Professional Education

Shattering the Glass Ceiling: Influential Women in Healthcare, Tech, Media and Science

Women have made impressive progress in recent years to overcome the gender disparities that have long been a feature of the American workplace, particularly in leadership positions. A focus on leadership education and training, as well as building stronger professional networks among women, has helped professional women more than ever elevate their careers.

There’s still a long way to go. Women make up about 50 percent of the workforce, but hold only 25 percent of C-suite positions, according to a recent study from Lean In and McKinsey & Co.  However, that same study also found that women are more proactive than ever, leaving companies at a higher rate than in the past to find better opportunities with other employers.

Women also now lead 10 percent of Fortune 500 companies. While still low, it’s the highest percentage in history and shows advancement for women leaders is trending in the right direction.

Current women CEOs, some new to the job and some who have held their positions for years, show that women have become leaders in industries where they historically have been underrepresented at the top of the organization.

  • Mary Barra (General Motors)
  • Karla R. Lewis (Reliance Steel & Aluminum)
  • Julia A. Sloat (American Electric Power)
  • Jennifer A. Parmentier (Parker-Hannifin)
  • Stephanie L. Ferris (Fidelity National Information Services)
  • Maria Black (Automatic Data Processing)
  • Lisa Su (Advanced Micro Devices)
  • Roz Brewer (Walgreens Boots Alliance)
  • Adena Friedman (NASDAQ)
  • Phebe Novakovic (General Dynamics)

Getting to this point required hard work and smart decisions by people in the past who helped pave the way for women leaders of today. They include the following women leaders in healthcare, tech, media and science.

Healthcare: Hazel W. Johnson-Brown (born 1927), nurse

Hazel W. Johnson-Brown provides an early example of a woman attaining leadership status against the odds. Her inspirational story started on a family farm in Pennsylvania. By 1979, Johnson-Brown had overcome many challenges to become the first Black woman named as a general in the United States Army and the first Black leader of the United States Army Nurse Corps.

Johnson-Brown, born in 1927, spent her early years on a farm run by her parents. She quickly became known as a gifted student and later said she knew she wanted to become a nurse from an early age.  However, when she first applied to nursing school in the 1940s after high school graduation, a Pennsylvania nursing school rejected her application because of her race.

In 1947, she enrolled in the Harlem School of Nursing in New York City. In 1955, she joined the Army Nurse Corps, serving in Japan, Korea and other posts. President Harry S. Truman had signed Executive Order 9981 in 1948, desegregating the U.S. Armed Forces.

Johnson-Brown earned promotion to brigadier general in 1979. She also took over the global Army Nurses Corp operation that same year, leading more than 7,000 nurses. She served until her retirement in 1983. She also earned a Master of Science in Nursing Education and a Doctorate in Educational Administration. Johnson-Brown also received numerous military medals, including the Army Distinguished Service Medal and a Meritorious Service Medal.

Tech: Grace Hopper (born 1906), mathematician and computer programmer

A native of New York City, Grace Hopper grew up as the oldest of three children in a family that enjoyed math. She picked up that interest early, starting down a path that led to her helping invent computer language still used today. She also became one of the U.S. Navy’s first female admirals.

As a child in New York City, Hopper enjoyed taking things apart to see how they worked – something she once did with seven alarm clocks. A good student, Hopper enrolled at 17 in Vassar College. After earning a bachelor’s degree there in mathematics and physics, she earned a master’s degree from Yale University. In 1934, she earned a doctorate in mathematics, also from Yale University.

During World War II, Hopper attempted to enlist in the U.S. Navy. However, her application was rejected because of her age (34). She then enlisted in the U.S. Navy Reserve. Hopper graduated first in her class from the Naval Reserve Midshipmen’s School at Smith College in Massachusetts in 1944. The Navy then assigned her to the Mark I computer programming staff at Harvard University Computation Lab, headed by Howard H. Aiken.

Hopper co-wrote papers on the Mark I with Aiken, part of her legacy that made her famous. After leaving Harvard, she became UNIVAC director of Automatic Programming Development for Remington Rand. She devised a programming language that allows computers to process the English language into code it understands, leading to the creation of COBOL, a programming language still in use today.

Media: Katharine Graham (born 1917), Newspaper Publisher

Katharine Graham was the daughter of Eugene Meyer, a multi-millionaire publisher who, in 1933, bought the Washington Post newspaper and gifted it to Graham’s husband, Phillip. Eugene expected Phillip would operate the newspaper while Graham filled the role of housewife and mother.

After nearly 20 years of keeping house, Graham’s world changed. Phillip lost a decades-long battle with manic depression, which left Graham and her family in a precarious situation and the Washington Post without a CEO. Graham had a de facto ownership stake in the newspaper, but no business experience. Many of the newspaper’s stakeholders expected her to sell her stake and cede ownership to one of her male peers. However, Graham held onto the leadership role, despite her lack of credentials.

Eight years after taking over the Washington Post, Graham made one of the most courageous decisions in American media history. Defying a court order, she decided to move forward with publishing the Pentagon Papers, a cache of documents that proved the American government had been lying to the public about the Vietnam War. Portions had already been published in the New York Times, but Graham’s decision moved the issue into the spotlight, exposing how the U.S. had escalated the war and kept its decisions secret from the public.

The Nixon administration threatened her and the Washington Post. However, Graham stood firm, and because of that, her legacy is immeasurable. She was the first woman to hold a CEO position in a Fortune 500 company, and her resilience, creativity, and ambition changed American journalism forever. In 2017, her life and accomplishments inspired the film “The Post,” starring Meryl Streep.

Science: Mary Jackson (born 1921), Aeronautical Engineer

Born in Hampton, Virginia, Mary Jackson grew up during an era when many thought it unusual for a woman to enter the workforce, much less a science-based industry. So, when Jackson graduated from Hampton Institute (now known as Hampton University) with a dual degree in Math and Physical Sciences, she had trouble finding work commensurate with her education.

She worked as a receptionist, a bookkeeper, a secretary and a schoolteacher. But after nine years, in 1951, she earned a position on the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory’s computing team. Despite contending with segregationist views and racial discrimination, Jackson ascended the ranks and eventually parlayed this position into an engineering career.

In 1958, she became NASA’s first Black female aeronautical engineer (and likely the first one anywhere in the world). She spent 20 years studying the boundary layer effects on aerospace vehicles traveling at supersonic speeds—authoring about a dozen reports on the subject—and her research became a foundational part of NASA’s work. The 2016 film “Hidden Figures” focuses on Jackson and other Black women who were central to the success of NASA’s early space program.

Later in life, Jackson personified the type of networking that can help women elevate the careers of other women. Jackson accepted the demotion to work as an administrator in the Equal Opportunity Specialist field, helping women and people from minority groups receive appropriate recognition for their work and better career opportunities.

Through SMU Continuing and Professional Education, you can learn how to apply essential leadership strategies in your career by learning from industry practitioners who have experience in global learning design, human capital strategies, HR management, strategic planning, coaching and diversity, equity, and inclusion.

For more information, visit the Women in Leadership program page or call a student success representative at 469-619-9940.