Architect Barbie / A Social Experiment

Architect Barbie on display at the AIA convention in New Orleans, May 2011. Photo courtesy of Mattel, Inc.

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.

Via Architizer

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.

Cite: Cilento, Karen. "Architect Barbie / A Social Experiment" 15 Aug 2012. ArchDaily. Accessed 26 May 2015. <>
  • Ben Dover

    Owww, they got the clothes wrong. I’ve never met a female architect dressed like this in any office…

  • kat

    well, why not.
    …i got into architecture without the architect barbie. i did play with other barbies though…

  • Stand Straight

    @Ben Dover

    I have. Office productivity took a turn for the worst.

  • Erica G.

    I own one of these barbies and the assumption that women have to lose their femininity to be architects is outrageous. Maybe the drawing tube is outdated, but short hair, pants, and workboots are not essential for a typical day in the office. And of course her dress could be a bit more fashionable, but ill-fitting black pants don’t do the design field any justice. Let’s embrace our “womenhood” in the office, high heels and all.

  • Erica G.

    The assumption that women have to lose their femininity to be architects is outrageous. Maybe the drawing tube is outdated, but short hair, pants, and workboots are not essential for a typical day in the office. And of course her dress could be a bit more fashionable, but ill-fitting black pants don’t do the design field any justice. I actually do own one of these barbies, a playful reminder that barbie can be an architect. Let’s embrace our “womenhood” in the office, high heels and all.

  • Jenny

    Barbie looks a lot more like an interior designer in that getup.

  • Iara Baptista

    In Brazil, at least at the school I go to (FAU-UFRJ), we have a much larger number of women enrolling than men (about 80 women and 40 men get in every semester). But we still don’t see that many women working as architects, specially in construction.

  • A Dunn

    Why does it matter what a woman wears to work? If she got far enough to be licensed and/or working at a firm, she clearly takes her work seriously, and she should be given the respect to be taken seriously. If the female acts the stereotype that is being suggested of long blonde hair and a pink dress (though Barbie’s dress is minimally pink, as Barbies go), she would not have been hired in the first place, if she acts appropriately to her work position and maintains her clothing and hair style, let her. The doll tells girls that they can work for something they have passion for, regardless of what they wear or how their hair looks. Are women only allowed in architecture if they wear dark clothing and have short hair, and should they be ridiculed if they dont? That kind of thinking is outdated and naive.

  • Cathie

    This Barbie will make no difference at all to the profession. It isnt that women dont realize they can be architects. There are plenty of women going into school to study architecture. The real root of the problem is the completely defeating business model of the architectural firm. Architecture as a business is a mess. Our skills and services are under valued by our society and thus women seak out alternative fields once the opportunity of a layoff or a break to have a child occurs. They wise up quicker.

    30 years of watching this happen, ten years of flat billing rates. Dollars, not design rule. Architects willing to low ball fees just to stay in business. We put forth tremendous skill and effort onto designing a product that is made and sold only once. I enjoy the proceeds of design and construction. It is who I am. I regret an un appreciated, un rewarded career.

    Barbie will not save this profession.