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How to make a company succeed? Women

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Posted at 7:00 AM, Dec 17, 2015
and last updated 2015-12-17 14:52:47-05

CINCINNATI - Fact: FRCH Design Worldwide has a more female-centric work force than most big design firms.

Fact: FRCH has enjoyed rapid growth since 2010.

Coincidence? They think not.

Donna Szarwark

“Women’s brains are wired to multi-task and collaborate,” said Donna Szarwark, a senior vice president in charge of human resources for FRCH. “They are very natural innovators. They are less about hierarchy and more about inclusiveness and they provide different insights and views that help with problem solving. Sadly, I would also say they are also the most underutilized resource in the world economy."

FRCH is a Downtown-based design firm whose local projects include the Renaissance Hotel on Fourth Street, the lobby of the Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center on Sixth Street and the Field & Stream store in Crescent Springs.

Because it has a healthy roster of retail clients and an employee mix that includes architects along with interior and graphic designers, FRCH has a much higher percentage of female employees than most architectural firms.

According to The Missing 32% Project, a national study compiled by the San Francisco branch of the American Institute of Architects, the number of licensed female architects who are active in the profession has remained below 20 percent despite years of activism on the issue.

At FRCH, women represent 49 percent of its 230 employees, including 22 percent of the firm’s partners and 41 percent of its vice president and director-level leadership team.

“Hats off to them for achieving what are considered to be very challenging ratios,” said Kishani De Silva, president of the Los Angeles-based Association for Women in Architecture + Design.

“Just last month, we launched what we refer to as the ‘50:50 Initiative,’” De Silva said. “This initiative is to ask our local architecture firms to pledge towards achieving a 50 percent male to female ratio by 2020. This is it be accomplished by hiring licensed women architects and architectural graduates as well as women in the allied design fields, based purely on merit.”

At FRCH, the female-centric workforce developed naturally over time, as the firm engaged on branding and interior-design projects with retailers like Macy’s Inc., Saks Fifth Avenue and Dick’s Sporting Goods. Interior and graphic design accounts for most of the female workforce at FRCH, but with nine women among its 40 registered architects (22 percent), it ranks well above industry averages.

If you include project coordinators and project managers, women account for 34 percent of the architectural workforce at FRCH. Szarwark is convinced it’s a competitive edge.

“Women solve problems holistically which helps them recognize complex differences in design and production solutions,” she said. “They naturally observe and listen to gather several viewpoints in order to generate multiple innovative ideas.”

The unique labor force made FRCH an early adopter of flexible work arrangements like telecommuting, extended family leave and part-time scheduling. It also made the company more open to career development and training programs, sharing details on financial results and setting up a salary structure that mandates equal starting pay for male and female job candidates with similar qualifications.

Barbara Beeghly

“At FRCH loyalty has really proven to be a two-way street,” said Barbara Beeghly, who was promoted in June to lead the company’s Large Format Retail Studio practice after 25 years with the company. Beeghly took advantage of FRCH’s flexible-scheduling options by leaving the office for six years when her kids were young then working part time for six additional years while they were in school.

“They were good to me as far as allowing me to have the flex time that I needed,” Beeghly said.

FRCH benefits from the strategy by retaining experienced designers who can open new offices in other cities, like the Los Angeles office announced in July and New York in 2013.

“It’s a very important part of this company,” Szarwark said. “We’re in a service industry. We have to hire the best talent in the industry. We have to retain that talent.”