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.”

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.”