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.”

AIA San Francisco meeting Friday to discuss women and architecture

After I posted about Architect Barbie, AIA of San Francisco emailed me about a local, upcoming discussion on women and architecture. Director of Communications, Helen Wong, writes:

This event grew out of the desire by our AIA San Francisco Communications Committee to explore and share the experiences of women in the profession. The association to Barbie has definitely created some interesting dialogue and we’re hoping to continue to engage more people in the conversation.  The committee hopes to develop a forum that can serve as an additional resource for women architects.

It looks like a great event, if you’re able to attend, here’s the info:

Ladies (and Gents) Who Lunch with Architect Barbie
October 21, 2011   Noon – 12:30 PM: Networking | 12:30 – 1:30 PM: Presentation
AIA San Francisco, 130 Sutter Street, Suite 600, San Francisco
Representing different paths in the design profession, architects Cathy Simon, FAIA (Perkins + Will), Ila Berman (California College of the Arts), EB Min (Min|Day) and Anne M. Torney (Daniel Solomon Design Partners) will discuss their careers and share their perspectives on women in the profession.

The group will explore the following topics:
·  What is the current state of women’s participation in the profession?
·  How does “Architect Barbie” influence roles, including stereotypes for women in the profession?
·  What does it take to become successful in architecture?
·  How can women shape the future of the profession?

The seminar format will include audience participation, allowing the architects, designers, and marketing professionals to be fully engaged in the conversation. Designer Jessica Lane, founder and editor in chief of Calx, a design magazine and author of the blog post, “The Audacity of Architect Barbie,” will moderate the presentation.


Ila Berman, director of Architecture at California College of the Arts and principal of Studio Matrixx, is an architect and architectural theorist who holds a doctorate from Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design. Dr. Berman is the recipient of many awards and honors including, among others the J. P. Herndon Traveling Fellowship where she conducted research on contemporary urban and architectural landscapes. In 2005 she was the recipient of the President’s Award at Tulane University, where she was a Favrot Professor and the Associate Dean of the School of Architecture until December 2007. Her design work, which ranges in scale from objects to cities, has been published in GAM Zero Landscape, the Cornell Architecture Journal, Cityscape, c3Korea, JAE, and Appendx among others.

EB Min, AIA is the San Francisco based principal of Min | Day. An honors graduate of Brown University with dual concentrations in Art History and Studio Art, she began her architectural studies as a cross-registered student at Rhode Island School of Design. She received her Master of Architecture from the University of California at Berkeley in 1993. E.B.’s experience in the landscape architecture office of Delaney and Cochran nurtured her interest in the integration of landscapes and buildings. E.B. has taught at U.C. Berkeley and is an Adjunct Professor in the Masters of Architecture Program at California College of the Arts in San Francisco and serves on the Board of Directors of the AIA San Francisco.

Cathy Simon, FAIA, LEED AP is a design principal at Perkins + Will. Her focus on transformative design is evident at all scales. Larger-scale work is best exemplified by San Francisco’s Ferry Building, a once-disused relic reborn as a public marketplace and the site of the nation’s most highly-regarded farmer’s market, as well as a place of vibrant community. Notable smaller projects include numerous independent K-12 projects including the Urban School, a private high school whose identity and relationship to its neighborhood were revolutionized as a result of its new facility. Cathy’s design philosophy and expertise have made her a natural spokesperson for the burgeoning revitalization of post-industrial waterfronts worldwide. She frequently speaks and teaches on issues of urbanization, revitalization and the ways and means of creating these vibrant places that nurture the growth of community.

Anne M. Torney, AIA LEED AP is an architect who has made affordable multi-family housing and transit-oriented urban infill the focus of her work for over 20 years. As a Principal and Director of Housing at the multi-disciplinary San-Francisco-based architectural design firm Daniel Solomon Design Partners, she has led award winning projects in San Francisco, San Jose, Los Angeles, and Seattle, WA. She brings a commitment to community outreach and sustainable design to all her projects, which range in scale from 47 units of supportive housing for formerly homeless seniors, to the master planning and architectural design for the redevelopment of distressed public housing into vibrant new mixed-income and mixed use communities. Anne earned her BA at Princeton University and studied for her Masters Degree at the University of California, Berkeley.

$15 students with valid ID; $25 AIA SF and SMPS members; and $40 nonmembers. Fee includes 1.0 LUs and lunch. Space is limited. Pre-registration is required
Contact:  AIA San Francisco