Despina Stratigakos: Where are the Women Architects?

Gender equality in the workforce is not a topic that often comes up in typical architectural discussion, be it academic or professional.  Even so, it is a real problem that needs to be addressed – and Despina Stratigakos is tackling it head on.  Her work, ranging from installation to publication to Barbie dolls with their heads ripped off, explores the gender gaps existing in professional and academic architectural institutions across the United States with particular interest in the lack of women architects and leaders.  Despina highlighted this dramatic void with a story of her experience as a faculty member at Harvard where she had dual positions in both the GSD and the Center for Women and Gender Studies.  In a single work day she would experience two completely different faces of academia.  On one side she had the male-dominated GSD where assertion was key and you had to fight to make yourself known.  On the other, the quite workforce of the Center for Women and Gender Studies where you were expected to be quite and respectful and not step out of turn.  Despina recalled often having trouble adjusting from one environment to the other causing tension in her Gender Studies cohort where she stood out as strong and possibly offensive to the quitenatured group.  So often this is the reality for women in the professional work force, and it may only be exaggerated in design professions such as architecture that is often viewed as a ‘boys club’ of sorts.  Women often have a harder time working their way to the front, not because of any fault on them, but rather because of the professions lack of representative female leaders and perception of women as less assertive than men.

Despina further explored this with her Architect Barbie project, with a two-fold mission: first, explore the perception women have of their role in the architecture profession; and second, develop a positive image of women in architecture that can be used to communicate to young girls through an Architect Barbie doll.  For the first part, the wide array of reflections were both equal parts enlightening and attention grabbing.  Women in pursuit of their BArch’s and MArch’s were asked to represent their perception of themselves as architects through the device of… a Barbie doll.  The results ranged from simple changes of outfits to all black up to pregnant dolls flying into glass ceilings as their limbs are torn from them in an effort to keep up with the ‘boys club.’  The latter sheds light on the perception of maternity as a burden on professional women in architecture, or rather on their employers.  The glass ceiling representing not only the lack of women in the profession, but also their inability to migrate to the front of the pack and become leaders in a profession that is so heavily male dominated.  According to Despina’s not-so-strict statistical analysis it will take until 2093, at current trends, for women to reach a 50/50 equality with men in the profession.  Until then Architect Barbie will likely continue to gain more spotlight than the women she is made to represent.


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