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Nonprofit Leadership, the Gender Gap, and Architect Barbie: A Conversation with Wanda Bubriski

Nonprofit Leadership, the Gender Gap, and Architect Barbie: A Conversation with Wanda Bubriski

By
Victoria Solan
 |
Jan 2, 2014

In the fall of 2012, SAH formed its first Professional Development Committee, and charged the group with the task of exploring how SAH might support the diverse professional needs and ambitions of its members. The following exchange between committee members Victoria Solan, an independent historian, and Wanda Bubriski, founding executive director of the Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation, is intended to start a conversation about how different career paths can unfold within the realm of architectural history. This blog post is also intended to draw attention to the varied professional roles available to our members, and to explore how one’s workplace expectations can change over time.

Architect Barbie
From Bauhaus to Dreamhaus—Architect Barbie on a recent site visit. Photo credit: Wanda Bubriski.

Let’s start by talking about how you became a member of the Society of Architectural Historians. When did you join and what roles have you played in the organization?

I’m a member of SAH’s Quarter-Century Club—meaning I’ve been a member for over 25 years—and joined when I was, well, in grade school obviously. I just finished a three-year term on the Board during which I served on the membership committee, and now on the Professional Development Committee. At Annual Meetings, I’ve given papers and co-chaired a session. On behalf of the Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation (BWAF), I hosted several receptions and a film screening of A Girl is a Fellow Here” ~ 100 Women Architects in the Studio of Frank Lloyd Wright.

From 2004 through 2012, you were the founding director of the BWAF, a nonprofit organization dedicated to increasing the visibility of women’s contributions to the building industry. Where did you gain the skills to lead such an organization? Is this the kind of position that you envisioned you would be in when you finished your graduate education? What kind of adjustments did you make along the way?

My formal education never included something like “Introduction to Running a Nonprofit” —perhaps the closest thing was a graduate seminar in museum studies. My experience with advocacy and organizing started in high school, which developed into a deep commitment to public education and outreach. While working with the Sierra Club in Washington, D.C., I learned some effective strategies for leading campaigns and came to understand how a nonprofit functions. A big adjustment from the academic world to that of the nonprofit realm is moving from individual scholarship to a collective goal. Nonprofit leadership involves both inspiring and enabling others to realize the organization’s mission.

Many SAH members, each at different stages in their careers, are trying to figure out how to navigate an imperfect world and forge something new for themselves or for others. One of the goals of this interview series is have SAH members share their concerns at different stages in their careers. May I ask how your professional priorities changed over the years? Have some of the concerns and challenges from the outset of your career eased, or intensified? 

My concerns have intensified. It seems like an endless loop: the more learned reveals how much more we need to learn about the gender challenges facing us all. “Unforgetting Women Architects: From the Pritzker to Wikipedia,” the memorable and apt title of the recent essay by Despina Stratigakos published in the online journal Places, reminds us why we forget—including access to primary material and perhaps not enough of what Gwendolyn Wright calls “hubristic self-affirmation.”1 Stratigakos cites an incident this spring on the German Wikipedia site—where a post about Thekla Schild, one of the first women trained as an architect in Germany, was entered on the site, yet within minutes was erased by a male editor, denying her existence. Stratigakos ends her piece on the value of online databases by correctly asserting that “as the long and rich history of women in architecture becomes more broadly known, it will become that much harder to ignore them.”2

We could say the same for architectural historians as well. SAH has the potential to fill a huge gap. For example, there are three glaring issues that I believe are pertinent to SAH members and point to a need for SAH to collect data:

  1. Publishing – It’s key to career success, but works by women comprise less than one-third of scholarly publishing.3 Let’s count up the articles and reviews published in JSAH from the past 10 years based on gender—is the female-male percentage equal, and does it reflect the same gender distribution of SAH membership?  
  2. Chronic Wage Gap between Men and Women – A female full professor at a doctoral institution makes 90.3% of what her male colleague earns, or 87.3% when aggregated into all institutions with academic rank.4
  3. The SAH Leaky Pipeline – Collect gender data on recent graduates over the past 10 years—who gets academic jobs, and who doesn’t? Is there a parallel here with architectural practice—which is fraught with variables that have little to do with design talent but a lot of other things including access to power such as clients and patrons?

What if SAH helped to Divert the Pipeline toward career options outside of academia? I am hoping that the SAH Professional Development Committee will embrace such a diversion, which the approximately 20% of SAH members who are independent scholars will surely appreciate.

Much of the mainstream media, as well as a well-meaning world of career advice, deploys the word ‘balance’ to describe the placing of an appropriate boundary between work and personal responsibilities. This word doesn’t ring true for me — it seems to veil a much more difficult conflict than one might reasonably resolve with a kitchen scale. Does it work for you, or should there be another word?

I agree with you that “balance,” while desirable, is problematic—the problem being that the term invariably refers to women, not men. Do we ever hear about Mark Zuckerberg or Jeff Bezos struggling with a work-life balance? Why are men exempt from personal responsibilities? (Within the public discourse/ mainstream media that is, not necessarily within our personal domestic realms.) I believe that we have yet to understand the real questions to ask: what do the words “women” and “men” really mean? Not all women or all men are alike. If we pull apart the stereotypical generalities of the words in both academia and public discussion, how will that change the nature of the conversation?

We can’t finish this conversation without a few words from Architect Barbie. How old is she now? Where has she been lately?

I do not doubt for a second that Architect Barbie is, deep down, a closeted historian.  Since her debut at the AIA National Convention in 2011, she has attended two SAH Annual Conferences (Detroit and Buffalo). Her co-creators, historian Despina Stratigakos and architect Kelly Hayes McAlonie, infused her with a sense of the past and made sure she was a feminist. She’s been influenced by her global travels with me, and by her exposure to that eminence blanche, Beverly Willis. She has joined the women’s movement that is sweeping the country, but confesses that she’d prefer a pair of boots for walking, not teetering. Her only other worry is that historians have not proposed papers that qualify them for SAH’s annual Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation travel fellowship.

Thank you for your time. I wish you and Architect Barbie many exciting adventures, and I hope this conversation can be the beginning of a productive dialogue about professional development among SAH members.



1 Gwendolyn Wright in “Symposium Discussion: Architecture of Writing,” at Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 2009, included with A Girl is a Fellow Here, directed by Beverly Willis, (New York: BWAF, 2009), DVD.

2 Despina Stratigakos, “Unforgetting Women Architects: From the Pritzker to Wikipedia,” Places Journal at the Design Observer, 11/26/13.

3 Based on data from 1991 to 2010, as cited in “Scholarly Publishing’s Gender Gap,” in The Chronicle of Higher Education, October 26, 2012. The article highlights an analysis of six fields and 24 subfields between 1991 and 2010—itself a subset of a huge investigation of gender and publishing based on about two million papers published since 1665 in nearly 1,800 fields and drawn from the collection of JSTOR. Within the field of history, from a total of 14,733 authors, 69.2% were male and 30.8% female.

4 As cited in The Chronicle of Higher Education, 4/12/2013, p. A27; source: American Association of University Professors (http://www.aaup.org/sites/default/files/files/2013 Salary Survey Tables and Figures/Table 5.pdf). Link to the full report: http://www.aaup.org/our-work/research/annual-report-economic-status-profession

2 Comments

  1. 1 Mebel Jepara 14 Jan
    I felt there were very few resources to help a curator learn the
    business end of running a museum. Now there is a professional
    association for art museum curators and many professional development
    programs to help curators advance their careers.
  2. 2 Pauline Saliga 06 Jan
    We at SAH would welcome feedback from SAH members about programs and resources that we could organize to support your professional growth. When I was a museum curator, for instance, I felt there were very few resources to help a curator learn the business end of running a museum. Now there is a professional association for art museum curators and many professional development programs to help curators advance their careers. What can SAH do to advance the careers of people who specialize in the history of the built environment?  

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