Architect Barbie

A decade after a surprising and controversial rejection, Architect Barbie became a reality.

Like other professions, architecture once was a challenging field for women to enter. The American Institute of Architects, the professional organization for architects in the United States, has a membership that is 83 percent male, according to Despina Stratigakos, one of the female members. Stratigakos also helped start the Architecture and Design Academy in Buffalo, N.Y. — an organization whose goal is to increase diversity in architecture — and is an architecture professor at the University at Buffalo. While writing a book in 2002 on the history of women in architecture, she discovered that an iconic female role model could help promote the profession for women. Stratigakos was ecstatic, or, as she puts it: “I was hooked.”

That’s how Barbie’s pursuit of a career in architecture began. It turned out to be a road much longer and far more winding than expected.

While working on her book, Stratigakos learned from a friend that Mattel, Inc., which created Barbie, was having a contest to determine the doll’s next profession. Voters were to choose between librarian, police officer and architect. The American Idol-style online election allowed for unlimited ballots per person, and vote totals were updated in real time. Stratigakos said supporters of each career stuffed the ballot box for their chosen profession, and it wasn’t long before a pitched battle raged between librarians and architects. “Policewomen must have been too busy doing their jobs to waste time on virtual elections,” Stratigakos playfully notes. The voting went on for several weeks, with librarians and architects alternately advancing and falling behind. Eventually, Architect Barbie pulled ahead and won.

Stratigakos and her troops were jubilant, but their celebration was short-lived. Mattel announced it would not produce the doll. “I remember them specifically saying a professional architect was not in their lexicon,” Stratigakos says.

When Barbie was introduced in 1959, she was a teenage fashion model. She quickly went to work, however. In 1960, she became a fashion editor and, in subsequent years, a registered nurse and a business executive. Eventually, her professions included doctor, astronaut, police officer and candidate for president of the United States. So how she could have such a diverse career yet not be an architect was a mystery to Stratigakos.

And it was frustrating. After years of working to bring attention to the profession’s gender disparity in a scholarly manner, Stratigakos saw Architect Barbie as a fun, unique way to highlight the issue. “We are not simply advocating to hire more women to even out the percentage of those in the field,” Stratigakos says. “We are concerned that young girls do not think they can be architects. Barbie symbolizes and embodies whatever she takes on and has the power to make things seem natural to little girls.”

In February 2010 Mattel had another “I Can Be” contest for Barbie’s new career. Architect Barbie had made a comeback and was in the contest. Her competition was Surgeon Barbie, News Anchor Barbie and Computer Engineer Barbie. Stratigakos had reservations, thinking that even if Architect Barbie won again, the contest’s results could be ignored. She decided, however, the effort was worth it and jokingly says, “When I learned that I wouldn’t have to go up against the librarians, I was all in.”