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Women Advancing Into Firm Leadership

Ursula Twombly, FAIA, a seminal figure in Wisconsin’s architectural design community, has partnered with architect Pat Frost, AIA, to create a unique class for women to create their own paths to leadership within their architecture firms.

Twombly, whose portfolio of work includes dozens of high-profile projects including Milwaukee’s St John’s on the Lake Retirement Community, the Clock Shadow Building, and the Milwaukee Job Corps Center, retired in 2016 from Continuum Architects + Planners, the firm she founded with two partners in 1996.

Both Twombly and Frost left their roles at local firms when they realized that a path to ownership did not exist for them. Like Twombly, Frost had worked with another firm for ten years before launching her own, PACE Architects, SC, where she was a managing principal for over 30 years.

Strengthen the Path from Within

The time was right post-retirement for Twombly to wrap some structure around an idea that had been brewing for a while: create a class that would provide a knowledge base and specific tools for women to try to implement change within their firms. Women Advancing into Firm Leadership was born.

“Why do women continue to represent only 20% of licensed architects in architecture firms? In Milwaukee, only a handful of women architects are in leadership roles in the larger firms. Instead of encouraging women to necessarily start their own firms, we are working to strengthen paths to ownership for women within their existing corporate firms. We believe that with even a small increase of women shareholders within these firms, their active presence will start to change conversations, will advance more family-friendly work environments, and will more likely assure that women employees in general are as equally supported and promoted as their male counterparts.”

A second equally important aim is to create a stronger network of professional women leaders from various firms within architecture, engineering, and construction (A/E/C), who will support each other, and subsequently, positively impact overall business practices within A/E/C industries.

Curriculum content includes information on paths to leadership that includes specifics, like types of financial structures, organizational structures, incorporation documents, buy/sell agreements, etc. During the second half of each class session, participants can voluntarily share not only personal experiences, but also, pose probing questions and offer observations that further educate the entire group.

Class Format

To date, Pat and Ursula have taught this annual series of classes three times, always during the fall months. The class series consist of five two-hour sessions which are held bi-monthly. Often the final session on leadership is moderated by Lisa Kennedy, FAIA, Vice President of Design and Construction, Manna, Inc.

In addition, all past participants are invited to follow-up evening workshops with area leaders who help to drill deeply into any number of pertinent topics that may, or may not, have been addressed in the class.

At last year’s Workshops:

  1. Principals at Kahler Slater Architects, Zimmerman Design Group, HGA and Rinka discussed paths to leadership within their firms.
  2. Three women shareholders discussed their paths within their respective careers and firms. They were Kristen Ruethling Dufek, VP at Eppstein Uhen Architects; Lori Rosenthal, VP, Board Member and Milwaukee Facilities Group Leader at GRAEF; and Paula Verboomen, VP and Great Lakes Office Director at HGA Architects and Engineers.
  3. Life-Work balance challenges and effective self-advocacy tactics were explored.

Class size is intentionally small at 8–10 women (the class is also open to men of color) who are asked to commit to attendance as best they can. Cost is nominal at $50.00 and covers costs of snacks and a donation to the Lillian and Willis Leenhouts Memorial Scholarship at the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee, School of Architecture and Urban Planning (SARUP).

The Vision

The goal is to see women in A/E/C advancing into leadership within two to six years. Outcomes so far have included increased conversations with respective principals; engagement resulting in a firm establishing clearer paths to shareholder and leadership roles; and in some cases, departures from firms where no identifiable paths existed.

During the 2019 fall series, Ursula and Pat intend to include a focus on pay equity within an overall salary discussion. “We’re also noodling a topic around how to engage male architects as allies, and perhaps raise some keener awareness about subconscious bias,” said Ursula.

A range of ten to 20 years of work experience is the sweet spot for an attendee’s career level. In other words, professional women who have put some time in and now better comprehend the dynamics and challenges of their firm’s practice. Twombly claims, “After the first ten years of boots-on-the-ground efforts to establish strongholds in their architectural communities, individuals often start to seriously ask, ‘What is my long-term goal?’”

For more information on dates, times and locations please contact Ursula Twombly at

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