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.”