Gendered toys and architectural careers

The numbers don’t add up, according to Despina Stratigakos, author of Where are the Women Architects? 40% of those pursuing a degree in architecture are women, and yet the vast majority of professionals working in the field are male. Why is this? Outside pressure is key, and that begins at a young age.

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CC image courtesy of marek szlak on Flickr

It’s no secret that the toys children play with often shape their imaginations and ideals. So what does it mean when one of the biggest known architectural toy brands alters the brand just for girls? Lego is a household name and despite years of knowing that girls are interested in the toys, their website layout features a small ‘girls’ tab, implying that only this selection of toys are intended for girls. The section contains different playsets, with everything from a beauty salon to an airport. But unlike the boys section, which presumably encompasses the rest of the website, all of these toys come with large sections prebuilt and don’t encourage unique construction by the girls.

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CC image courtesy of Bill Ward on Flickr

In her book, Where are the Women Architects?, Stratigakos discusses other girls’ toys that have caused controversy, like Architect Barbie. Though the problem of gendered toys has been widely discussed, no clear solution has presented itself. The fact remains: the “girl friendly” Lego Friends toys offer no real role models outside of the homemaking, beauty, and food industries. None of this bodes well considering the sobering statistics: a professional field that is mostly composed of and caters toward men.

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CC image courtesy of A. C. on Flickr

StratigakosDespina Stratigakos is associate professor and interim chair of architecture at the University at Buffalo, State University of New York. She is the author of Hitler at Home and A Woman’s Berlin: Building the Modern City.

Where are the Women Architects? An interview with Despina Stratigakos

StratigakosWomen have been entering universities excited to major in architecture. But studies have shown that although women currently make up 40% of all architecture majors at colleges across the United States, only 17% of architectural professionals are female.  Despina Stratigakos takes a close look at this disparity in her new book Where are the Women Architects?. Recently Stratigakos answered some questions on her book, and what she calls the disturbingly high dropout rates for women in the profession.

Why do we need to talk about women in architecture? Can’t we just focus on the work of architects, regardless of their gender?

DS: It’s easy to say that gender issues are a thing of the past, but a young woman entering architecture today still confronts an unequal playing field. She can expect to make less than her male peers at every stage of her career, to see fewer career-building opportunities come her way, and to struggle to make it to the top ranks of the profession, which remain overwhelmingly male. Discrimination lies behind these hurdles and is the reason we continue to see such disturbingly high dropout rates for women. So, yes, we do have to talk about women in architecture. And hopefully do more than just talk.

But aren’t more women than ever studying architecture? Won’t that influx resolve these issues as more women integrate into the profession?

DS: Numbers alone aren’t a fix. For the last fifteen years, women have been a strong presence in architecture schools, making up nearly half of the student body. But far too many of them eventually leave architecture. As a result, the number of women in practice has flatlined, with women today representing less than one in five licensed practitioners. Beyond the human tragedy of so many women abandoning their dreams, this loss of talent and energy undermines the health of the profession.

Why do so many women leave architecture?

DS: This phenomenon has been so little studied, that’s it hard to give conclusive answers, but new research suggests that women leave for complex and varied reasons, including salary gaps, fewer opportunities for career advancement, a lack of mentoring and role models, and routine sexism in the workplace. The simplistic explanation, trotted out for decades, that women leave practice to have babies doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. It’s true that architecture’s deadline-driven culture makes it difficult to balance raising a family with the expected long work hours. But not all mothers choose to leave architecture, and women without children are also struggling in the profession, so the issue can’t be reduced to biology.

In your book, you point out that journalists and other observers have been asking about architecture’s missing women for over a century. If this phenomenon isn’t new, why write the book now?

DS: Something new is afoot in architecture. While there have been questions and protests about the lack of women in architecture for a long time, gender equity issues today are attracting attention across a broader span of the profession and are also garnering public support. A new generation of advocates are speaking out about issues of diversity in architecture and organizing at a grassroots’ level to make their voices heard. I identify this as architecture’s third wave of feminism, and hope the book helps to define a movement that may, at last, bring about deep change.

Architect Barbie’s inclusion in this book may come as a surprise to some readers. You write candidly about your reasons for partnering with Mattel to create the doll and the responses, some of them critical, she received when launched in 2011. Why did you decide to include her story in this book?

DS: I am very interested in how popular culture shapes professional images and the role gender plays in such ideals. For an earlier generation, Howard Roark, the protagonist of Ayn Rand’s hugely influential novel, The Fountainhead, embodied the ideal image of the architect—especially as portrayed by Gary Cooper in the 1949 film version. Barbie is a cultural icon who is both loved and hated, and casting her in the role of an architect galvanized people into talking about professional stereotypes, such as whether architects can wear pink. Her story is relevant to the challenges that women architects face in the real world, especially because she lets us look at gender issues from unexpected angles.

The ideal image of the architect also comes up in your chapter on architecture prizes as a boys’ club. You write about how Zaha Hadid, after becoming the first woman to win the prestigious Pritzker Architecture Prize in 2004, endured humiliating press stories that focused on her appearance rather than on her achievements. Some of these accounts are quite shocking to read today. What do you want readers to take away from this account?

DS: This rather shameful moment in architectural journalism speaks to the discrimination that even the most successful women architects face. Denise Scott Brown’s exclusion from the 1991 Pritzker Architecture Prize awarded to her partner Robert Venturi, which I also discuss, is another instance of how even prominent female practitioners can be dismissed. But 2004 is not that long ago, and the sexist reaction to Hadid’s win reminds us that attitudes about women being lesser architects and unworthy of the highest laurels are not part of a long-dead past.

But has that changed now? This year, the AIA Gold Medal is being awarded jointly to Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi, and Zaha Hadid has won the Royal Institute of British Architects’ Royal Gold Medal, the first woman to be offered the honor in her own right. Are women architects finally getting their due?

DS: These awards are highly deserved and long overdue, but have come about only after sustained pressure on professional organizations to better align their rewards systems with today’s architectural realities. Scott Brown is the first living woman to win the AIA Gold Medal ever; Hadid is the first sole female practitioner to win the RIBA Gold Medal ever. These are important milestones, but we don’t yet know whether they are part of a larger pattern. In the book, I discuss how the paucity of female laureates has led to the recent and rapid proliferation of new prizes solely for women architects. Time will tell whether such women-only honors continue to multiply or whether they will come to seem anachronistic.

In the book, you also express concern about a more mundane vehicle for recognition: inclusion in Wikipedia. You write about the invisibility of women architects on this hugely popular and influential website, and the bias of male editors against entries on women’s history. Why is it important to close that visibility gap?

DS: In the last twenty years, histories of women in architecture have flourished and have come to challenge our understanding of the people and forces that have shaped our built environment. But for these discoveries to reach a broad audience and to become widely known, they need to appear in the places where people look today for information on the past, and that is increasingly to free online resources such as Wikipedia. Content on Wikipedia is controlled by its editors, who are overwhelmingly male and resistant to the inclusion of women’s histories. This absence threatens to perpetuate the belief among a younger generation that women architects have made no meaningful contributions to the profession. I explore the campaigns launched by tech-savvy activists to write women architects into Wikipedia.

Despina Stratigakos is associate professor and interim chair of architecture at the University at Buffalo, State University of New York. She is the author of Hitler at Home and A Woman’s Berlin: Building the Modern City. Her most recent book is Where are the Women Architects?