…the future of STEM diversity.

aug 15

Breaking Glass Ceilings: Julia Morgan

A few weeks ago I heard an excellent story on NPR (National Public Radio) about the life and accomplishments of Julia Morgan. The story provided a much-needed recharge, as I prepare for another semester teaching a new course (well, new for me anyway).

Julia Morgan was the only woman in her graduating class from Civil Engineering at UC Berkeley in 1894; however, she wasn’t the first woman to graduate with an engineering degree from UC Berkeley. The first woman to receive an engineering degree was Elizabeth Bragg in 1876 (also in Civil Engineering and also from UC Berkeley). However, being the first in something can be quite draining; feeling like a constant uphill battle. After receiving her degree, Elizabeth never worked as a professional engineer. On the bright side, the success of the first person to break through a barrier makes it all that much easier for those that come later. Allowing the next generation to move things further forward.

Perseverance - Being first and charging forward

After Berkeley, Morgan had her own experience and struggles with being the first woman in a degree granting program when she went attended École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris for architecture. Being told you will not pass an exam because you’re a woman is a challenge many women before me had to face and struggle through. Hearing about Julia’s perseverance in taking her exam four times before passing was very motivating. We rarely hear about successful people’s failures, but even the most successful people have a ton of failures that they’ve endured and moved past (Johannes Haushofer’s CV of Failures). As a young professor, I am also seeing my ‘CV of failures’ grow longer each year, as I continue to strive to receive federal support for my research (current success rate ~10%)!

Give it your best… and then some

Morgan returned to the San Francisco Bay Area after receiving her Architecture degree, which means there are many examples of her work in the area. The Bell Tower at Mills College and the pool at Berkeley City Club are just a couple of examples (See photos). Combining her background in engineering and architecture resulted in beautiful and robust buildings that were able to withstand significant earthquakes over the years (i.e., 7.8 quake in 1906, 6.9 quake in 1989) — that’s impressive!

Mills College

Over her career, Morgan designed over 700 buildings; in comparison, Frank Lloyd Wright is thought to have designed just over 425 buildings. Although her designs and work were sought out at the time, she did not receive recognition of her work through her professional community.

Berkeley Pool

Even long after death, Julia Morgan is helping to break other glass ceilings, by being the first woman to receive the AIA Gold Medal (awarded posthumously in 2014 - 57 years after her death). The AIA Gold Medal is awarded by the American Institute of Architects and is the highest award that an architect could receive from fellow architects. Hopefully, now that the AIA has been able to get over the hurdle of awarding a woman the Gold Medal, other female architects will also be recognized for their accomplishments (ideally not posthumously!).

Breaking Glass Ceilings Today

Even though Morgan pushed her way as a leader for women in engineering and architecture, there still remains a lot of boundaries for women. This past summer, Hillary Clinton broke another glass ceiling by becoming the first woman nominated for the presidency by a major political party (i.e., only Democrat and Republican parties are considered here). As an Ethiopian-American, the elections of 2008, 2012, and 2016 have reminded me that things are possible today that never seemed imaginable 20 years ago. Growing up in the 1980s and 1990s, young boys would often answer "What do you want to be when you grow up?" with "I want to become president". Now maybe it won’t seem so far fetched if a young girl provides the same response.

Glass Ceiling

To see a list of other buildings by Julia Morgan check out Landmarks California.

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