In May of 2011, a new Barbie doll debuted at the American Institute of Architects (AIA) National Convention in New Orleans. No surprise, this Barbie was an architect, complete with a drawing tube, hard hat, and miniature model Barbie Dreamhouse. From the beginning, Architect Barbie aimed to inspire girls to start designing their own dream houses. In an industry largely dominated by men (just 17% of architects were women in 2011), Architect Barbie was literally made to change the field. Now, a decade and a star-studded Barbie movie later, has the architecture industry become more gender inclusive?

Mattel Unveils Architect Barbie

In 2011, Matell unveiled Architect Barbie as part of Mattel’s “I Can Be” series, which features Barbie in a variety of typically male-dominated roles like computer engineer, marine biologist, race car driver, and more.

Architect Barbie is dressed smart and chic in a blue and pink dress featuring a skyline design, black heeled boots, and of course her hard hat, drawing tube, and glasses. 

Not Everyone was Keen on Architect Barbie at First

Initially, many found Architect Barbie condescending and outdated. They bemoaned pink aspects of her outfit and suggested she should be wearing black trousers and work boots. Some even felt Architect Barbie’s long blonde hair should be clipped into a short black bob. But, as Stratigakos explained:

“After considering slacks, we ultimately agreed with Mattel that Architect Barbie would wear a dress. A century ago, men campaigned to ban women from construction sites because their dresses (standing in for female bodies) were seen as nuisances. Since women then were also forbidden to wear pants, this dress code effectively excluded them from the building trades. Our decision to combine a hard hat with a dress — symbols of building and femininity — channels the spirit of girl power, flaunting that which has been prohibited.”

Besides, the outfit isn’t really the point of Architect Barbie.

Architect Barbie | Designed with the Industry in Mind

Architect Barbie was made to impact Architecture for the better. Mattel  along with co-creators Kelly Hayes McAlonie, director of campus planning at the University at Buffalo, and Despina Stratigakos professor of architecture at the University of Buffalo designed the doll. In 2011, the duo introduced around 400 girls to the field through an architecture workeshop. There, the girls were asked to design a Barbie dreamhouse of their own. 

The goal for the workshop, and Architect Barbie herself, was to address architecture’s gender disparity from the ground up. If young girls could envision themselves as architects through Barbie, then maybe in time more and more women would join the field. And it seemed promising. Girls at the workshop created spatially and functionally aware, inventive homes. One little girl even designed her home to have a room for monsters so they wouldn’t lurk under her bed. Stratigakos told ArchDaily at the time:

“At no point during the workshops did I hear any girl question her spatial skills or the appropriateness of architecture for women. And that, precisely, is where Barbie’s power lies. . . whatever Barbie does, she brings it into the sphere of women. She has the power to make things seem natural to little girls.” 

Now it’s been over 10 years since Architecture Barbie started designing her dreamhouse, has anything changed?

Women in Architecture Today | New Data

In an article posted by the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture (ACSA), entitled “Where are the Women, Measuring Progress on Gender in Architecture”, researchers shared new metrics collected in 2020 about women in the field and compared them to historical data. In one chart, they recorded several factors and their movement through time starting in 1985 and ending in 2020. Among the factors were women who were students in an NAAB accredited program, NAAB degree holders, and working architects.

To access a photo of the chart and much more data about women in architecture click here.

Let’s Start With Some Good News First 

Historically, the proportion of women among students in NAAB accredited degree programs versus NAAB degree holders showed that women often started, but did not finish architecture degree programs. Luckily, over the past ten years, since our Architect Barbie was first brought onto the scene, women have been graduating at roughly the same rate they’re enrolling. This means that in the last decade, the “gender-based achievement gap” has almost completely closed when it comes to architecture schools. We can now expect that most women entering an architecture degree program will graduate at a similar rate to their male peers. 

But, There Are Still Some Major Disparities to Report

According to the research, women working as both licensed and unlicensed architects and architectural designers are still far outnumbered by those in architecture degree programs. This essentially means that there are still many women who either never enter, or end up leaving the field after graduating a degree program. 

What Does the Data Mean? Why Are Women Leaving Architecture?

Lack of Childcare

Around the world, women account for 75% of unpaid childcare. This is often due to social norms, the gender pay gap, and a lack of work opportunities for mother’s that allow them to care for their family. (It’s no wonder then, that in places where subsidized child care is the norm, like in Scandinavian countries, gender parity in architecture is much greater.) 

Culture of Inflexibility 

Likewise, architecture’s culture of inflexibility when it comes to family life further discourages women from staying at their jobs. As Dezeen explains, architecture firms typically employ long hours that run into nights and weekends. Fridays are often designated for weekly critiques that run well past 6pm. Because many women are the main caretakers for their children, these hours force them to choose between their family and their job. If they choose their job, they’ll have to find a way to pay for childcare, and if they choose their families, they might lose out on opportunities at work. 

Lack of Women in Management Positions in Architecture Firms

While women in top leadership positions have grown a lot in recent years, (women in senior leadership has doubled in the last 5 years) the architecture industry still has much room for growth. Even with more women welcomed into leadership roles, still fifty-two per cent of the practices in the global top 100 boast exactly zero women at the top table; almost half (45 per cent) of the firms have failed to improve the number of women in senior leadership in the past five years. And nearly a fifth (17 per cent) of practices have no women in their second tier of management.”

Beyond the Barbie Dream House

Architect Barbie has done her job of inspiring little girls to go to school for architecture. Now, the industry has to do the work to bring and keep them in the profession. While solving worldwide gender disparity is an immense challenge, the industry can start by recruiting women designers right out of school, increasing flexibility for their workers, and promoting qualified women into managerial positions. Hopefully soon, for many girls, designing their dream house won’t just be a dream.

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