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.
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.
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.”