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August 15, 2013

Architect Barbie

A couple of months back, I attended a 3-day international conference on tall buildings and urban habitat in London. Psyched and antsy, I was up at 7AM  and dolled up by 8 AM to catch the tube. Had I been under surveillance, I probably would have looked funny as I walked into the Brewery. I remember the slight bounce in my steps due to my excitement to exhaust myself with mental notes and to just plain geek out.

Out of 686 delegates from 93 cities and 39 countries that were in attendance, there were only about two dozen women and I was one of them.

I was probably the only person below the age of 30 too. Imagine the feeling of  weaving through a crowd of mostly 50-year-old ash-haired men.

They were looking at me like I was a student. I even caught some of them covertly reading my badge, probably checking if it really says “Architect”. To justify my presence, I did my best to be extra eloquent and esoteric whenever I was approached. Not only was I younger than everyone else, I was also an architect from a developing country and a woman on top of it all. So, as you can see, out of all the probable reasons why someone may be overlooked at a professional summit, I got a perfect score. But thanks to my sizeable collection of awkward moments in the past dealing with circumstances similar to this one, I have learned to survive just fine. In fact, the challenge to beat the perennial “first impression” that people in my profession have of me has now become a source of personal amusement.

Obvious to many, architecture is a male-dominated field. The change in modern statistics may have been theoretically uplifting but the reality of this practice still dictates the expected:  women in this occupational culture, despite being equally competent as their male colleagues, are susceptible to being discriminated against and outnumbered.

I spend  99% of my time with a pack of wolves. Sometimes getting my ideas across is a boxing match and I am but the unknown journeyman. Being underestimated has become so ordinary to me that I’ve grown to answer the bell for the twelfth round swinging. I realised that I have to put on a formidable swag or I will be eaten alive.

This pretty much describes my normal day on the job.

In a profession that has evolved tremendously over the past thousands of years, only two significant milestones have made its mark so far.  The first was in 2004, the year when Zaha Hadid became the first ever female to be granted the most prestigious award in architecture. She joined a roster of 26 men.  The second was in 2011 when the famous toy company Mattel officially made history by releasing their signature Barbie in her most badass version: Architect Barbie.


Unfortunately, her debut was marked with a supersonic buzz. Beyond those who perceived her as a symbol of the emergence of women in a men’s world, there were also many who turned her away due to her bad stereotyping of women in this important profession. Some even saw her as the architect version of Elle Woods―a dumb blonde at first glance, never mind that she was really intelligent. Why Architect Barbie was wearing a dress and not a black pantsuit also became a big topic of discussion.

What I find significant about the toy’s arrival is that somehow it challenged the idea of how women, as a minority in this field, should present themselves. Is a pantsuit really preferred by many because it’s comfortable and more sophisticated? Or is it a choice we as women architects subconsciously predetermined in order to camouflage ourselves and blend in with the opposite gender? Should Architect Barbie be penalized for shaking up the status quo in a field where women have only started to gain the respect that is due them? Or did she actually just empower us to express our femininity in an oppressive and prohibitive environment?

Sure, I agree that the good ole’ pants-and-blazer combo is better-suited to fit a typical architect’s day-to-day activities. You would never find me in a dress and platform booties while inspecting a 30-storey high-rise building. However, I have to admit, there is something incredibly liberating about occasionally wearing my femininity out in the open on the job. There is really just something empowering about being comfortable in your self-made costume that it allows you to be more assertive and more relentless in the professional arena.


I think it is important to understand the message encapsulated in Architect Barbie: for the women who have undergone professional insecurity, for the women who are victims of piercing scrutiny, for the women who have lost authorship of their ideas, let a simple toy serve as encouragement. Let her plasticity teach of resilience and her fixed smile be a reminder of maintaining grace despite being faced with the threat of hostility.

You violate no crime in following your calling. Women can do (anything) and you should pursue.

P.S: Suddenly considering getting my first Barbie. I bet it will look perfect right next to my Ninja Turtles.

Photo credit: Urbdezine and Seattle Times

Photos used under the Fair Use Exemption of the IP Code.


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