Female architect endures gender discrimination, opens firm

By Glenda Rae Davis
Navajo Times

GALLUP, August 9, 2012

Text size: A A A

(Courtesy photo)

Tamarah Begay recently opened her own architect firm called Indigenous Design Studio.

T amarah Begay, 32, does not know how to make coffee but everyone she had worked for believed she did. This assumption was based on one factor - that she was a woman.

She was a woman that always found herself in meetings dominated by men. That was the case because she was always the only female architect.

In May and after 10 years of being asked to bring coffee, Begay has opened her own firm, called Indigenous Design Studio.

"I really have a big heart for architecture," said Begay, who is Naakai dine'e (Mexican clan) and born for Kinyaa'aanii (Towering House Clan). "I think architecture isn't about making money, it's about making communities better."

The accomplishment came with its difficulties.

"My dad, watched out for my sisters and I, he only has daughters," she said. "So he knew it was going to be real hard. He was the one that told me that architecture was a male dominant profession."

Begay, who is from Iyanbito, N.M., said her father was able to talk her out of going to college for architecture and steered her toward sociology instead.

"So, when I got to UNM, listening to my dad I started taking sociology classes," she said. "I liked it but it wasn't something I was really interested in. Then, I always caught myself going to the school of architecture on campus, so I changed majors."

In 2002, Begay received her undergraduate degree and two years later, she earned a master's degree in architecture.

During her graduate studies, Begay worked for a firm but due to budget cuts within the company, her job ended.

Soon after, Begay was invited to present on architecture at the annual American Indian Science and Engineering Society conference.

"It was during one of these events that I met a lady," she said, "After finding out that my concentration was architecture she told me she use to work for some Native architects and gave me a list of companies she knew that were run by Natives."

This impressed Begay because she was unaware of all the Native American architecture firms.

The first on her list was David N. Sloan and Associates in Albuquerque. She submitted her resume and was hired.

Over the course of the next couple of years, Begay worked at different firms but did not feel like she was advancing as quickly her male counterparts.

On several occasions Begay said she found herself on the receiving end of gender discrimination.

"During meetings I would find myself getting upset because they'd tell me to go get water, coffee or tell me to take notes," Begay said. "I'd always ask them, 'Why do I have to do those things? Because I'm a woman?'"

During these times, Begay turned to teachings from the women in her life to endure.

"I come from a family of strong women," she said. "They always told me and continue to tell me today, 'Don't let those men run over you.' I try my best."

She added that the lack of a mentor in her career has left her to figure things out alone.

"It was really hard for me to relate to the owners of architecture firms around me," said Begay. "So I did everything on my own."

Even as part of the American Institute of Architects Diversity Council, where there are more female architects, she is still a minority.

"I was still the minority because I was Native," she said laughing. "But what really caught my attention was they had the same problems that I had at the firms I worked at as far as gender discrimination. The thing that caught my attention was a lot of them overcame the problem by starting their own companies."

Begay said that the idea of having her own company was a dream she had since she was a child.

"Not only have I wanted this for a long time," she said. "I also wanted to break the barriers of Native women owning their own business and especially in architecture and planning."

Now, in the early months of her new business Begay says she is excited about her new venture.

She recently finished the company's first job, a study for ten Navajo Nation's chapters.

Indigenous Design Studio is primarily based out of Albuquerque but an office was recently established in Gallup.

According to its website, "Indigenous Design Studio was created to provide unique, sustainable and innovative designs for all Native American Tribes throughout the country, where they can be stimulated by the experience of the designs that encompass their natural surroundings while preserving their history and culture."

Begay said that she also hopes to help other Native women who wish to be architects.

"I want to be that support for them," she said, "since I never really got that kind of mentorship from anyone."

Begay will also start teaching the Navajo Planning and Design course at the University of New Mexico in the fall.

"I'm just looking forward to what the future has to offer," she said.