While perusing the internet, I re-discovered talk about Architect Barbie by Alexandra Lange for Dwell. As part of Mattel’s Barbie I Can Be series, Architect Barbie was added to the company’s list of other arguably atypical professions for women (computer engineer, martial artist, marine biologist, race car driver, etc) in 2011 after partnering with AIA San Francisco. Equipped with a model dream house, hard hat and drawing tube, Mattel boasts that Architect Barbie will empower girls to play out different roles and “try on” fabulous careers. But, this doll was about more than giving young children a new outlet for their imaginations during play time; for, Architect Barbie would serve as a social experiment to generate long term feminine interest in a field where 17% of professionals are women. More about Architect Barbie after the break.
Of course, as soon as she was introduced, controversy struck. Some found the entire notion of the doll to be condescending, her drawing tube dated, and the shoes and outfit ridiculous. While we could argue about the surface level issues of Architect Barbie, like updating her outfit to all black (although, will we ever be successful at attempting to incorporate the tastes of all female designers into a single outfit?), or replacing that drawing tube with a laptop, we would be loosing sight of the larger issues and the real reason for the doll. Let’s take a look at some broader issues regarding the current state of women’s participation in the profession. Why is it that an insane majority of men dominate the profession? And, why is it that architecture schools have seen steady increases in female enrollment over the past two decades (reaching 40 percent nationwide), but then so many women leave the profession? Perhaps, the first thought that comes to mind while trying to understanding this “vanishing” act, is the assumption that women “naturally” opt out to have children. Remember this video by Robert Stern? But, as Despina Stratigakos, an award-winning author and an internationally recognized historian and professor in the architecture department at the University at Buffalo, explained, “That assumption doesn’t hold up to scrutiny: professionals in equally demanding fields, such as medicine and law, start families while continuing to work. And although other professions might offer the incentive of better pay, money alone does not explain a woman’s ability or desire to persevere. One of the most poignant findings of a 2003 study by the Royal Institute of British Architects on the loss of women in architectural practice is that women make this choice reluctantly: they love architecture and don’t want to go.” Stratigakos explained, “As a feminist scholar, I am interested in analyzing the ideological fences that architecture has built around the profession — the barriers that determine outsiders and insiders. One starting point is the idealized image of the architect that has been nurtured within the profession and reinforced in popular culture. Here we find a pervasive insistence on the incompatibility of the architectural and the feminine.” By capitalizing on the ability of the Barbie doll to relate to young girls, Architect Barbie was envisioned as a way to inspire girls that a profession as a designer is completely viable and attainable. Perhaps, Architect Barbie cannot solve the “vanishing” female dilemna, but Barbie can make young girls start to think of future possibilities relating to architecture. During a workshop organized with Mattel, Stratigakos and research partner Kelly Hayes McAlonie introduced 400 girls to what architects do, with a discussion of the work of past and present women architects, and an exercise to redesign Barbie’s Dream House. “At no point during the workshops did I hear any girl question her spatial skills or the appropriateness of architecture for women. And that, precisely, is where Barbie’s power lies. The fact is that Barbie appeals to little girls like no other toy. They are proprietary about her — they know the doll is just for them. And whatever Barbie does, she brings it into the sphere of women. She has the power to make things seem natural to little girls.” Although there is a gender imbalance, we are not simply advocating to hire more women to even out the percentage of those in the field. We are concerned with the root of the problem, which may be the simple fact that young girls do not think they can be architects. If Architect Barbie can quiet such qualms, we might be on our way to seeing the strength in women’s numbers grow – but, it needs to be for the long haul. We need to keep women in the field long after the days of play time with Barbie and even college studios; women need to continue on to be licensed professionals and keep contributing their talent to the architecture realm. “If Architect Barbie gets us talking, then more power to her. But ultimately she is for kids, not adults, and it is the politics of the sandbox that I hope to influence. I look forward to the day when little girls claim hard hats and construction sites as just another part of their everyday world,” concluded Stratigakos. Check out some previous articles we have featured on the idea of women in architecture, such as Christopher Henry’s Women in Architecture: We Need Them and Megan Jett’s Infographic: Women in Architecture.