkins Eastman’s Mumbai studio came to New York in January to deliver a talk for the firm’s “Career Conversations” series, it was for many the first opportunity to get a glimpse of firm’s culture abroad. “People were really introduced to Chhavi and Supriya in that forum,” says PEople Culture Manager Emily Pierson-Brown, referring to Mumbai Managing Principal Supriya Thyagarajan and her second-in-command, Associate Principal Chhavi Lal. What’s so distinctive is that they’ve risen to the top levels of leadership in a country where the female labor force participation in architecture and engineering is just 11 percent, according to a KPMG in India study, and only 4 percent of women across the entire workforce hold senior roles.

Leading the Way from Afar

Supriya Thyagarajon, left, and Chhavi Lal participate in the firm’s
“Career Conversations” series in New York in January.

Meanwhile in Shanghai, Managing Principal Ron Vitale is typically the face of Perkins Eastman’s presence across Asia, but he points to Associate Principal Mika Zhou, the co-studio leader there, as the highest-ranking woman in a studio where “most of our titled staff are women and our entire operations team are all women.” Though their numbers comport with statistics that show Chinese women have one of the highest labor participation rates globally, “their careers fizzle out” before they reach the executive ranks, according to a study by Spencer Stuart | Bain & Company, Inc.; only 19 percent of Chinese executives are women, lagging behind a 25 percent average in other countries such as the US, UK, and Australia.

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Mika Zhou

These issues are part of a strong desire across the firm’s US studios to know more about their peers overseas, Pierson-Brown says. “Every single time I present about being the PEople Culture Manager, one of the first questions I get is, ‘are you going to the international studios?’ ” she says. “There’s a lot of curiosity. If you don’t work with people in those studios, you don’t get exposed to them, what’s going on there, or the projects they’re working on.”

Thyagarajan, Lal, and Zhou weighed in on how they’ve advanced into their positions, particularly in countries where societal expectations around women’s roles can be more restrictive than the barriers professional women face in the US. Though it’s common for women to work and have jobs in large Indian metropolitan areas like where she comes from, Thyagarajan says, “that doesn’t necessarily mean that working women have financial independence. Important financial decisions are still taken by men in the family. Child-rearing responsibilities still fall on the women.” As for work, she says, “there used to be a time when we had to bring in a senior male colleague to ensure that our ideas were heard by the client, but over time, we have learned that having confidence in your work and being persistent has helped us create a place for ourselves.”

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Thyagarajon and Lal led the teams that designed the award-winning Ashoka University north of
New Delhi. Photo copyright Harshon Thomson/Courtesy Perkins Eastman

Lal notes that having strong mentors and widespread upper-level support within the company has helped her and Thyagarajan cement their roles within the male-dominated real estate industry in India. “There were some situations where clients hesitated to show faith in my capabilities, wanting to have a man at the face of the project, but seniors and bosses reinstated my caliber and ensured I continued on the project,” she says. Neither she nor Thyagarajan believes that being a women-led studio offers any advantages in winning work, yet they offer significant benefits for their studio’s culture. “It’s actually quite difficult to win work being a woman leader,” Thyagarajan says. “It’s become a mission for me to sensitize our male clients about challenges we women face in the industry, from lack of proper hygiene on construction sites, to scheduling work calls during office hours, and not having to travel late at night or early in the morning due to safety concerns. On the other hand, I am proud of the culture we have built in our office, where women leaders have contributed significantly in creating an empathetic and nurturing environment.”

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Women make up the majority of the Mumbai studio’s leadership.

Zhou notes similar aspects about her role in Shanghai. “Women have some common characteristics such as carefulness and sensitivity. These characteristics are often complementary to those of male team members on a project” who are often more focused on design production, she says. And while women contribute plenty to a project’s design development, she says her project management skills are key to helping a team reach its goals. “Only an orderly and creative team can win the project and a client’s trust,” she says.

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Zhou helped lead the design for the village-like Tianquan Lake Wellness Senior Living Development in Huaian City, China. Photo copyright CreatAR/Courtesy Perkins Eastman

Despite their skills and knowledge, women everywhere battle societal expectations for them to manage children’s and household affairs in addition to their work obligations. But in India, “women’s work is seen as a standby or emergency measure,” sociologist A.L. Sharado, a demographer and the director of Population First, told NPR in January. “The moment the family becomes economically stable, they expect the woman to get out of the labor force.” In China, according to the Spencer Stuart study, women executives are considered outliers. “Over two-thirds of women said their families do not understand their career ambitions,” the report said. Family responsibilities, hesitation, exclusion from male networks, and unconscious bias are all factors that inhibit their rise, despite roughly equal representation in higher education and early-to-mid-career positions.

Zhou shared that when she was pursuing a master’s degree in project management while also working full time, she never got a break from her home duties during the two-and-a-half-year program. “Besides the summer or winter holidays, I had no rest on the weekends during school and also needed to deal with two young kids. That was really the hardest time in my life, but I’m glad I made it,” she says.

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Zhou has a Lego creation on her desk called “Everyone is Awesome,” but she prefers to call it
“Every Girl is Awesome!” Photo courtesy Mika Zhou

Perhaps because they have to juggle so many responsibilities, women have honed important skills that benefit their teams at work. “Women designers have a focused, realistic vision that they take time to articulate and detail out well,” Lal says. “Even at a very conceptual stage, a woman’s idea has multiple layers to it, and women can be quite pragmatic about their approach—but the representation of women in design roles is still very limited.”

Thyagarajan hopes to be a harbinger of wider representation at the top. She was one of three women appointed to Perkins Eastman’s Executive Committee last year—and the only representative from an international studio. She credits the firm’s supportive culture and leadership for her rise. “I am conscious of the fact that I no longer represent just the Mumbai office, but every woman who sees herself reflected in me, be it age, color, or ethnicity. Also, I am getting a front-row seat to the mechanics of a large firm. This helps me immensely in applying the same principles to the Mumbai office.”

Zhou says she’s worked with international companies for her entire 19-year career for the same reasons as her Mumbai peers. “Although China has experienced a period of rapid development in the past three decades, the development of Chinese corporate culture still has significant traditional characteristics. The equality, inclusiveness, and diversity that international companies are rich in are undoubtedly more friendly to women,” she says—and she’s trying to pay that success forward. “Young women always feel upset or self-doubt when they make a mistake or can’t accomplish a certain task. I’m happy that a lot of women in or out of my project teams are willing to talk to me when they have trouble during work,” she says. “I always share my failures during my career and tell them that no one can be perfect all the time. Just accept those failures and don’t make them twice.”

Lal is keenly aware of the statistics in India that show how few women advance into professional leadership. In architecture, she says, “the reasons are long work hours, arduous site visits, and a male-dominated industry. My advice would be to seek a mentor and work through the challenges. Don’t give up because of any external influence or pressure. Even if there are phases where one may need to step back from work, make sure to come back and continue the journey.” Overall, Thyagarajan says, “have patience. The work we do takes years to bear fruit and have an impact on the community. For women especially, I would suggest picking wisely where you wish to work. There are multiple life events that will pull you away from this industry, and without the right leadership and supportive environment at work, you will probably struggle to stay the course.”

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Lal, left, and Thyagarajon in a familiar setting: working on the road.

Perkins Eastman’s Women’s Leadership Initiative was launched in 2015, forming a solid foundation for the development of its Diversity, Equity & Inclusion team in 2020 that Pierson-Brown now leads. But angling for diversity, equity, and inclusion abroad is a trickier issue due to varying social and legal perspectives on women’s and LGBTQ+ rights. Yet there should be better ways to establish connections more generally with our colleagues overseas, Pierson-Brown says. “We have award-winning international projects that are ground-breaking in terms of architecture and urbanism. But there are still opportunities to knit together our global presence as a people. I’m looking forward to digging deeper into what Human by Design means globally,” she says. The leadership examples Thyagarajan, Lal, and Zhou represent can surely show us the way.