By Rachel Brown: Lighting designer illuminates opportunities for women

By Rachel Brown: Lighting designer illuminates opportunities for women

Photo Credit: Benjamin Scherliss

Envision Lighting Design founding principal Lisa J. Reed is as passionate about illuminating spaces to elevate the human experience as she is about shining a light on the challenges facing women when balancing motherhood with their careers in design.

Faced with the dilemma so many women in the AEC industry encounter in their career journey — how to balance new motherhood with career aspirations — Reed built the flexible workplace she wasn’t able to find, and then illuminated a path for others who strive to balance family and work.

An industry thought leader, Reed regularly speaks to local and international audiences about equality in the lighting design industry. In 2018, she co-led a survey of 450 female lighting design professionals to find out why they stayed — or left — after becoming mothers. The survey results are revealing and offer a trail for employers to attract and retain talent.

In this interview, Reed shares the insight she has gained firsthand and by helping lead the conversation on motherhood and equal opportunities in the lighting design industry. 

Rachel Brown (RB): Your company is celebrating 10 years in business next year. What was your vision when you started Envision Lighting Design?

Lisa Reed (LR): I started my firm out of necessity as a mom. I didn’t want to commute, and I was looking for the flexibility that I couldn’t find with any company. I wanted to be able to pick up my kids after school, and I wanted to continue my career in design. So, the only way I could figure out how to do that was to hang out my own shingle.

A lot of people start their own firms, but my vision was different in that I wanted to provide for other people what I was unable to find in the workplace. The first few people that I hired were moms who had been lighting designers and quit working. I reached out to them and asked if they had wanted to quit working or if they were just looking for something they couldn’t find. Offering that flexibility has been an absolute pillar of our firm. The moms on my team regularly blow me away with how much they get done in half the time I expect the tasks to take.

RB: What is the male-to-female ratio in your industry?

LR: I haven’t seen those numbers, but my feeling is the male/female lighting designer split is even. The problem we have to address is that, coming out of school the numbers between men and women are pretty even. And then, motherhood hits and women end up not advancing as far as men. The opportunities are there, but life experiences make it a challenge for women to reach levels in leadership. We need an on-ramp back into the industry for women who take time off with their children.

And, lighting design is part of the construction industry. When I walk into a room for a construction project meeting, I’m still the only woman in a meeting or on a job site. We still have room for improvement.

RB: You have been a vocal advocate for equality in lighting design, specifically in making the industry more conducive for mothers. Tell me about the findings of the survey “Why Mothers Leave Lighting Design – And How To Keep Them” that you spearheaded with your colleague, Emily Klingensmith.

LR: In 2018, we surveyed 450 women in lighting design to learn how their career has been impacted by motherhood. We looked at why they left or why they stayed. In that research, we discovered that eighty percent of women who started their own lightning design firms did so, at least in part, because they had children.

It was eye-opening for me to realize that I’m not alone in my experience. So, I started to talk more about this issue and not keep it quiet. I’m open that supporting working mothers is a really important part of who we are as a company. Not all of our employees are moms, but all of our employees are people who have obligations outside of just working. We all work really hard, but we also value flexibility.

RB: Your survey revealed that the top reasons that women left the lighting design industry after becoming a mother included not enough flexibility with hours, too many hours, too much stress and being unable to work from home. What can firms of all sizes do to make their workplaces welcoming for women who want to balance family and their careers?

LR: Companies were all kind of forced to figure that out over the last two years, and many firms are really struggling with trying to go back to how things were before the pandemic. Women have kids not vaccinated and there’s still fear out there for people getting COVID. They want to stay healthy, and if they feel like they’re going to be forced to do something that is going to endanger their child, then that’s a no-brainer for a parent.

It’s always been harder for a big company to be nimble and flexible. I think the key to being flexible is to not go in with an agenda or fixed ideas. Go in with questions. What is it that you need? Are you looking to work from home? Are you looking for reduced hours?

RB: What is needed in society as a whole to get us closer to equality in the workplace?

LR: Until it is just as acceptable for men to provide childcare in their families, then women are going to struggle. Childcare will fall to us. People aren’t even going to think about it. Women get questions like “who takes care of your kids when you travel.” Nobody asks the dads who travel those questions.

RB: How do you feel that diverse voices enhance projects?

LR: Design is all about looking at things differently. Different perspectives are needed and that’s also why we need more diversity in lighting design. I’ve been brought into projects late to consult on lighting and noticed that the women’s restrooms weren’t designed for our needs. That is just a very specific example of how having women on a project makes the project better.

RB: Have you seen improvements in the design industry in the last ten years as it relates to supporting women and diversity?

LS: I have got to believe that there’s been improvement. There are too many of us and too much effort going into this to say there hasn’t been improvement, but I think there’s still so much work to be done. What we have is a start.

The conversations are happening and that’s huge. Nobody was talking about this topic ten years ago that I noticed. About seven years ago, I submitted to speak about women in the industry for an event. It ended up being a panel on the topic called “Illuminating the Glass Ceiling.”

In that session I said that I don’t have answers, but I want us to be able to talk to each other and help each other with whatever struggles we’re having in the industry.  I felt like the entire conference exploded with energy around the issue. Women were dealing with these issues on their own. I know we haven’t solved things, but it’s been helpful to just have other people to talk with about it. That’s so true for women, and also for other minority groups.


St. Louis-based Envision Lighting Design provides value-added interior and exterior architectural lighting design services to support overall project goals. Experts in the art and science of lighting, the certified women-owned business (WBE, WBENC and WOSB) has extensive experience illuminating corporate headquarters, houses of worship, healthcare and education facilities, museums, restaurants and more.  

Founding principal Lisa J. Reed is an award-winning lighting designer with more than 27 years of experience in energy management, electrical engineering, education, lighting sales and lighting design. She founded Ladies of Lighting in St. Louis, helped expand WILD (Women in Lighting + Design) across the United States and is a passionate advocate for diversity in lighting. She has received the IES Presidential Award for her work with Emerging Professionals and, last year was named one of the top 20 women in construction in St. Louis by St. Louis Construction News and Review.

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PHOTO: The historic 1867 Immanuel Lutheran Church in St. Charles, Mo. had to be renovated following an unexpected ceiling collapse. Envision Lighting Design was contracted to help the new space gloriously reflect the liturgical seasons using lighting, color and controls. Photo Credit: Benjamin Scherliss.



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