Perspective - Shattering the Glass Ceiling

March 1993

Ms. Weiss, past president of Women in Health Administration of Southern California, runs a healthcare consulting firm in Santa Monica.

In 1971, while a senior at Michigan State University, I conducted a national survey of 500 women media professionals to learn about their careers, opportunities for advancement, and the challenge of combining work with a family.

I was optimistic. My first paying job had been as a sports writer, and I believed women had many opportunities. But I was wrong. The survey results were discouraging for any woman who hoped to someday move beyond the city pages and out of the women’s section into the office of editor or manager. I found women communicators were paid less than men, often treated badly, and usually offered no hope of advancing beyond their present role.

Skip ahead to 1979. With experience as a healthcare manager, I thought it was time to revisit the subject--this time with women healthcare executives. So I interviewed a handful of them for an article in Healthcare Forum. What these women had to say about their status, salary, and opportunities was almost as grim as the information women communicators had provided eight years earlier. In fact, women seemed to be losing ground in healthcare. The highest positions in hospitals had traditionally been held by women religious and nurses. But although women represented more than 80 percent of the nation’s healthcare workforce and over half the graduates of health administration programs, men were at the helm of the majority of the nation’s hospitals. Now, with the number of women religious declining, most men and women agree that it could be decades before women again play a dominant role in healthcare.

Then again, they could be wrong. The last two U.S. surgeons general have been women, as is our current secretary of Health and Human Services. The American Hospital Association will soon have a woman chairperson, as will the National Association for Home Care. Moreover, women are playing increasingly important roles in non—acute care settings such as long-term care, managed care, ambulatory services, and consulting.

And then there’s Farah Walters.

The new president and chief executive officer (CEO) of University Hospitals of Cleveland and University Hospitals Health System is the nation’s only woman CEO of a private university health system. She bears responsibility for overall direction of the health system, which includes the 947-bed University Hospitals; QualChoice, an innovative managed care company; and University MEDNET, a multispecialty group. The system has annual gross revenues exceeding $500 million.

Walters provides evidence that taking risks, loving your job, and insisting that others treat you with respect are key to executive advancement for both women and men. And although her story is unique, it contains lessons for all of us who continue to pursue our dreams.

Early Obstacles
In her rise to the top, Walters faced many obstacles that might have caused others to abandon their quest. She received an early lesson in how difficult her path would be as a freshman at Ohio State University 28 years ago. An 18-year-old from Iran, she was the one woman in an advanced calculus class with 40 men, most in their ROTC uniforms.

"I had gone to a private girls’ school in Tehran, where we were expected to do important things with our lives," Walters said in a keynote address at a Women’s Options Conference in Cleveland. "My school had graduated young women who would go into medicine and engineering and the physical sciences and banking. When I came to this country, I was fully prepared academically to major in physics. However, in no way was I prepared for the blatant sexism that existed."

The male students in her calculus class--as well as the male professor--constantly made jokes, often sexual, aimed at her. "My only saving grace was that I barely spoke English, which meant I mercifully missed out on the worst of it."

She lived in a dorm with 700 women, only two of whom planned to major in physical sciences. In 1964 it was considered abnormal for a woman to go into physics. So she gave up on physics, she explained, "not because I couldn’t handle the academic rigor, but because I perceived of myself as being odd--a young woman wanting to major in physical science."

Real Change
Have times changed? In 1982, having established a national reputation in nutrition and management, Walters decided to enroll in an executive MBA program. In some ways the situation she encountered was remarkably similar. The class had 5 women and 42 men. "They were mostly from industries that had not been kind to women. And they were, for the most part, Neanderthal in their thinking vis-à-vis women," she said, "which meant I had to listen to many jokes directed toward or about women."

But Walters herself had changed. And although conservative male biases toward women persisted, society was beginning to make room for more enlightened attitudes.

"This time I was old enough to handle it. I understood that the fault lay not in me but in these unfortunate men who had missed the meaning of the revolution of the twentieth century: Women not only belonged in ‘their’ executive MBA program, but could be a great resource for American business."

The experience showed Walters three things. "First I had matured enough not to let the shortcomings of others affect my view of my own worth. Second, women still had far to travel to gain equality. And third, there had been, in fact, a change among some men. This time the professors were not a party to sexist activities, nor were many of the younger men in the class. Change--real change--was taking place."

The Final Jump
The final jump for Walters took place a year ago, when University Hospitals began its national search for a new CEO. At the time she was the system’s senior executive vice president. Although the board of trustees named her acting president, it still conducted a nationwide search for a replacement. The board narrowed the field to 12 men and Walters, then to four men and Walters. During the search she received 700 to 800 letters of support from clinical chairpersons, division chiefs, senior managers, and hospital employees, as well as community leaders. In the end, the search committee--all but one of whom were men--voted unanimously to select Walters.

On more than one occasion during the search process, Walters was ready to withdraw her name from consideration. "I simply did not believe I would be selected--not because I didn’t think I was the best qualified for the position, but because I feared I would bump up against the infamous glass ceiling."

But Walters persisted, realizing that if she gave in to her doubts, she would be reinforcing the biases women must learn to challenge. "In the end, it may not be the closed-minded men of this world who are women’s biggest enemies," she says, "but we ourselves. We must be willing to try, even if we sometimes do not succeed."

Walters urges others to credit earlier women who helped make gains like hers possible. "Those of us who have achieved a measure of success and power must never forget to look out for other women and minorities. We must use our power to become agents of change, as did the women before us. We must reach out to help others."

She also believes that for anyone--male or female--to succeed, the person must take some risks and be willing to change. "It’s time to treat change as wonderful, exciting, exhilarating, and energizing. Look at change as something to embrace rather than to shun, something to feel comfortable with rather than to fear."

Another option women often fail to consider, according to Walters, is "the option to be yourself. Find what makes you happy and then do it. For me, being true to myself means not being trapped into what I think others are thinking, like, ‘She’s too feminine,’ or ‘She’s too tough.’ There are times when I must be tough because in any organization someone has to make the hard decisions. I do not apologize for it."

Walters learned a very important lesson from her father: "Don’t let people treat you the way that they feel you should be treated. Have people treat you the way you should be treated." It is advice Walters continues to follow today.

The Future?
What can women expect in the future? Only 2 percent of CEOs participating in a recent Fortune magazine poll believed their companies would have a woman CEO within the next 10 years, and only 18 percent within 20 years. But Walters sees enormous growth in the number of two-income, professional families--men and women of the 30-something generation who have learned to work with mutual respect. "As those men and women begin their rise in corporations, they will be less likely to expect either gender to act in stereotypical ways, and less likely themselves to act in adversarial roles," Walters says.


Copyright © 1993 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3477.

Analysis - Two Collaborative Organizations Improve Care Delivery

Copyright © 1993 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3490.