• Deborah Berke

    Credit: Noah Kalina

    Deborah Berke

The frequent complaint that the architecture field lacks gender and racial diversity is backed up by statistics. As of 2011, just 15 percent of licensed architects were women, and just one percent were black, according to statistics assembled by the AIA. While a number of women architects have recently ascended to more-prominent positions and global recognition—Zaha Hadid, Hon. FAIA, was named a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in June—women and minorities are still underrepresented in the profession. Though they face numerous hurdles getting ahead today, the field is slowly starting to change, according to Deborah Berke, 58, founder and partner of the 33-person firm Deborah Berke and Partners in New York—which employs about a nearly equal number of men and women. Berke, who also teaches architectural design at Yale University, spoke to ARCHITECT about the challenges that women and minorities confront in a profession dominated by white men.

What’s missing?
There are a number of women architects who are currently at the top of the profession. Zaha is the name that everyone cites, but there are others, such as Jeanne Gang, Elizabeth Diller, and Annabelle Selldorf, Berke says. “I myself am doing well. For these people, I would say, the issue of being a woman has less importance now than when they started out. But the broader problem is not about the exceptions,” she says. “It’s about the general absence of women and minorities in the field, whether it’s in design or related construction and engineering industries.”

Know the (many) reasons.
Those who reduce the absence of women from the field of architecture to a single reason—such as a desire to raise children—miss the real reasons that women feel discouraged. “Family concerns are, of course, part of challenge, but it’s more like death by a thousand cuts, including low salaries or the experience of being a young woman architect who is ignored when she’s in a room that is 90 percent male,” Berke says. It’s the repeated occurrence of several dozen little things, rather than one fixed particular element, she says. “These recurring small blows help drive women and socioeconomic minorities out of the profession.”

Seek diversity.
“I don’t want to reduce male architects to a stereotype either,” Berke says. “It’s a broader problem than that.” Architects must address a number of issues facing the entire profession, such as reducing student debt, she says, because that discourages lower-income students from entering the field. At the same time, students should see at a young age that the world of architecture is a viable profession for women and minorities. And within the field, architects need to increase awareness among the suits at the table using “constant gentle pressure” to push others to be more patient, more open-minded, and more inclusive. “Because in the long haul, everyone benefits from being aware that change is necessary and essential to have more diversity in the field,” Berke says.

Get certified.
Certification as a Women’s Business Enterprise (WBE), which grants eligibility to bid on certain projects with provisions for women- and minority-owned businesses, can be good for certain firms. “We were certified in 1988, at a time when I thought it would be helpful for a young practice. Over the years, I can’t say that certification has changed my life or has been a major factor in securing work for the firm,” Berke says. “Yet there have been instances where having it has mattered to someone on a committee, or in a non-official capacity. It is a higher credential that might be considered as part of a qualifying process and so it does mean something, especially if you are bidding as a subcontractor.” If you think that WBE certification can help you get work, then it is certainly worth considering.

Seek out—or serve as—a mentor.
“There weren’t many women in my class at architecture school, but when I see my students now at Yale, they are very articulate about many of these concerns,” she says. “They are aware of the issues and are talking about what it means to be a woman architect. In my studio design class this semester, six out of the 10 students are women. And most of them said they had chosen that class because they wanted to study with a woman professor. They are looking for role models, and, in turn, these women will foster more role models.”

Stay strong.
Just as there is not one reason for the disparity in architecture, there is not one solution to the problem. You must have endurance, diligence, and fortitude. But know that things are changing. “Ultimately, being an architect for me is so profoundly satisfying and fulfilling that it has been well worth the trudge,” Berke says. “I would like to convince other women and anyone from different races and religious and ethnic backgrounds that this could be true for them as well. I want them to say, ‘Oh my God, I can make a living from doing this job.’ ”