Women’s History Month; Two HKS Women Leaders Discuss Their Careers

Women’s History Month is celebrated in the United States to recognize the contributions women have made to America and their unique achievements throughout history. I have been with HKS for 39 years, and I have seen both the architecture industry and our firm become more diverse and inclusive over time. I am proud of our progress; our firm is now 48% people who identify as women, and 56% of our 2022 promotions recipients firmwide were women. Our Executive Committee is now 20% women, as well.

But that progress was not without its challenges. My wife, Ann, is a registered architect, as well, and we worked together for the better part of 25 years. I saw firsthand how she was dismissed in meetings or assumed that she was not a project lead as the only woman in the room, from what I can assume was only because of her gender.

Ann was firing on all cylinders; managing schedules and responsibilities for our two children, working before the kids went to school and after they went to bed at night, and leading HKS initiatives like Better Together and The One Percent Solution (which are now J.E.D.I. and Citizen HKS) that promoted gender and racial equity within our firm and beyond.

“It was very difficult at times,” Ann says, “but would I change my path? I can confidently say, absolutely not.

“I think most women see our hardships and struggles as worthwhile,” Ann says. “We persevere so that the next generation of women- our daughters, mentees, colleagues- won’t even have to think about speaking up in a client meeting. Having a female leading a multi-million-dollar design project won’t be out of the ordinary.”

HKS has been in business for nearly a century. We can see the progress we’ve made thanks to our inspiring and resilient team of women who break barriers every day, and we continue to commit to bringing diverse voices to our table to ensure a more equitable environment within our firm and more innovative work for our clients.

To honor this national recognition, we spoke with two of our female leaders, Ana Pinto-Alexander and Bernita Beikmann, about their experiences as women leaders in our firm and the future for our industry.

Left, Ana Pinto-Alexander; Right, Bernita Beikmann

Tell us about your career trajectory and what led you to your role as a leader at HKS.

Bernita Beikmann — Chief Process Officer; Dallas

I graduated college with a Bachelor of Architecture degree in 1996 and started at HKS soon after that. It was after a recession where we had not been hiring, and that left some gaps that allowed those who were motivated the opportunity to take on as much responsibility as we could handle. I spent some time in the commercial practice, and ultimately ended up in the health practice. When you are young, I do not think it always matters what projects you work on. What matters most is who you work with and I was fortunate to work with people that allowed me to learn, ask questions, make mistakes and make more mistakes. They encouraged me not just to do my job, but to do more than my job. I spent many hours of my personal time on standards committees, on the summer intern committee, volunteering in the Forum and other leadership committees as much as I could. I never turned down an opportunity, even if it terrified me. If I did not think I could do something, I just tried to figure out how to do it. The internal committees and leadership experience led to me serving in external local and national leadership positions. 

Ana Pinto-Alexander — Director of Health Interiors; Dallas

My relationship with HKS started in 2003. At that time, I was the majority owner of an interior design firm, Maregatti Interiors, and over the next seven years, we delivered four greenfield hospitals and a tower addition in Indianapolis working in collaboration with HKS. In 2011, HKS acquired my business and I joined the firm as a Principal, serving in the role of Director of Health Interiors. During the past 11 years, I have worked with my interiors partners to elevate the role of interiors in our work. I have also worked to increase diversity of thought within HKS by elevating women into leadership positions. Having diversity within our leadership is a good business decision.

What specific challenges, did you face or are continuing to face as a woman in the architecture/engineering/design industry?

Beikmann: In the beginning, my challenge was proving that I belonged in certain situations such as on a construction site, leading a meeting, or being the person to go to with questions. The biggest help for overcoming that challenge was the people that I worked for at HKS not tolerating exclusionary behavior from others. Over time, with more women in the industry, that issue has softened. The biggest hurdle now is getting a seat at the table in the higher leadership positions. More companies are realizing the benefits of diversity at a leadership level and HKS is, too.

Pinto-Alexander: Women have made a great deal of progress at HKS since I came on 11 years ago. One of the challenges I face is having the courage to speak up and ask uncomfortable questions during meetings where most of the voices are male. I say to myself, “If it is not you, then who? If it is not now, then when?” In conversations and meetings with other women, we are tactical in supporting each other.

What steps is HKS taking to create more equity in our profession and what role are you playing in those efforts?

Beikmann: Architecture was not a profession known to me as a child because of where I grew up, nor as a choice for women. HKS has invested in mentoring and building awareness of the design profession among young people in elementary and high schools. That is where it has to start. We also sponsor programs including ACE Mentoring and an on-going partnership with Cristo Rey Dallas Prep. We have employees who go out in their own communities and show leadership, too. I have done presentations at my daughter’s schools, been a girl scout leader, and had a Cristo Rey student as a summer intern. Within HKS, I have been a part of multiple efforts to raise awareness of diversity and equity and the benefits of women in leadership. We have made some progress and we will continue to make more progress until this does not have to be a conversation anymore.

Pinto-Alexander: One of the key decisions was to elevate Yiselle Santos Rivera to be our Director of Justice, Equity, Diversity & Inclusion (J.E.D.I.). Her voice and vision are highly respected in our industry and within HKS. She has brought the data forward to make everyone aware of the steps which we need to take in order for HKS to be relevant in the years to come. I am personally sponsoring and mentoring women within HKS as well. We have remarkable, talented and knowledgeable women who deserve to have their voices heard.

The theme of Women’s History Month 2022 is “Providing Healing, Promoting Hope.”  How would you encourage others to provide healing and promote hope in the face of challenges?

Beikmann: “Providing Healing, Promoting Hope” is a tribute to the ceaseless work of caregivers and frontline workers during the pandemic. We are surrounded by women who are clients of HKS that are frontline workers and colleagues that struggled to keep projects going at the same time as being full time at-home teachers or caregivers when schools and daycares closed. We can provide support and hope by showing empathy and care for everyone’s struggles and understanding that we get the best work from people when they feel valued, supported and can take care of themselves and their families. We can reflect on what we learned during the pandemic to design spaces that support frontline workers in every field and create better work environments for all. This is a great opportunity to use our research to help ourselves and others.

Pinto-Alexander: Most women are by nature, nurturers. We offer a safety net for those whom we love and care for. We now see women rising to the top in all areas of society: business, arts and political arenas. These changes give women —young and old alike —hope and inspiration. Our voices are being heard and what we say matters. I encourage my colleagues to have perseverance and I encourage them to speak their truth. I find myself in a position to sponsor other women to reach their highest potential in their career and in their personal lives, and I am so grateful for this opportunity.

Our voices are being heard and what we say matters.