Lucas Blair

Julia Murphy, AIA, restarted Skidmore, Owings & Merrill’s Women’s Initiative in 2010 when she and her colleagues realized the firm didn’t have any women partners. “It was somewhat palpable,” Murphy says, of the lack of female leadership at the time. Marilyn Jordan Taylor, FAIA, had first launched the initiative in 2004; Murphy and her colleagues took the reins and helped the firm confront unconscious bias and make structural changes. They focused in particular on professional development, including preparing young hires for accreditation exams. After its first year, 33 percent more women became licensed at SOM than in the previous year.

Today, each of the firm’s offices has its own iteration of the Women’s Initiative, overseeing programs that include annual shadowing internships, public speaking training, and mentoring. Murphy, who has been at SOM for a decade, is now an adviser to the Women’s Initiative rather than its leader. She’s particularly mindful not to steer younger women away from revisiting problems the initiative tackled in the past. “We are talking about cultural change and the pace of that is often quite slow. There are certain conversations that we have to revisit often in order to keep goals in sight,” Murphy says.

This past March, the Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation (BWAF) awarded Murphy its Tribune Award, which recognizes leadership in improving gender equity. BWAF executive director Cynthia Phifer Kracauer, AIA, says that Murphy continues SOM’s tradition of empowering “a few extraordinary women who are able to ‘break through’ into the public view.” Two years ago, with BWAF, Murphy launched the Emerging Leaders program, which helps young professionals to connect with the design field’s most accomplished female leaders. “We’ve gotten master class notes from the generation pioneering before us,” Murphy says of the program, noting that she sees a great generosity across generations. “Women want to help each other make it through.”

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