Charting the Path: Three Generations of Women on Their Careers in Architecture

In honor of Women’s History Month, current and former SOM partners gathered to discuss gender equity in the profession.

10 min readMar 22, 2024
SOM partner Julia Murphy leads a tour of Manhattan West. Photo: Lucas Blair Simpson © SOM

Women have played a pivotal role in leading SOM’s projects and practice for several generations, starting in the 1950s. Their contributions are all the more notable in a profession that has continued to struggle with gender equity. Much progress has been made since our firm rose to prominence in the mid-century era, when design leaders such as Natalie de Blois never received the recognition they deserved. Today, women make up nearly half of our global staff, and three women partners lead our all-female executive committee. But more work remains to be done.

To learn about the challenges women in architecture have faced and how we can continue making progress toward gender equity, Marti Gottsch, chair of the SOM Women’s Initiative, brought together three remarkable leaders from our firm’s past and present: Diane Legge, who in 1982 was the first woman to become a partner; Marilyn Jordan Taylor, who in 1985 became lead partner for the urban design and transportation practices, as well as the firm’s chairperson in the early 2000s; and Julia Murphy, a current partner who continues to champion equity at SOM and throughout the profession.

Marti Gottsch: Your careers span from the 1970s to the present, and I’m curious to know about your early years at SOM. There were very few women in leadership positions when each of you started. What challenges did that present?

Marilyn Taylor: I was lucky. I walked into SOM’s Washington, D.C., office, straight out of school, to ask for an interview. It was a small office that was supporting Nat Owings’ work with the White House to make the National Mall more inviting. That project was a great lesson in the value of the public realm, a lesson that has always stayed with me.

The office was congenial. There was one woman who was in charge of the construction documents, but the team was 90 percent men.

New York partners in 2000. Left to right: David Childs, Carl Galioto, Marilyn Taylor, Stephen Apking, Peter Magill, Anthony Vacchione, Mustafa Abadan, T.J. Gottesdiener, Gary Haney, Roger Duffy. © SOM

Diane Legge: Even in college, we were always with the guys. I went to Stanford’s engineering school, where I graduated in 1972 as one of two women in a class of about 200.

Julia Murphy: When I started at SOM in 2008, all the leaders were men. There was definitely a feeling of underrepresentation. Architecture schools had moved closer to a 50–50 split between men and women, and I remember others saying that we just had to wait for that wave of women to come. But architecture was still dominated by men — especially in design roles — so it was going to take some work.

Marilyn: Shortly after I became the firm’s chairperson, I had the chance to meet Natalie de Blois, who designed some of SOM’s most important projects in the 1950s and 1960s but was never made a partner. We were both invited to speak at Columbia University. I was nervous as could be. Here was this remarkable woman who never was allowed to advance herself, and yet she spoke with such a sense of fulfillment about her career. It was extraordinary. I was practically ready to cry. She told me, “Now it’s your turn. You have to take the lead.”

Marti: Diane, you were the first woman to become a partner at SOM, in 1982, and Marilyn became a partner four years later. In our Women’s Initiative meetings, we often discuss how to chart a pathway toward a leadership role. What were the key factors that brought you both to that role?

Diane: I learned early that you had to be a rainmaker. You had to get new clients and find new work with old ones. But to do that, you needed men to help.

The first big project I was in charge of was the Chicago Tribune printing plant. The client group was all men, of course. Once, we were getting ready for a big presentation to the chairman of the board, and one of the guys took me aside and said, “Are you going to wear a cocktail dress tomorrow?” I was taken aback. But the chairman later went to Bruce Graham, who was a partner in Chicago, and told him how happy he was to work with me.

Chicago Tribune Freedom Center, 1982. © Gregory Murphey

Marilyn: You needed support from outside the firm before you could grow within it, especially as a design leader. That’s just how it was. For me, a turning point came when one of our clients went to the partners and said, “You better make her a partner, or she’s going to leave and have a better practice than you do.” That was a compliment I’ll never forget. It changed the trajectory of my career.

There was definitely a cultural shift from the 1960s to the 1980s. The “Mad Men” era was a struggle for women like Natalie, but by the 1980s, nobody was saying, “Oh, well, she’s just a girl.” You might’ve been thrown out of a job for saying something like that.

Diane: There was a big change when I became partner, because I was the first partner in SOM’s history to get pregnant! The guys didn’t know what to do. They huddled and decided I could take six weeks off with no pay. Two weeks later, there was a celebration for the firm’s 50th anniversary in Chicago. It was a big deal, so I showed up. One of the partners came to me and said that if I could be there that night, then I could be back in the office for the Monday morning partners’ meeting. So, that was it. I was off for two weeks and returned to work.

Diane Legge in SOM’s Chicago office, 1986. © SOM

Julia: We’ve made a lot of really big changes. Now everyone is entitled to at least three months of parental leave.

Diane: I’m so glad to hear that. I decided to leave SOM when I was in my late 30s and had a little one in diapers. I wanted to have more kids and the flexibility to raise them.

I also wanted to take on different types of projects. I loved working on newspaper plants, learning about the equipment and the production process, but there wasn’t much desire at SOM to do that type of work. I had the opportunity to design the new Arlington International Thoroughbred Racecourse in Chicago, and I remember the partners saying that they didn’t want us working on a racecourse. But what a project! I made a tough decision to leave, and that was really hard after working my way up. The partners were disappointed. But when I left, I was able to go after those different kinds of buildings.

Julia Murphy (right) with Angelica Baccon of SHoP (left), and Cynthia Kracauer of the Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation (center) at the exhibit “Pioneering Women of American Architecture.”

Julia: I think that’s a great lesson for not only architects, but really anyone in any profession — to understand your own ambitions, and if the framework you’re working in doesn’t serve you, to find another path. I think that’s all the more courageous, because in the end, you have to follow your own compass.

The culture at SOM has also changed so much, even in just the past few years. Diane and Marilyn, you would be shocked to walk around our office at 7 p.m., because there’s practically no one here. People might still be working from home, but the culture of staying late in the office has shifted tremendously.

Marti: About a decade later, Marilyn, you became the first woman chairperson of SOM and you created the SOM Women’s Initiative. Today, the Women’s Initiative works to advance women at all levels of the firm, and we do that through a focus on mentorship and providing opportunities for professional development. I’m curious to know what form the Women’s’ Initiative took in its early days.

Marilyn: It started one day when I saw a woman in our office get up at 5:30 to go home, make dinner, and spend the evening with her kids — which was really going against the grain. This was around 2000, when architects routinely stayed late. A day or two later, I was sitting with another partner, and I asked him how many women in his studio were above the associate level. He didn’t know. I asked him to identify four women who can lead a team for an upcoming project, and he just stared at me. It wasn’t until months later that he came back and said, “I’m glad you did that,” and he identified the women he believed could grow toward those roles.

Julia: You directly challenged him to bring women into leadership positions?

Marilyn: Right, and that was the inspiration for the Women’s Initiative. We needed a platform. It was small — there still weren’t many of us — so my goal was to keep all our women enthusiastic about their work, while also giving them the chance to spend more time at home. Some of the younger partners rallied around that idea, too. I’d sneak out of the office to attend my daughter’s basketball games, and simply find time elsewhere to make up that work. You have to be there for those moments with your family. It’s good karma.

Marti: Julia, you started at SOM shortly after Marilyn decided to take on a new role as the dean of the University of Pennsylvania School of Design. The Women’s Initiative had gone dormant by then. What inspired you to revive it?

Julia: When I joined, I remember feeling that some of the more progressive parts of SOM’s history as a workplace that included women had fallen away. I knew there had been women in leadership, with four partners at one point, but suddenly there were none at that level. So I worked with a group of younger architects to learn about what Marilyn started and we brought it back. We engaged all the women in the office and all the men leading the firm, and they were very receptive to the issues we raised, like expanding parental leave and creating a pipeline for equitable growth. They understood that the old way of doing things was not sustainable. We had conversations about which women could take on new roles, lead projects, and have opportunities to demonstrate their skill and creativity.

An SOM Women’s Initiative gathering in the New York office. Photo: Lucas Blair Simpson © SOM

Having the Women’s Initiative as a platform is helpful when, as an organization, we’ve needed to make a change or take a stand on an issue. Younger people, especially, want to work at places that share their values. When Roe v. Wade was reversed, it was the Women’s Initiative that came to the partnership and said that this is a health issue, and we need to make sure everyone feels supported.

Marilyn: Amazing. It’s great to see how far you’ve come!

Julia: You got us started, Marilyn! And we’re still working at this. Almost half of our staff are women, but only five of our 21 partners are women — we still have progress ahead.

I also think that when women have a voice, we can open the door for other underrepresented groups. The Women’s Initiative became the blueprint for other employee resource groups — SOM Pride, NOMA, Arquitectos, and the Asian Alliance. These groups have become so important, especially for our junior staff, to have a sounding board. They raise issues to the partners and present ideas for improvement, and that led to us publishing an annual DEI report — which clients, especially in higher education, now ask to see.

The Women’s Initiative hosts AIA Chicago and Chicago Women in Architecture at an event in our Chicago office in 2023. Dave Burk © SOM

Marti: That is such a great point, Julia, and being able to have that kind of ripple effect on other underrepresented groups is something I have found inspirational. That leads me to the next question: What have you found most inspirational in your careers?

Marilyn: I think what got me through these years in architecture is the work and the teams around me. You grow together over the course of a project. We were creating beautiful, welcoming places, and that is such a satisfying feeling.

I spent many years working on Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor. I remember, one weekend at Penn Station in Baltimore, seeing a woman walking through the main concourse with her children. She didn’t have any baggage. She simply brought her kids to the station to admire the building. I didn’t say anything. I just stepped back and watched these kids look around. Those are things that you carry with you.

Diane: After we completed The Boston Globe’s printing plant in 1984, I came in one day to see the facility. A bunch of workers came out of the press room, and they told me, “We love it here.” They were so proud to be working in that building. That is the greatest thing anyone can tell an architect.

Boston Globe Satellite Newspaper Production Facility, 1984. © Nick Wheeler

Julia: It’s really inspiring to talk to both of you about your paths — how you made an impact at SOM and what you have done in the years since working here. There is a tremendous lesson in your resiliency and ability to continue finding new and creative outlets as architects.

Diane: Architecture is a tough profession — you have to approach it with a sense of gratitude. Be joyful when you get a great project. Be happier still when it’s successful and people love it. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a woman or not. What’s important is to be the best architect you can possibly be.




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