Will Architect Barbie solve architecture’s gender problem?

The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that “while women make up 40% of architecture graduates, just 17% of them go on to join the American Institute of Architects, the discipline’s primary professional group.”

Despina Stratigakos, associate professor of architectural history at the University of Buffalo, isn’t sure why that gender gap persists. She tells The Chronicle:

“There’s been little in the way of research to determine why women aren’t able to make that transition,” says Ms. Stratigakos, who is unwilling to lay the blame on the call of motherhood. “Not all women who leave architecture do so to have children, and not all women who have children leave architecture.”

She calls it “a complex problem that requires a complex solution.” Or maybe a playful one.

So Stratigakos came up with something original. When she won a Fellowship at the University of Michigan, she was asked to organize an exhibition of female architects. Stratigakos wanted to figure out a way to further the debate about gender, architecture, and achievement without the discussion devolving into the same old cliches and ending up stonewalled yet again. So Stratigakos asked

”students and faculty members to develop about a dozen prototypes of Architect Barbie, which she displayed in a gallery in the architecture school. Alongside the dolls she ran a 40-minute film featuring clips of architects as depicted in popular culture: ‘The angry, determined, creative genius, standing above mediocrity,’ and almost always male. The Barbies grabbed the attention of passers-by, she says, inciting discussions about gender and architecture in both the gallery and in classrooms.

Soon after, Stratigakos got a call from Mattel asking for her help to design a new doll. Finally, this year the famed toy company and the American Institute of Architects unveiled Architect Barbie at the AIA’s annual meeting in New Orleans.

So will the doll (action figure?) help to inspire a new generation of girls to become architects?

At the very least, Stratigakos’s exhibition is brilliant and poses important questions by illustrating the huge contradictions women face as they strive to achieve.

As Stratigakos says, for women to take the risks required of them in order to realize their dreams is a complex issue that goes way beyond motherhood.

For men the path to success and power is straight: achieve, become object of female desire, achieve more (more emotional support, more money, more power, more art!) Whereas women are faced with a far more circuitous and complicated route, ominously warned: if you rise too high, you’ll lose your attractiveness to men which happens to be– guess what– your main source of power.

The human drive to create and communicate is universal and genderless. But artists have to be risk takers and the punishments for women are high. I love how Stratigakos put the Barbies next to film clips of angry, male geniuses. Our culture’s idea of what a great artist looks like is so mired in the model of the tortured, solitary male. A model that, as Peter Kramer documented in his book Against Depression (and that I posted about “What if Van Gogh took Prozac?”) happened to be created by tortured, lonely males.

Clearly, its time for new models and maybe Architect Barbie will help us build them.

Update: After seeing the above post AIA San Francisco invited me to hear a panel discussion on gender and architecture. Read my post about that event: “SF architects advice to girls: Blocks, not Barbie.”