SF architects’ advice to girls: Blocks, not Barbie

After I posted about Mattel’s new Architect Barbie supposedly designed to inspire girls to become architects, AIA SF invited me to hear a panel discussion: “Ladies (and Gents) Who Lunch with Architect Barbie.” The topic was women and architecture, and it quickly became apparent how the highly successful female architects felt about the infamous doll.

“Maybe if there were an Interior Design Ken,” said Ila Berman, director of Architecture at California College of the Arts and principal of Studio Matrixx. “Or if she were Contractor Barbie and wore a hard hat and held a computer. If she were more subversive, maybe I could go there.Berman nodded at the doll placed in front of the panelists.  “She makes me nervous.”

Cathy Simon, best known locally for transforming San Francisco’s decrepit Ferry Building into a thriving, open marketplace, was more direct: “Barbie is an embarrassment for women. I’m embarrassed for her. I hate Barbie.”

Anne Tourney, an award winning architect and principal at Daniel Solomon Design Partners, was practical about Barbie’s potential: “Mattel can’t represent us. It’s a toy company.”

EB Min who has her own firm and also a three year old daughter defended the doll slightly, conceding that perhaps she “normalizes the career.”

All of the architects wanted to shift the discussion away from Barbie and to real life women and architecture. As in most professions, women have made huge gains at the bottom. In the 1970s, just 5% of architecture students were women. Today, the number has climbed to 40 – 45%. Of those women, only  17% get licensed and join the AIA. Few make it to principal in their firm or tenured faculty at prestigious universities.

The panel agreed the challenge for women in architecture is retention. Sticking with it in a tough economy, somehow navigating the Catch 22 when top jobs and top salaries go to men.

Berman, who, as she said, “wasn’t that old,”  was the first female tenured in architecture at Tulane.  Today, just 20% of the tenure track positions in architecture go to women. Who gets tenure? “It’s a cloning activity,” she said. “A peer review process.”

How do you succeed and keep the faith with those odds? Simon encouraged the young female architects in the crowd (only three men showed up to the talk) to believe in themselves. “You can do anything,” she said. Better than words, she inspired the women by her own example, as did the whole panel. Clearly, the speakers were passionate about their work and fulfilled financially and creatively. Two spoke of fathers who strongly encouraged them to go into architecture.

Because I write about girls and toys, I brought up Architecture Barbie one more time. “Could she possibly be a gateway to get girls to imagine? You could ask your daughter: what’s she going to build today?”

“I played with blocks,” said Berman. “I loved puzzles. Get your daughters some puzzles.”

5 thoughts on “SF architects’ advice to girls: Blocks, not Barbie

  1. Wow,

    I can’t believe you only have 178 followers! I think everyone should be reading your reelgirls posts. Thanks so much also for the links to other highly relevant info. Once again I will be forwarding this on to my two daughters and husband, who are all architects, as am I.

  2. My 10 year old daughter lit up when I gave her the architect Barbie – so were the 100 brownies at the AIA convention in new Orleans who were all designing their dream homes. The media has become so saturated with role models so above and beyond Barbie that she has lost her place as the negative role model for young girls. My daughter was singing the 1 800 get thin commercial as we drove to school the other day and passed by the giant 1 800 get thin billboard near our house. It’s impossible to escape from – the newscasters dress and behave in a way that the Mattel people would never have Barbie. Maybe Barbie means something to older women who lived in a context where Barbie stood out, but it seems that the fight was lost. We watched the documentary miss-representation recently and my daughter wanted to pause the show and discuss each point at length. Our children have access and exposure to things that we wouldnt have dreamed about having. It’s time we talked to them about it rather than looking for unrelevant targets like Barbie.

  3. How about an “Urban Barbie” with a bit more muscular legs (from walking and using public transit), a savvy, no-nonsense facial expression suggestive of intelligence rather than a vacant stare, and much more spare use of pink in favor of tasteful garb suitable for an architect – or attorney, physician, or diplomat. Hmmmmm? Enough of the pre-pubescent sex symbol, already.

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