How many female architect characters can you think of in TV and movies?
Probably not a whole lot.
But it’s not just in Hollywood, female architects are missing in history books too. And worse, they’re missing in the profession. In Colorado, only 27% of AIA members are female, which is still better than the national average.
It’s that realization that prompted Despina Stratigakos, Ph.D., a professor at the University at Buffalo’s School of Architecture and Planning, to ask “Where are the Women Architects?” The question is now the title of her most recent book, and was the topic of her featured session at the 2017 AIA Colorado Practice + Design Conference in Keystone, but it’s taken years of research to get here.
Stratigakos’ realization was spurred by listening to a radio interview in 1990 with a designer who had studied at the Bauhaus in the 1920s. In the interview, he mentioned all the great parties he had attended and the many female students with whom he had danced.
This caught her attention, because Stratigakos had just graduated with her master’s in design history and had taken courses on the Bauhaus, but no one had ever mentioned these women. She tried to find out more about them and discovered that there was almost nothing written about them.
“I started with an intellectually curiosity about a history that wasn’t available,” said Stratigakos.
Despite the strides that the profession has made, women still struggle to break into and succeed in architecture.
“When I first started teaching in architecture school, I moved from historian to advocate because I saw that the past was still playing out in front of my eyes. The biases and prejudices that women architects had encountered a century earlier had never really gone away,” said Stratigakos.
Stratigakos suggests that part of the problem is the widespread perception of how an architect should act and look—an ideal exemplified by Ayn Rand’s 1943 novel, Fountainhead, in which the protagonist is a macho architect.
“The novel reinforced the idea of the architect as an individualistic genius and hyper-masculine,” Stratigakos said. “This stereotype, which Rand didn’t invent but helped popularize, had long been used against women trying to enter the profession. If they lived up to the ideal, they were told they lacked femininity; it they didn’t, they were accused of being bad architects. It was a no-win situation.”
So, in order to break apart this idea, Stratigakos—a historian by trade—went back to when it first came together. She studied the history of architecture, the stereotypes, unconscious biases that still exist today, and ideas of exclusion and inclusion that shape who feels welcomed in the profession.
And that led to “Architect Barbie.”
Despite the doll’s sunny disposition, “Architect Barbie was actually quite political,” Stratigakos recounts.
In 2006, Stratigakos was on a research fellowship at the University of Michigan. At the time, the state was considering passing legislation that would ban affirmative action in public institutions—a law that provoked tensions and many heated debates on UM’s campus. In the midst of all of this, the chair of the architecture department asked Stratigakos to create an exhibition on women in architecture.
Given the tense atmosphere, Stratigakos wanted to do something a little different, broaden the audience and approach it through humor.
She asked students to create prototypes of “Architect Barbie,” and the results were eye-opening.
“Instead of dressing the dolls in black and ‘Corbu’ glasses, they challenged the stereotype,” Stratigakos said. “Why couldn’t an architect wear pink?”
The exhibition was successful in encouraging dialogue, which led Stratigakos and her colleague at the University at Buffalo, Kelly Hayes McAlonie, to pitch the idea of “Architect Barbie” to Mattel.
“We had a message to deliver to little girls that you can be an architect, and regardless of your viewpoint on Barbie, Mattel has a means of delivering that message to little girls,” said Stratigakos. “We were also interested in using Barbie’s uber-femininity to playfully take on the conventional image of an architect by mixing in some hot pink and sparkles.”
When the doll launched in New Orleans in 2011, Stratigakos and McAlonie worked with the AIA to host workshops with both architects and little girls, where they discussed the importance of the profession—especially in cities that experience devastation and need talented people to help rebuild.
Of course, “Architect Barbie” had both supporters and naysayers, but Stratigakos and McAlonie welcomed the debate.
“It was so much better than silence on the topic. People have noticed the absence of women in architecture for a long time, so the conversation is by no means a new one, but this helped bring it to a wider audience,” she said.
In Stratigakos’ opinion, we need to have more and deeper conversations about diversity in architecture, and it goes beyond gender. There is a lack of diverse races, ethnicities and even classes within the profession. She’s encouraged by a younger generation of women—and men—who are using new forms of technology to promote diversity in the workplace, and to challenge conventional ideals of insiders and outsiders in the architecture profession.
There are also groups researching this topic and creating valuable resources. Across the country, AIA components are shedding light on this issue, and many firm owners are tackling the lack of diversity at a grassroots level.
“This is everyone’s issue. All firm owners, regardless of gender, need to see this as their responsibility,” encouraged Stratigakos.
For example, AIA San Francisco and Equity by Design are researching and publishing findings on women and diversity in architecture, and Parlour in Australia has created practical guides for achieving equity, which include topics like mentorship, salaries and asking for a promotion. The Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation in New York offers programing to help educate the public and professionals alike on these issues.
For Stratigakos, the better informed we all are about the challenges architecture faces, the better poised the profession will be to launch future generations of practitioners that thrive in a changing world. We should all be asking, “Where are the women architects?