A Scholar Helps Architect Barbie Get Off the Drawing Board

Cheryl Gerber, AP Images for Mattel

Architect Barbie carries blueprints and is accessorized with a hard hat.
October 09, 2011

Stylishly dressed and accessorized with a hard hat and blueprint carrying case, Architect Barbie is the newest of Mattel Inc.'s "I Can Be ..." dolls, which are aimed at inspiring girls ages 3 to 11 to pursue any career they want. Not to sound discouraging, but this Barbie faces daunting odds.

Despina Stratigakos, an associate professor of architectural history at the University at Buffalo, notes that while women make up 40 percent of architecture graduates, just 17 percent of them go on to join the American Institute of Architects, the discipline's primary professional group.

"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.

Five years ago, Ms. Stratigakos won a yearlong teaching and research fellowship at the A. Alfred Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. That fall Michigan voters approved Proposal 2, which prohibited colleges from operating affirmative-action programs that granted preferences based on race, color, ethnicity, national origin, or gender. Ms. Stratigakos was excited to be present at such a pivotal moment, and she anticipated listening in on lively conversations about diversity.

Instead, "emotions would get so high that conversations would just stop," she says.

As part of her fellowship, Ms. Stratigakos was asked to organize an exhibition on female architects. "I thought, Let's try something different," she says. "How do you restart a stalled conversation about things people don't want to discuss?"

With Architect Barbie, she concluded.

A few years earlier, Mattel had invited the public to decide whether the next career-oriented Barbie should be a librarian, a police officer, or an architect. Architect Barbie won, but Mattel officials had a change of heart, concluding that little girls would have trouble understanding what architects do.

In the spring of 2007, Ms. Stratigakos revived the idea, asking 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.

But the prospect of an architecture career for Barbie appeared doomed last year when Mattel invited the public to vote again, for the doll to work either in that field or in computer engineering. This time, Architecture Barbie lost fair and square. Ms. Stratigakos and an architect at Buffalo, Kelly M. Hayes McAlonie, wrote to officials at Mattel expressing regret and asking them to reconsider.

"To our amazement," says Ms. Stratigakos, "they gave us a call a month later and said they were thinking of moving forward on this project, and would we consult with them on the design."

Over the next several months, the women saw close up the long, slow process of toy design and production, and they reconciled themselves to the reality that Architect Barbie is, after all, just a doll.

"Kids have different aesthetics, and you have to respect that," says Ms. Stratigakos, who chafes at the suggestion that Barbie's anatomically suspect proportions distort girls' self images. "No one's saying that Teletubbies are going to lead to childhood obesity," she counters.

Mattel and the American Institute of Architects unveiled the doll in May at the AIA's annual meeting, in New Orleans. Ms. Stratigakos says she and Ms. McAlonie worked the Barbie booth and offered architectural workshops to girls ages 7 to 9 from local schools and clubs. "They just loved it," she says.

The project? Redesigning Barbie's Dream House.