How a grassroots organization committed to empowering women in architecture is now poised to forever reshape the Canadian architectural profession from Vancouver to St. John’s.
Architecture remains a male-dominated field. While graduates are split gender-wise, only 17% of professional architects are female.
One evening in early June, 72 women in architecture from across Canada hopped on a Zoom call to discuss their profession among colleagues, most of whom they had never met before. On this particular night, the theme was pretty much anything that came to mind. As the meeting progressed into more manageable breakout rooms, participants began to express various topics that resonated with others, including how to deal with derogatory remarks during construction site visits or what to expect when re-entering the workforce after an extended maternity leave. Others introduced themselves as new associates about to embark on obtaining their licences, a journey that typically takes three years or more to complete. The event’s host was BEAT, which stands for Building Equality in Architecture; the T indicating the Toronto chapter of a volunteer organization that first took shape in 2015 and now has four regional chapters from coast to coast.
Virtual meetups during the pandemic have been an effective way to connect with colleagues in all parts of the country.
BEAT’s rapid expansion across the country is a clear sign of just how necessary its support is needed. While architects consider themselves to be out-of-the-box thinkers and seekers of innovations that improve quality of life, they have sorely lagged in addressing many socio-economic inequalities in their profession, including gender. In Canada, women make up 50% of architecture school graduates, but less than 30% stick with it in such a male-dominated field. That gap has begun to close incrementally in recent years. However, there are still many “leaks in the pipeline,” as the BEAT website describes it, where various obstacles prevent or dissuade women from reaching their full leadership potential. Pressing issues include low and unequal pay and non-family-friendly working hours. But the more complicated matter to pinpoint is the unconscious biases that permeate the work environment in subtle and not-so-subtle ways: from sexism at job sites to female architects being sidelined by their male counterparts or given fewer experience-building opportunities from project leads.
Executive Director Sonia Ramundi recently won the Construction Canada Emerging Leader Award for her work with BEAT.
Architect Sonia Ramundi is the current Executive Director, a role she has held for the past two years. “For me, the inequality issues weren’t apparent at school. Only until I was in the workplace did I start to feel I had to work harder to show I could do it.” Now practicing at Williamson Williamson, she has been an active BEAT member since its formation. She has used her early career experiences to become an exemplary mentor, a leadership skill BEAT considers critical for empowering new graduates to stay committed to their chosen field. The goal is to create a positive network where one generation passes on its expertise and know-how to the next for the betterment of the entire profession. “I will take extra time to make junior staff and summer students feel comfortable as they join the office,” says Ramundi. “And I treat all of my colleagues the same way. Creating that kind of open communication is important.”
Networking at a BEA event in Toronto.
Ramundi’s term ends later this month (Stephanie Hosein will be stepping into the position). During her tenure, a lot has changed. The equity, diversity and inclusivity (EDI) wave sweeping into the mandates of many large corporations and institutions has shifted the landscape dramatically, with big project RFPs now outlining EDI merit points. The ripple effects of Black Lives Matter and the Truth and Reconciliation Act have meant larger firms are becoming more conscientious about seeking greater diversity within their ranks.
In her final year, Ramundi and the organization decided to re-examine their own goals, given that inequality is not a problem faced only by women. Says Ramundi: “We have had to ask ourselves, are we still about women in architecture? And the answer is, yes, we are. We are still maintaining that focus, and by doing so, we are also supporting other minority groups who are dealing with similar issues.”
Written by Catherine Osborne