Architect Barbie

In New Zealand, 82 per cent of architects are men. Over 50 per cent of architecture graduates are women these days, but they don’t continue in the profession at the rate of their male colleagues. The story is the same in the United States, Britain and Australia, it seems.

One solution, a little like the Roominate toy we looked at a while ago, is Architect Barbie, if you can believe it!

Thanks to Alana and John for passing along the link to this fascinating article on how a feminist architecture professor helped design a doll to expand the horizons of little girls.

This toy is obviously going more for inspiration than skill development, but the discussion is eye-opening, and Architect Barbie was launched in a series of pointedly hands-on events:

The workshops, led by women architects, had three components: an introduction to what architects do, a discussion of the work of past and present women architects, and an exercise to redesign Barbie’s Dream House. The exercise focused on teaching the girls basic skills for drawing floor plans and encouraging them to explore their ideal domestic environment. Throughout, I was amazed at how intensely the girls wanted to learn how to shape and control their own spaces. One of my favorite floor plans, created by a seven-year-old, included a room for monsters; by acknowledging their presence and giving them their own space, the rest of the house would remain monster-free — a design solution to an eternal childhood problem that would have put Freud out of business. At the end, each girl left with a gift bag that included drawing tools and her own Architect Barbie.

[Read more at Places]

I’m no Barbie fan, but I guess I see their point. If Barbie is going to exist, she might as well introduce little girls to the field of architecture.


Want to see more toys for future engineers and architects? Take a look at our post on the Roominate, which encourages girls to build and decorate a house including doing the electrical circuitry. There’s also one on GoldieBlox, which combines mechanical problem-solving with an adventure story featuring girl characters.

And if you’ve got other tips of toys aimed at encouraging girls into science, technology, engineering and mathematics, please leave a comment. 

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28 comments on “Architect Barbie”

  1. Anna G Reply

    I’m from a family of 3 girls and we never had a barbie in the house! I am proud to say one of my sisters is a registered architect in NZ. The other has degrees in Spanish and Physics. Did I mention our mum worked full-time and dad was the stay at home caregiver. This perhaps explains how we all have included science fields in our studies. I am in no hurry for my 1 year old daughter to start a doll collection.

    • not a wild hera Reply

      Hi Anna 🙂

      Great response, thank you! I must say this won’t make me a Barbie buyer either, but I found the article fascinating, and the idea that this kind of Barbie can bring something good out of Barbie madness is still going round in my mind.

      I’d love to hear your sister’s thoughts!

      • Anna G Reply

        Have shared with her so will see if she has any response. Being a busy, working mum may be a week or two before she finds time. She also has a trip to Rarotonga in the next fortnight 🙂

    • Megan Reply

      I think Architect Barbie is great to raise the profile of the architectural profession amoungst girls, although having said that I’m not about to go out and buy my niece or sons an Architect Barbie to play with.

      I can understand why this wasn’t mass produced due to ‘an architect’s work (being) beyond the comprehension of little girls’. I come across adults who don’t understand the role of architects.

      Why don’t Lego or Meccano make more female friendly products for creative construction play?

      How do you teach girls in pretty dresses, high heel construction boots and a hard hat that going on site is fun when you’ve got to clamber up the scaffolding and ladders with fullas hanging out windows gawking??? I suspect Architect Barbie highlights one of the issues with women in the profession – construction workers (predominantly men) don’t like taking directions from a young blonde female who they assume knows nothing and it is counterproductive going on site cause the work force stop working…and that’s talking from experience!

      • not a wild hera Reply

        Wow, Megan. This last point is one I hadn’t considered – the idea that some of the hostility to women in architecture is about the construction sites rather than/as well as the office politics. Is that the case?

        In which case it’s a bit different from medicine and law, and even some kinds of engineering. In medicine, a female doctor is surrounded by a mainly female nursing workforce, and plenty of others, of course, and a gender-balanced patient base. In architecture, I guess your clients are mixed, but most construction workers of all kinds are still men, right?

        Thanks so much for your insights!

        • Megan Reply

          Yes, the construction site can be a mine field. In my opinion men on a construction site struggle taking direction from women, especially if they are younger… and perhaps in my case being blonde doesn’t help. You don’t need eyes in the back of your head to notice that work appears to slow down considerably when you’re noticed on site. With construction sites being predominantly male domain it is a little like walking into a lions den (or a Flight of the Concord would say a club with ‘too many dicks on the dance floor’) It takes a certain type of person to maintain composure and remain in control while providing direction to builders / electricians / plumbers and the like who have considerable more practical experience (and with many onlookers pretending to keep busy and secretly enjoying watching there superior who’s squirming while being told what to do by a young blonde female).

          Some clients are also uncomfortable with a young female leading a project as they question your competence. For me that was the main reason for registering…for the clients or people in the industry who question your competence.

          • Megan

            Can I also say it doesn’t help when you show up on site and meet an engineer for the first time who’s introductory line is ‘You’re not half bad took look at now are ya’ or something to that effect. So it’s not only construction workers and clients that you have to establish a professional working relationship with and convince you’re competent, it’s also consultants that you work with on a daily basis who can upset the balance.

          • andrew

            i might have worked in the more refined end of engineering in wellington, but i’d have been shocked if any of my male colleagues would have made that comment of a female architect.

            i worked alongside young female grad engineers who worked regularly on sites, and had to direct the gruff guys who had been around since adam was a cowboy, and would insist they’d been doing a certain thing a particular (wrong) way for 20+ years. i didn’t notice the women getting harder treatment on site than the men. every contractor tried it on with every engineer, regardless of gender. you had to demonstrate you knew your profession, that you had the authority to direct them. They’d try to get away with murder metaphorically, and you had to convince them that if they did, you’d make them pull it down and start over.

    • Angela Reply

      Hi Anna, I am perhaps too late with this thread but I’d love to hear more about your reluctance for your daughter to start a doll collection. I have an 18 month old daughter.

      • Anna G Reply

        Hi Angela, nothing wrong with a doll collection. Just wasn’t an interest of mine growing up. I had a preference for sports, music and reading. No doubt she will be given dolls by family and friends. For now it is unlikely they will be on my shopping list when I am buying birthday or Christmas presents. She is only 1 though and by her next birthday will no doubt be communicating more clearly what she wants. At her current stage her interests lie in cats, other small animals and babies that she calls cats, rearranging the kitchen drawers and cupboards, wrestling over toys with her cousins etc. I don’t feel she is missing out by not having a line up of dolls to play with.

        I guess coming from a family with 3 girls I want her to have the freedom to participate in whatever takes her fancy. I am keen for her to grow up with an attitude that if something interests her she should give it a go, rather than – that’s a thing that boys do, I can’t do that. Our grandmother, also 1 of 3 girls was keen to be an architect herself, back in the 1940’s. I’m pretty sure that wasn’t the done thing for women back then. Anyway, her father didn’t think he could finance that amount of study for all 3 of his daughters so it just wasn’t an option.

        This conversation also reminds me of a 14 year old student we took away on a school trip. Complete with special disney themed suitcase for her dolls. I just didn’t understand that and am hopeful it won’t be my daughter wanting to do that in 13 years time.

  2. andrew Reply

    There are as many women graduating from architecture as men. so the problem isn’t in attracting them to the courses, or enjoyment of the material at uni (as is the case with engineering). the problem is probably in how the profession treats its grads, or (more likely) that undergrads believe that they will spend all their time dreaming up massively impressive and imaginative projects while the reality is far grittier, less enjoyable, and not as well paid. not everyone will be a le corbusier or frank lloyd wright.

    another question would be why women are able to move out of a profession they don’t enjoy after spending years of hard grind studying it while men, in the same working conditions, and presumably similar levels of satisfaction, don’t.

    • Megan Reply

      I agree with you Andrew. The stats indicate the issue is not attracting women to architectural training rather encouraging them to continue in the profession and go on to register.

      From my experience as a female architect in NZ there may be some issues with how the profession treats graduates. There is an excellent graduate development programme for those who are keen to get registered however it can be difficult and take a considerable amount of time to gain experience and prepare case studies showing competency in all areas of architecture. Once case studies have been prepared the examination process is daunting.

      The practice of architecture encompasses a wide range of skills so it’s likely there are areas you have strengths and weaknesses in, however you need to prove you are compotent and capable of performing in them all.

      There are some misconceptions even for those who are a reasonable way through 5 years of Architectural studies as to the amount of time architects spend doing a variety of tasks. There is a reasonable component of administration based tasks on a daily basis which may not be as rewarding as dreaming up elaborative schemes for particular projects.

      I would guess that the pay is pretty terrible in comparison with other professions such as doctors, lawyers etc which have long training / professional journeys and while I’m on that can I say the pay for women is less than for men in the same architectural roles (probably like numerous other jobs).

      There are costs associated with being a registered architect including annual practicing certificates, professional indemnity insurance and continuing professional development training which diminish the financial rewards for a part time female architect raising a young family such as myself.

      I’m unsure with the stats given whether women are ‘moving out of the profession’ or staying in the profession but not getting registered?

      Perhaps women who graduate are finding jobs in other areas for example: architectural historian, building industry consultant, building technologist, computer-aided design professional, film designer, design-based librarian or archivist, heritage architect, interior designer, project manager and urban designer (to name a few…a borrowed from AK Uni’s list of possible careers)

      • not a wild hera Reply

        Thanks, Megan, this is so helpful.

        Can I ask for further info on a couple of your points?

        I’m interested to hear you say there’s a pay difference between some male and female architects – can you expand on that?

        Also, do you need to be registered in order to practise in the core fields (as in medicine or law) or is it voluntary? If the former, then the stats are probably a reasonable reflection (at least proportionally) of the working population, but if not, your point about high fees for part-time workers is a real problem.

        A system of paying a proportion of full-time membership to fit how much of a full-time job it is would make a lot of sense for retaining women – and all carers – in the profession.

        • Megan Reply

          The comment on pay difference is just from my experience and in talking to other females in the field. There are remunneration surveys provided by NZIA (New Zealand Institute of Architects) with classifications based on Architect, Intermediate Architect, Senior Architect, Associate and Director (as well as some Architectural technician categories). The women I have spoken with all comment they are at the lower end of the remuneration mean spread for their region.

          You can work in the profession of architecture without being registered to a certain extent. A relatively new scheme has come in (the Licensed Building Practitioner Scheme) which requires people who provide drawings / documentation for Restricted Building Work (currently limited to residential although likely to expand at some point to include commercial and other building types) to be ‘licensed’. A registered architect is deemed to be a Licensed Building Practitioner, so if you’re not registered / licensed you need someone else to supervise your work and sign forms for Building Consent purposes. This limits your capabilities if you can do the drawings and documentation but not complete the Building Consent Application. Other aspects of architecture can only be completed by registered architects such as signing Progress Payment Certificates, Defects and Practical completion certificates.

          The other option for Architect Mum’s is to go into voluntary suspension where you are not required to pay for annual practicing certificate although can not practice as a “architect” either. This can be for a period up to 5 years, however you need to be able to illustrate you are keeping in touch with the profession and that you can meet the NZ Registered Architects Board requirements for continuing registration at your next competence review. I decided it is best to ‘keep in touch with the profession’ by working part time and attending continuing professional development courses.

          A proportional membership would be a great idea.

  3. not a wild hera Reply

    That’s an interesting way of putting the question, Andrew. Lots of assumptions there, though – and the articles I linked to make some points that are relevant. Medicine and law don’t show nearly the same drop-out rate among women, though both are demanding professions that are traditionally male-dominated, and that have long training periods.

    The NZ site is calling for more research into where all these women have gone, which I guess is the first question.

    • andrew Reply

      a point of difference between architecture and law/medicine/accounting is that the latter professions operate in almost a vacuum where they don’t have to interact with the grittier end of the social spectrum. you meet people on your own turf, on your own terms (the consulting room, chambers etc). There is criminal law, and emergency room medicine, but it’s not the majority.
      going onto a construction site where (due to the physical nature of the work) it is dominated by men, and men who aren’t the most refined samples of manhood is not going to be easy.

      Medicine (thinking of GP at the moment, and from our observations of obstetricians as well) allows fairly readily for part time work as it is effecitvely piece- work. you see a certain number of patients, and their treatments don’t ordinarily need you to see them again that same week. Law I don’t know as well in terms of how individual cases proceed., but i know that building projects require you to be available to answer questions from site, from contractors, clients, engineers, councils on any given day of the working week. working sole practise with clients who understood that would be manageable but doing it in a larger practise (putting my engineer hat on) would make it hard for others in the team to move the project forward in your absence.

  4. Darrell Reply

    Can I add that while that is a nice piece of pop research, for the sake of a good headline, the author isn’t comparing apples with apples. One number (the registered architects) includes those who have been in the profession for 20, 30, 40 years, while the other number (the proportion of female graduates) has made the most gains more recently than that and we might not expect to see movement at the total population level until these gains filter through (e.g. all the old men dying off).

    It would be interesting to see:

    1. Whether gains or losses have been made in the ratio of female grads to registered architects over time.
    2. Whether ‘registered’ is the same as ‘working in the profession’. I suspect there are a lot of registered architects who are working in other related professions / not working in related professions / retired etc. If we take out this bunch, what do the results look like?

    • not a wild hera Reply

      Yep, I agree with your questions about the other data we need.

      I think you’re a little harsh on the writer, though, who isn’t a journalist seeking a scoop but a working architecture professor involved in the project because of the need she observes from the inside.

      It’s true that each decade cohort could be expected to have a different gender balance, but women have been going into the professions in droves for several decades now, so I think the effect should be stronger by now than either the US or NZ figures suggest.

      When I was an undergraduate in the mid-1990s, women were already in the majority in law and medical schools in New Zealand, and that is now (if you can believe it) twenty years ago. So I think the question stands: where are all the graduates?

      It’s also interesting that (apparently – given the paucity of research) there seem to be more female architects dropping out of the stats than eg female lawyers or doctors.

    • Megan Reply

      I’d assume ‘Registered’ as an architect will not be classed the same as ‘working in the profession’. There may be women ‘working in the profession’ who are not being recognised in this comparison. The stats are comparing the difference in ratio of females who graduate to those who go on to get registered.

      I don’t follow your line of though with suspecting there are a lot of registered architects who are working in other related professions? If you are a registered architect (i.e. on the Register of NZ Architects – check out if you want to find a registered architect) you have certain criteria to fufil around continuing professional development and providing project record forms to the Registered Architects Board to maintain registration. Therefore if you’re a registered architect it’s likely you’d be included in the stats and not be predominantly working in another related profession. It’s possible to be a graduate working in other related professions.

      From looking at similar stats a few years back now, any way you look at them they don’t look wonderful for women.

      • Alana Reply

        A thoughtful discussion, as were the comments after the original article. As someone who has been with my now husband from ARCH101 right through to 7+ years graduate experience, I would say there are real issues within the industry which make this a challenging career for women to maintain. It is hard enough for junior architects fullstop, regardless of gender. IMHO, working on the issues that adversely effect women in the profession would lead to improvements across the board, including for junior architects of both sexes and their families. My husband really values the contributions of female colleagues and in his experience offices with “too many dicks on the dance floor” suffer for it.

        • andrew Reply

          superb phrase I’d never heard before “too many dicks on the dance floor”. for architecture, it takes a big, strong ego to drive a project to completion without the engineers, quantity surveyors and builders all sapping the beauty and elegance out of a project. that probably builds in a tendency for strong personalities and strong egos to be the survivors, or the ones that rise to the top in terms of the glamour projects.

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