Architect moms at Toronto firm show motherhood and demanding careers can co-exist

Flexible start times, reduced hours and working from home are just some of the way Q4 Architects accommodates employees with young children.

Q4 Architects makes accommodations so working parents can take care of the kids and do their jobs

Sabrina Castellanos, left, Kathryn Ruggiero, centre, and Frances Martin-DiGiuseppe at the office of architectural firm Q4 Architects in North York. (Ryan Patrick Jones/CBC)

Taking time off work to care for the kids was barely tolerated when Frances Martin-DiGiuseppe did it a few decades ago.

But now that she's the founder of an architectural firm, she's making it easier for working moms to make it in architecture.

"It's so important for those moms to continue to function in their roles and to be happy in their life," said Martin-DiGiuseppe.

Flexible start-times, reduced hours and working from home are just some of the ways Martin-DiGiuseppe's company, Q4 Architects, accommodates employees with young children. Martin-DiGiuseppe hopes the adjustments make it easier for women to succeed in a male-dominated industry with a large gender gap.

"I don't want them to have to go through what I went through," she said, looking back on her over 30 years of experience in the profession.

Women make up 25 per cent of architects in the province, according to data from the Ontario Association of Architects.

A 2016 report by the American Institute of Architects found that that there are a number of barriers preventing women from succeeding in the industry, including long and inflexible working hours, a "macho" culture, sexism, and a lack of return-to-work training following maternity leave.

Martin-DiGiuseppe says the very long education process — four years for undergraduate study, at least two for a master's degree, plus a lengthy internship — means female architects are usually at the age at which they want to start a family by the time they get licensed.

This means many women are forced to make a choice between pursuing their career or having kids. Martin-DiGiuseppe wants that to change.

Flexible but still getting it done

There is no one-size-fits-all solution to the challenge of balancing childrearing and work responsibilities, says Martin-DiGiuseppe. At Q4 Architects, they tailor solutions to each employee's personal situation.

"We don't have one policy. I just have a really open door," she said. "Whatever that mom needs, we talk it out."

Madel Fuentes and her one-year-old son Lucas visit the offices of Q4 Architects. Fuentes will be working reduced and flexible hours when she returns after her second baby at the end of this month. (Ryan Patrick Jones/CBC)

For project manager Sabrina Castellanos, it meant adjusting the time she comes into work. Castellanos arrives at the office later than the normal start time so she can drop her three-year-old daughter, Annabella, off at school.

Castellanos enjoys having direct contact with her daughter's teacher and being a part of her educational life.

"Every working mom needs flexible time, whenever my kid gets sick or whenever I have go to school for Mother's Day," said Castellanos. "I'm really lucky where I work I have that flexibility."

Madel Fuentes's son, Lucas, is one year old. Fuentes will be working reduced hours and a flexible schedule when she returns to Q4 Architects at the end of the month.

"Family is very important and they grow so fast," she said of her children

'It means the world to me'

For Kathryn Ruggiero, who works in the design department at Q4 Architects, it took a bigger adjustment.

The company helped Ruggiero set up a home office so she could work while looking after her daughter, Julia, who is two-and-a-half years old.

"It means the world to me," said Ruggiero. "A lot of my girlfriends, they had to make really hard decisions to either stick with their career and leave their families or quit their jobs."

Up to 40 per cent of the employees at Q4 Architects are women. (Submitted by Q4 Architecture)

Ruggiero says the accommodations for her family motivate her to do well in her working life.

"You're working harder because they're accommodating you," said Ruggiero. "So there is that loyalty there, to make it work."

Martin-DiGiuseppe believes that her company's family-friendly approach is good for business because it pays off to have happy, dedicated employees.

"I know that the moms' number one loyalty is to their children," she said.

"I am okay that we're second because they actually give me so much back in return."