A Thousand Tiny Cuts: A Conversation with Deborah Berke


The Architectural Mystique

Volume 1, Issue 23
April 7, 2016


The following conversation occurred between the editors of ‘The Architectural Mystique’ and the Dean Designate.

After a long day of meetings with small groups of students, Deborah Berke agreed to meet with us and talk shop.

P: What are your aspirations in architecture?

DB:I feel like this is exactly what I am suppose to do everyday, even though some days are better than others. Because, big picture, it is profoundly fulfilling to be an architect. I am very fortunate I have a child, I have a happy marriage, I have a healthy mother. I love my work, I love the people I work with. I love teaching. I feel blessed and I hope that everyone who goes into architecture is as fortunate as me. I have worked really hard, but I like working hard. I like to party too (laughs).

P:  Architecture has a well-documented attrition problem, wherein architecture schools have long been gender-equitable (50/50), but the profession sees a mere 11% of top roles in firms occupied by women. The statistics on women of color are also disheartening both in terms of enrollment and especially in the profession. Is this something you are planning to address during your tenure as Dean?

DB: It is something I am addressing. Yale is a good forum in which I to do that. I have said this before: The gender issue is a huge problem, but it’s the tip of the iceberg of a much larger problem. Architecture does not look like the population. We do not have enough women, we do not have enough people of color, we do not have enough people of varying  backgrounds. And that needs to change. How does it change? It has to change in kindergarten. Forget the common core curriculum. People and children need to be taught not only the significance of the built environment, but also their ability to make and shape it. If we could start doing that – broad diversity would achieve itself, of course, over an extended period of time. I can’t change kindergartens, but step by step and bit by bit we are working to get a more diverse group of people involved in the mission.

P:Is it the purview of architecture to address these systemic issues?

DB:I don’t know how half the population could be deemed as a special interest group. So yes of course we will talk about it – we will change it. Architecture’s attrition issue is less about locating a single problem and more of a death by a thousand tiny cuts.

P: We have seen a remarkable rise in the appointment of female Deans in America’s architecture schools. How do you think this will affect pedagogy and practice at large?  

DB: It certainly is a changing of the guards. It turns out there are a lot of women who are qualified to do it! Selection committees and college presidents are looking more broadly and with an open-mind and are thinking about what they want the shape and attitude of their institution to be.

P: A recent Women in Architecture survey revealed a startling 75% of women in architecture reporting that they are childless – a birth rate far below the norm– and also that 83% of women worldwide agree that having children puts women at a disadvantage in architecture. Is there a balance to be had?

DB: Have you guys read “Where are the Women Architects” by Despina Stratigakos? She did her homework and the data is amazing. I would love to know the numbers in other fields because I believe women across the field feel that having children puts them at a disadvantage, and I do not think this is unique to architecture actually. I think there are other issues present within architecture that are not relevant to other fields. I think the issue of having a child is not up to us. We must respect the individual’s decision to have children or not. It is an issue when women feel forced to make that decision. I think the issues for women within architecture go beyond balancing parenthood.  Rather, the issues are actually death by a thousand cuts. It’s everyday and every way in which being a woman in a job that men are expected to hold is a problem. It wears you down. Architecture pays so poorly that it is a struggle to afford childcare in order to resume work. It is not just a child issue, it is also a wage issue, it’s a whole ton of issues.

P: Does your firm have measures in place to ensure a family-friendly environment, irrespective of gender?

DB: My firm does have measures in place. We have parental leave. Even for adopted children. We must also consider what is fair to other family arrangements such as caring for an elderly parent. It’s more about how to accommodate the outsides lives of the people who work in your office, in a field that is not particularly profitable and very competitive.

P: There is a dearth of women-led firms, and even so, the couple/partner model still prevails. What does it mean to “have your name on the door”? What are some challenges you have faced and important lessons you have learned in starting and running your practice?

DB: It’s a long slog. If you want to have your name on the door, at the risk of sounding like an athletic ad, just do it. But it happens slowly. My first office was my drafting table,we didn’t have computers back then, and my living room was my bedroom. I sat at the edge of my bed to use my drafting table. My second office was my 1-room apartment– my bed was also the chair for my drafting table. I came from a middle-class background– my parents didn’t have connections to provide me with clients. So it was a very very slow process. But there are other ways to do it. You have to work hard and just do it. It’s a lot of really tough work. You just have to decide to do it and figure out how to do it.

P: Are there ways we can bring discussions about gender and inclusivity into our curriculum?

DB: The thought is the inverse of the quote that women leave architecture by death by a thousand cuts. I think the introduction of discussion  of gender and diversity and inclusion is by a thousand insertions– it’s not one swoop. Like restaurateur Danny Meyer says, change happens by applying, constant, gentle, pressure. That is the way to achieve it.

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Volume 1, Issue 23
April 7, 2016