BEATing the Odds – Interview with Shirley Blumberg
by Architecture Students' Association
Having co-founded architecture firm KPMB and more recently BEAT (Building Equality in Architecture Toronto), an organization focused on promoting minority representation in architecture, Shirley Blumberg is a successful architect and activist dedicated to shifting the male-dominant profession to a more inclusive one. BEAT’s numerous lectures, dinners, seminars and other events offer multiple avenues for students and professionals to discuss the social issues of the field. The BEA movement is now gaining momentum in multiple provinces across the country.
SB: Shirley Blumberg
AG: Ankit Gongal
HW: Hao Wang
ASA: Architecture Students' Association
VD: Valentina Davila
ASA: Having been raised in South Africa until 1973 and witnessing first-hand the systemic inequities of the Apartheid, do you believe your childhood experience shaped the political interest in architecture you have today?
SB: Without question! The issues of social justice are integral to my work in architecture. As I grew up, the injustice of the social policies gradually dawned on me and had a profound effect on my personal growth, which is why I am so sensitized to these issues today - particularly when it is institutionalized like it was in South Africa.
HW: You founded the organization BEAT (Building Equality in Architecture Toronto) to promote the inclusion of women and minorities in architecture. The statistics of recent years show us there are still much fewer women in positions of licensed architects than men, even though the enrolment in schools of architecture are quite fifty-fifty, if not more favourable to women. Do you know why that is and do you see BEAT playing a role in bridging that discrepancy?
SB: Indeed, female representation in schools isn’t the problem; the entering class at the Daniels Faculty is composed of 70% women - the highest it has ever been. Retention through school not being the issue, I believe the drop-off happens sometime after undergraduate studies. They call it the missing 32% in the United States. Ex-Supreme Court Justice Beverley McLachlan highlighted this lack of female representation in positions of power during a lecture I attended a while ago, noting a few possible drivers: the lack of female role models, discrimination, male unconscious bias, marital and family responsibilities and the wage gap. I think these issues apply to the field of architecture as well which is why organizations like BEAT are all the more necessary.
Centre for International Governance Innovation Campus
VD: To comment on that first point, I believe McGill also has much to improve on. The entering class of 2018 is composed of 83% women, yet of four studio instructors I am the only woman. McGill has a very poor track record in this regard and it doesn’t seem to be improving.
SB: The University of Toronto has cleaned up their act in recent years, but it is indeed changing very slowly. BEAT plays a huge role in this regard as it allows students and architects to network with inspiring female role models in an otherwise lacking environment. The organization has pulled people together in interesting ways which I hope will positively affect the retention of female students through the architecture curriculum.
ASA: Would you say BEAT is actively tackling these aforementioned drivers or is simply interested in raising awareness about these issues?
SB: It is an interesting question because I think BEAT’s activities are intrinsically doing both. It is a very grassroots organization that started with my colleague Betsy Williamson and I. After calling a few of my other friends in architecture, we formed our advisory group and introduced the seminar series which is seeing an ever-increasing attendance. Other activities BEAT organizes such as talks and dinners offer a more informal approach to the discussion of minority representation, which allows us to engage more people’s ideas on the issue. “No complaining” is our unwritten rule as we are mainly focused on leveling the injustices through powerful actions.
Fort York Branch Library
HW: Since founding KPMB along with Marianne McKenna and two other male colleagues, have you struggled with maintaining or perhaps increasing the proportion of women inside the company?
SB: Currently, with three partners at the firm, two of which women, the ownership of KPMB is predominantly female. Unhappily however, seeing as there are more men than women at the firm, we fear our numbers fall in line with those of the industry - a predominantly male one. Even though the gender balance has been fruitful, we would really like to see our numbers increase. I think it is important to focus on the positive aspects of the proportion though, instead of being held back by the negative. Jane Jacobs says “cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because and only when, they are created by everybody” and I believe this to be a fundamental principle of my efforts.
AG: In founding BEAT, have you faced challenges that hindered the organization’s ability to gain momentum and influence?
SB: When establishing BEAT, there was a lot of chatter in the office. A lot of young men heard about what we were doing and felt they needed an organization like this in their lives. Everyone does I think. If ever society is going to change, we need everyone to participate. We were happily surprised to see how quickly BEAT gained momentum and sparked the creation of chapters being in other provinces.
HW: Is BEAT playing a role in the development of these chapters or are they simply independent organizations being formed with the same goal in mind?
SB: Independent organizations - the structure is very loosely bound. We have an advisory group and an executive committee that meets periodically to develop ideas and new approaches, but there is no hierarchy between the organizations. It is nice to see these entities flourish independently and organize events that build towards the collective goal – equality in architecture.
BEAT at HOK Toronto
ASA: BEA having already been established in Toronto, the Maritimes, Quebec, the Prairies, and Vancouver in such a small amount of time, do you see the movement expanding to the United States?
SB: It is quite surprising to see how quickly the movement is gaining ground. We’re still in our early stages so the US isn’t really on our radar at the moment.
HW: Where do you see BEAT heading in 5 to 10 years?
SB: We’ve seen great success this year in terms of funding; we will be able to distribute it across the country as seed money to promote the growth of the different organizations. I would like to see it grow to the point where we can invite international speakers to hold lectures and seminars, as we are currently a very localized organization. We would eventually like to establish bursaries and scholarships to encourage women and other minorities to follow paths that inspire them.
ASA: Denouncing social issues is primordial in every society across the globe and it is pleasing to see organizations like yours raise your voice in proxy for those who don’t have the ability to raise theirs. We thank you for this opportunity to talk with you.