Women Leading SOM to Greater Heights

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Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM), one of the world’s largest architecture & engineering firms, started out as a small practice in Chicago, by architects Louis Skidmore and Nathaniel Owings, in 1936. Three years later, they were joined by engineer John Merrill and moved into an office in New York, establishing the name Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. SOM today, takes pride in having designed various landmarks across the world, including Burj Khalifa in Dubai, One World Trade Centre in New York, and Tianjin CTF Finance Centre in China. Over the decades, SOM has grown into an international brand with more than a thousand staff, across nine offices around the globe, almost always run by men in the lead.

It was only in 2001 that a woman became chair of the firm for the first time. Marilyn Taylor, who was then a partner at the New York office, and person in charge of urban design and planning, was chosen to lead the company for a two-year term.

After Taylor’s term ended, SOM decided to let a committee of three partners, one each from the Chicago, New York, and San Francisco offices, run the company. As it turned out, these leading partners were always men, until 2016, when Carrie Byles joined the committee as a partner in the San Francisco office. She was joined by Xuan Fu, from the Chicago office, in 2019 followed by Laura Ettelman, from the New York office, in 2020, finally making SOM one of the few architectural firms entirely run by women.

Carrie Byles, Xuan Fu, and Laura Ettelman – the female trio running SOM. (som.com)

Who are these women who have taken the reins at SOM?

Carrie Byles FAIA, is a digital design specialist with a B.A.&Sc. in architecture from Washington State University. Byles brings together technology and design in her projects at SOM, finding new ways to use BIM software to attain the most environment-friendly results. Being a LEED AP, she ensures her projects promote sustainability in architecture. She has also contributed to successfully setting up virtual offices at SOM during the pandemic lockdown situation, thus keeping the firm and its projects going.

Xuan Fu holds a B.Arch. from Beijing University of Civil Engineering and Architecture and an M.Arch. from Ball State University College of Architecture and Planning in Muncie, Indiana. Leading SOM’s office in China, Fu is mostly involved with planning skyscrapers and commercial projects like the Jin Mao Tower in Shanghai, the Zhongshan Expo Centre, and Poly Skyline Plaza in Guangdong.

Laura Ettelman FAIA got her B.Arch. from Cornell University, and with over 30 years of experience, runs SOM’s New York office as well as its global practice in India. Ettelman is best known for managing large-scale projects with complex construction and operational requirements like university campuses and transportation hubs. Her portfolio mostly includes airports such as the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj International Airport – Terminal 2, in Mumbai, the Toronto Pearson International Airport – Terminal 1, and the new terminal at the Kansas City International Airport.

The Women’s Initiative at SOM

During her reign, Taylor had started ‘The Women’s Initiative’ – an advocacy group for mentoring female employees at the firm and creating awareness amongst senior leadership about the various obstacles women endure on their paths to work advancement. After Taylor left the firm, the initiative initially launched in the New York office was taken forward by Julia Murphy and is now incorporated in all of SOM’s offices.

As evident from the current executive committee, the initiative has brought about significant changes in the management policies at SOM, giving female architects equal opportunities and pay, taking their input and struggles into consideration. Currently, SOM is also working towards achieving equality among the genders in the number of staff and partners across all its offices.

Written by K. C. Sabreena Basheer

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