By Jamie Claire Kiser

Just a few weeks ago, we held the third annual ElevateHER Symposium where professionals from around the AEC industry gathered to challenge themselves by thinking about what role they and their firms can play in making the future a better and more equitable place.  2022 was the first year our ElevateHER cohort was able to meet in person, and the venue was imbued with levity and joy.  While these are not typically descriptive of discussions about the future–particularly nowadays–the ability for our 2022 cohort to step out of the day-to-day and focus on a shared vision of the future in a communal space breathed a spirit of hope and camaraderie into the event.

This is the vision with which we founded ElevateHer in 2018.  The desire to not only look past the troubled waters of the current moment, but to visualize the bridge to a better future and begin to lay the foundations is at the heart of ElevateHER.  In this pursuit, we can find strength in historical context.  Shortly after the onset of the American Revolution in March of 1776, Abigail Adams was living separately from her revolutionary husband John, raising four children in war-torn Massachusetts while her husband lived and worked in Philadelphia.  While John Adams policked in Philadelphia–espousing ideals on patriotism and public policy–Abigail lived the life of a single parent.

During the Spring of 1776, the waters in which Abigail Adams found herself were indeed troubled.  The difficulty of performing her duties as a parent was only exacerbated by the fact that the Revolutionary War had broken out all around her.  While the couple was physically separated, they still shared an emotional bond.  At this historical junction, Abigail Adams demonstrated the unique vision of the future we seek to emulate.  With war breaking out around her, Adams wrote letters to her husband, imploring him to use his position of power to set in law a better future for women in the country he sought to establish.  In these letters, Adams wrote to her husband about the “new code of laws which…[would] be necessary for [him] to make.”  Adams implored that in the making of the new nation that he and his fellow revolutionaries “remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors.”

Looking past the present moment, Adams was not advocating for herself, but rather for a larger swath of women.  Abigail Adams implored her husband to take into account women whose husbands did not share the same respect that he did, writing to her husband: “Why then, not put it out of the power of the vicious and the lawless to use [women] with cruelty and indignity with impunity.  Men of sense in all ages abhor those customs which treat us only as the vassals of your sex.”  It has to be stated that Adams is not referring to “all women”, but rather “all white women whose husbands own land.”  However, using the means at her disposal, Adams challenged her husband to speak on behalf of the 84 percent of Americans who couldn’t vote at the time.  The decision to do this took a tremendous amount of courage.

However, Abigail Adams’ courage was ultimately imbued in her husband, and gave him the strength to enter the rooms where the new nation was being built with that perspective.  Her advocacy was successful, and the needle moved towards progress for a time when women landowners were granted the right to vote in New Jersey in 1776.  While this right only lasted 30 years, Adams’ strength and courage elevated the concerns to an arena that can affect change.

In this anecdote we can find strength despite the troubled waters that we find ourselves in currently.  Despite many moments of courage like Adams’ throughout American history, women are still fighting to keep the needle of progress moving forward.  The last two years in particular have been especially challenging for women in the workforce.  As of 2020, the average white woman in America still made 73 cents on the dollar compared to their male counterparts.  Black and Hispanic women made 58 cents and 49 cents, respectively. That was before women left the workforce in droves due to remote schooling, daycare closures, and a variety of caregiving challenges wrought by the pandemic that primarily fell on women’s shoulders. According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, there are still 2 million fewer women in the workforce than there were two years ago.

Abigail Adams was able to use the means at her disposal to affect change.  However, a large percentage of women are not afforded the same means, and don’t often have access to spaces where they can be an advocate for change.  ElevateHER seeks to give women in the AEC industry access to the means of change, allowing them to connect with others both professionally and personally.  During the 2022 ElevateHER Symposium, leaders from across the AEC industry had genuine discussions about the topics affecting them, and extended those discussions into actionable plans.  As the designers of the built environment, the AEC industry has a unique impact in that what happens within our industry affects people in every corner of the globe.  As such, the ability to affect change within our industry has reverberating effects for many people.  

In this spirit, the 2022 ElevateHER cohort embodies the example of Abigail Adams, who–through a thinly veiled threat towards her powerful husband–affected change for a larger swath of the population.  The 2022 cohort’s ability to courageously and fearlessly challenge the current paradigm is again echoed by Abigail Adams’ letters to her husband: “if particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound to any laws by which we have no representation or voice.”

If you want to be a part of the 2023 ElevateHER Cohort, learn more here.


Jamie Claire Kiser is managing principal and director of advisory services at Zweig Group. Contact her at jkiser@zweiggroup.com.