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Cynthia Bowen, APA President, on Being a Woman in Urban ...

Cynthia Bowen, APA President, on Being a Woman in Urban Planning

We would like to close our celebration of women this month with some wise words from Cynthia Bowen, the current President of the American Planning Association (APA). Cynthia Bowen is the director of planning for Rundell Ernstberger Associates in Indianapolis. Before becoming a president of APA, she held a number of leadership positions at the

by Sarah Essbai March 30, 2018
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We would like to close our celebration of women this month with some wise words from Cynthia Bowen, the current President of the American Planning Association (APA).

Cynthia Bowen is the director of planning for Rundell Ernstberger Associates in Indianapolis. Before becoming a president of APA, she held a number of leadership positions at the APA Indiana Chapter. Cynthia is a graduate of Ball State University with degrees in urban and regional planning and environmental science and design with extensive experience in public facilitation and urban policy.

We asked Cynthia to share a few thoughts with us for International Women's Day and Women's History Month and she generously did so. Read her great testimony and advice stemming from her experiences as an urban planner and a woman in the United States and abroad:

“As President of APA, and as a woman, I have a responsibility with the bully pulpit, if you will, to promote women’s issues and promote fair and equitable policies. We’ve made significant strides within APA. The APA Board and AICP Commission have 50% or more women in the leadership. Our divisions and chapters are not far behind. The issues that women face trying to balance work and family are very real. Women are often the primary caregivers for themselves, their children, husband, partners, and parents. But, still in 2018, we are fighting for equal pay, and to achieve the same status and the same titles as other male colleagues. Women, in their own right, have their own aspirations and their own goals. There is nothing wrong with being determined and driven to seek your higher purpose in life. While we have made cracks in the glass ceiling we have not broken through it yet. But we can, and we must continue to chip away at it. As a woman, my perspective and approach is slightly different than my male counterparts. I believe it is these differences that have made me successful both personally and professionally.

Taking a different perspective has helped me in my travels overseas. I have done a lot of work in the Middle East. What was difficult for me, initially, was that I was going to an area where women were viewed as the property of husbands. As a free woman in the US, I could be easily outraged by this, especially someone as independent as myself. But what I came to understand, is that as a planner, I cannot judge the value systems of another society, but only plan for that value system. So, I became familiar with their laws and policies and even tried to dress the part when I went to Saudi Arabia. We also had a very experienced male colleague who could back me up if the client was uncomfortable with a women running the job. Surprisingly to me, I was embraced, as a western woman, to lead and facilitate face-to-face meetings for my project. This allowed me to uphold my planning principles and ensure that the appropriate levels of services were provided for women and children within their communities.

Cynthia Bowen - ASCP Conference, Photo by Joe Szurszewski

My Advice to women entering the profession – based upon things that have happened to me during my 23-year career in Planning:

  • Find your passion and stick to it. It may be daunting at times to not have your voice heard. But if you are diligent, persistent, and strategic, you will make an impact and difference.
  • Be open to change. When one door closes, another one opens. You also owe it to yourself to constantly explore your options – because no one is going to do that for you! I have never had to seek a job. An opportunity has always presented itself. I just had to determine if it was what I wanted to do at that point in time!
  • Never burn bridges. You may want to give someone a piece of your mind – but don’t do it. It’s not worth it. With our profession being so close-knit, that person or company will come back around later in your career. You want to be able to hold your head high and set the standard for professional conduct. People will remember you for that.
  • Find a mentor. They can be male or female, old or young, where you live or work. People who have mentors are far more successful than those who don’t. I have had several mentors in my career both male and female – I wouldn’t be where I am today and have the resume I have without their guidance and involvement. They have taught me a lot.
  • Engage directly with community leaders on an issue that you care about and help your community or the communities you serve. It can be very simple. But, the contact and the relationship building with those leaders are so vital and could help you in many different ways in the long run.
  • Identify one leader in your community and talk to them directly and openly. It could be about a local problem; it could be about some issue; or, it could be just making a personal connection. The point is to build your network and connections through really listening to the folks who are influencing the community.
  • Share one professional lesson with a new professional or student. Invite them to these conversations. Deciding to be a mentor can be hard, but one contact with one younger person is doable. We need them to be part of making our profession, our organizations, and our world a better place.
  • Support other women. They understand your struggles, celebrate your achievements, and help you get to the next level.”

Are you following any of these recommendations? What struggles and challenges are you facing while serving in your community as an urban planner? Share with us in the comments. We are also happy to hear more about your achievements through our social media channels (Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn) and as a contributor on The Global Grid.

Credits: Images courtesy of APA by photographer Joe Szurszewski.

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Sarah Essbai is an architect, urban planner and independent researcher based in Zaandam, in The Netherlands. As of September 2017, she is leading the communications and marketing efforts of The Global Grid.

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