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.
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.
Further, the AIA’s Architect Barbie Dream House contest perpetuates the profession’s addiction to conceptual design competitions with no compensation and little chance of being realized.
How can we possibly justify hypothetical housing competitions, when our country is facing such a serious housing crisis, complete with foreclosure evictions and chronic homelessness?
If architects want to celebrate the architecture and housing contributions of a trailblazing real-life woman, they could point to the remarkable work of Rosanne Haggerty, the MacArthur Fellow and founder of nonprofit Common Ground, which for 20 years has worked to reduce homelessness in New York City. Ms. Haggerty has created real homes out of previously beleaguered architectural icons like the old Prince George Hotel in Times Square.
While the AIA was plugging its doll house competition over the past month, Haggerty was launching Community Solutions, an ambitious venture with a goal to provide housing for 100,000 homeless people and families by July 2013. By that time, Architect Barbie will likely have become yet another doll abandoned under the beds of a generation of girls who discover architecture’s glass ceiling isn’t up to code and the AIA and even the media rarely feature female architect role models.
In their contest winner’s statement, recent graduates of the Harvard Graduate School of Design, Ting Li and Maja Paklar noted, “We appreciate the versatility of our profession, which allows us to express ourselves in a myriad of ways – from entirely built city environments to a Barbie Dream House.”
There’s nothing wrong with whimsical contests that encourage imagination and creativity, except in the absence of hard work on the bigger issues facing the architecture profession and society generally.
I’d like to see a profession and a world where Ms. Li, Ms. Paklar, and other women architects like them, are celebrated for their innovations in public housing, creation of classrooms that improve learning, and hospitals that improve healing, along with thriving architecture practices that demonstrate gender parity – not their doll house design.
John Cary is the editor of PublicInterestDesign.org and author of "The Power of Pro Bono: 40 Stories about Design for the Public Good by Architects and Their Clients." He speaks widely on architecture, design, public service, and social justice.