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'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.

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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.

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