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Opinion

'Architect Barbie' builds a dream home, but her profession needs a makeover

The American Institute of Architects has announced the winners of its contest to build a dream home for the Mattel doll, 'Architect Barbie.' The contest misses the point that the severe gender gap in architecture is a problem of retaining women – not one of recruiting them.

By John Cary / August 8, 2011



New York

On Aug. 2, the American Institute of Architects (AIA) announced the winners of its thoroughly publicized contest to design the ultimate dream house for “Architect Barbie.” Sporting angular black-rimmed glasses and a bright pink tube of blueprints slung over her shoulder, the blonde bombshell’s debut as an architect follows 120 previous careers. Architect Barbie has been hailed by the AIA and others in the design world, with nary a mention that the architecture profession and its 150-year old association remain plagued by gender parity challenges.

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While demographic statistics for architects are hardly even kept by the profession, an estimated 10-12 percent of the 105,000 registered architects in the United States are women. It’s generally accepted that the participation of women peaks in architecture school at approximately 40 percent. Once they’ve graduated, only a quarter of those women complete the internship and exam phases, required to become a registered architect or even legally call oneself an “architect.”

The majority of “starchitects”– as the most famous architects are known – are men, with the exception of a few pioneering women, like Elizabeth Diller, Jeanne Gang, and Michelle Kaufmann.

In Architect Barbie, Mattel produced what the AIA seems to think of as the ultimate recruitment tool for women. Yet while the AIA and others might hope to inspire a generation of girls and young women to become architects, the systemic problems facing the profession will not be fixed with a doll and a dream. Career pipeline issues must be remedied. Cultural and institutional sexism must be faced. These are matters of retention, not recruitment.

Reforming the lengthy and costly internship and exam process for architects, which together take an average of seven years and cost many times more than the bar exam for attorneys, is unquestionably the single-most urgent need and logical first step. It is precisely where we see a precipitous drop in women, in no small part because those seven or more years correspond with women’s prime child-rearing years.

The internship process, for example, is based on “seat time” literally performing a task, and should instead move to comprehension of skills – more seamlessly integrated with the exam, whereas now the two are wholly divorced from one another. This could reduce the time and cost investments substantially, yet with clear standards for competency.

We must also see a shift in male-dominated firm management by creating family-friendly tracks for women and men alike to become partners. And we need the AIA to lead by example with substantially greater numbers of women in senior leadership and elected positions, because to this day just two of the organization’s 150 presidents have been women.

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