8 Trailblazing Women in Philly’s Health-Care Revolution

The forces driving Philly medicine are increasingly female. Meet the women at the forefront of the movement.

women health-care leaders

Zarina Ali is one of the women health-care leaders driving the revolution. Photograph by Trevor Dixon

The forces driving Philly medicine are increasingly female. Meet eight of the revolution’s trailblazers.

Zarina Ali

Assistant professor of neurosurgery, the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania

Badge of honor: She’s the first female neurosurgeon at Pennsylvania Hospital, one of the oldest hospitals in the country.

How does it feel to be a woman leader in a male-dominated field? It’s an opportunity for the growth of neurosurgery and medicine. I believe that any form of diversity — in this case, gender — brings with it the opportunity to think of problems differently and tackle them in a way that has not been previously addressed. When you open the doors to that type of creativity and innovation, you can advance in any field. I view my role as a female neurosurgeon as an opportunity to drive a unique and differentiated approach to improving patient care.

What is the secret to your professional success? A love of what I do is a huge motivator for me. It fosters an intense loyalty and dedication, which is supported by an intense work ethic. While you must love what you do, this by itself is an insufficient recipe for success — it must come with a, strong work ethic. This passion and drive, together, compound and enhance my professional satisfaction.

She said it: “It’s not just about doing a perfect operation. It goes far beyond that. I have the opportunity to take care of people at a very vulnerable stage in their life. Let’s be honest — no one is excited to see a neurosurgeon. So when I have the opportunity to care for patients, they are my patients wholeheartedly.”

women health-care leaders

Photograph by Trevor Dixon

Dixie James

President and chief operating officer, Einstein Medical Center Philadelphia, Einstein Medical Center Elkins Park, MossRehab, Willowcrest and Center One

Badge of honor: James is the first black woman to hold this role in Einstein’s 150-year history.

What woman inspires you and why? I’m inspired by the accomplishments, grace and determination of many women, but my grandmother stands out among them. She came to this country from Trinidad as an adult, determined to make a better life for herself and her family. Without a degree or a support system in place, she found a path to homeownership and ran a daycare business in her home for more than 15 years. Her example showed me that, with God, all things are possible. So, it’s important to overcome limited thinking which inevitably leads to limited living. At 86 years old, she continues to inspire me: aging gracefully, trusting God in all stages of life and maintaining youthful zest.

What are you doing to ensure you continue to grow as a leader? I believe you can’t improve what you don’t acknowledge. So, to grow as a leader I seek honest feedback and constructive criticism whenever and wherever possible. I take advantage of seasoned mentors, coaches and courses to expand my thinking and understanding. I also surround myself with people I trust and value to provide honest responses and hold me accountable.

She said it: “Great leadership starts as an ‘inside job,’ focusing first on demonstrating and maintaining a high degree of personal integrity. Far too often, charisma takes people to levels where their character can’t — and won’t — keep them. Being principled, fair, honest and unwavering on- and off-stage are the hallmark qualities of a great leader — the type of leader I would follow and the type of leader I strive to embody.”

women health-care leaders

Photograph courtesy Jefferson University Hospital

Edith Mitchell

Founding director of the Center to Eliminate Cancer Disparities, Jefferson University Hospitals 

Badges of honor: Mitchell is no stranger to achieving firsts. In her 40-year career, she was the first female physician in U.S. Air Force history to achieve the rank of brigadier general and the first female medical oncologist to serve as president of the National Medical Association, the nation’s oldest professional society for black physicians. Most recently, Mitchell was the first black woman to receive the PHL Life Sciences’ Ultimate Solution Award, a yearly honor given to an individual or organization that has raised Philadelphia’s profile as a life sciences meeting and convention destination.

What is your favorite place in Philly and why? The Museum of the American Revolution. It is a constant reminder of individuals and events that shaped the fabric of this country, laying the groundwork for current events and individuals to succeed.

What’s one big leadership lesson you’ve learned in your career? Communication with others is one of the most important characteristics. Internal communication with peers, subordinates, organizational leadership and supporting workers are important for gaining recognition and trust — I bring holiday treats to the security and janitorial staff. External communications are most important in enhancing personal and organizational capabilities.

She said it: “Since age three, my aspiration was to become an outstanding physician. As I recognized that the medical treatment of blacks was inferior to that of whites, one of my goals was to change that situation. I developed a goal of addressing disparities in health care.”

women health-care leaders

Photograph by Trevor Dixon

Maria Oquendo

Chairwoman of the Department of Psychiatry, the Perelman School of Medicine

Badges of honor: Oquendo became the first Latina president of the American Psychiatric Association in 2016 and was elected to the National Academy of Medicine, one of the highest honors in the fields of health and medicine.

How do you handle being a woman leader in a male-dominated field? While about 50 percent of medical students today are women, leadership remains mostly male. For example, in schools of medicine, at the assistant professor level, there are many women. However, at the full professor level and at the chairman level, it remains preponderantly male across the country and the world. I attended an all-girls high school in Puerto Rico and have missed the “sisterhood” since then. Everywhere I go, I try to reproduce it. As I have assumed more senior leadership positions throughout my career, I have found that having a close-knit group of women colleagues becomes more challenging. I have to work harder at it because there are fewer women leaders at higher levels. That makes it feel lonesome at times. While women are less likely to be treated in an overtly discriminatory way today, micro-aggressions — whether deliberate or unconscious — are still quite common. They occur all the time. Steeling oneself and working to not take these occurrences personally is essential. But it is a lot of work.

What’s one leadership lesson you’ve learned in your career? There are a series of interconnected lessons that have helped inform who I am as a leader. The first is that being a leader is about service to others, it is not about being “the boss.” As a leader, your job is to facilitate your team’s ability to meet the mission of the organization. That means that you work to make their jobs as doable as possible. Relatedly, it is critical that you not be the loudest voice in the room. Having input from a diverse group of people will lead to better decisions and planning. Finally, while some of the influence of a leader arises by virtue of their position, an equally important source of influence comes from trustworthiness, transparency, and thoughtful and logical decision-making. There is no space for caprice in this type of leadership style.

Mission accomplished: In 2003, when the public began questioning the safety of antidepressants, the FDA tapped Oquendo and her colleagues to help pin down the connection between the drugs and suicide. They developed a system to define and classify what constitutes a “suicidal behavior” to ultimately determine suicidal risk. The system is endorsed by the FDA and CDC and is now used worldwide.

women health-care leaders

Photograph by Trevor Dixon

Adriana Torres-O’Connor

President and chief executive officer, Mental Health Partnerships

Badge of honor: When Torres-O’Connor was appointed to her position in 2018, she became the first Latina woman to hold these titles in the 70 years of the organization’s existence.

What is one leadership lesson you’ve learned in your career? I’ve learned to recognize that it is okay to make mistakes. Even more importantly, it is essential to acknowledge the mistakes you’ve made, own up to them, and learn from them. Additionally, I feel it is crucial to listen to other people’s perspectives and expertise.

What are some strategies that women can use to achieve more prominent roles in their organizations? Don’t be afraid to make suggestions and provide feedback. I firmly believe women should make themselves available for opportunities that highlight their interests, strengths and expertise — volunteer on a work team, network, or take the lead on a project. Women can also ask women they admire about their career paths, what they themselves need to do to move up and accomplish their own goals. Those strategies have helped me succeed in my career.

She said it: “Knowing that I have 12,000 participants and 300 staff relying on me is what keeps me going. Leading them drives me to steer the ship in a direction that will best serve both staff and participants. I work for them — it’s not the other way around.”

women health-care leaders

Photograph by Trevor Dixon

Audrey Greenberg

Co-founder and executive managing director, the Discovery Labs

Badge of honor: Greenberg manages the 1.6 million-square-foot campus at the Discovery Labs King of Prussia, one of the largest facilities for life sciences and technology in the world.

How do you balance work and life responsibilities? The concept of balance is an illusion that requires you to compartmentalize things that are really merged as one. It’s about a spiritual alignment between two worlds that most people see as separate. Dual-working parent families need three pillars of support. First, being with a spouse who sees parenting and housework as a partnership. Second, having great childcare support that you trust and rely on. Third, I work in a profession that allows me to prioritize family over work and work with a management team that is understanding, supportive and enthusiastic about spending time with family.

What’s one leadership lesson you’ve learned in your career? Leadership is taken, not given. Stand up for yourself and your views, and speak up. Grab your seat at the table, don’t wait to be invited. And most importantly, and one that I embrace daily, is to treat others how you want to be treated yourself. I spent many years as an investment banking analyst grinding through all hours of the night seven days a week, 365 days a year, vacations canceled, plans kaput. I can appreciate all the hard work it takes to get the job done, and thank and appreciate those that work for me and with me daily. Lead by example. Roll up your sleeves and do the hard work alongside your team members.

Up next: Greenberg is also leading the development of the Center for Breakthrough Medicines, another hub for scientific discovery and manufacturing in King of Prussia. When completed in 2021, it will be one of the world’s largest contract development manufacturing organizations for cell and gene therapy.

women health-care leaders

Photograph by Trevor Dixon

Merle Carter

Assistant vice president of Graduate Medical Education and vice chair of the Department of Emergency Medicine, Einstein Healthcare Network

Badge of honor: In 2019, Carter received the Pennsylvania College of Emergency Physicians’ Meritorious Service Award for making significant contributions to emergency medicine in Pennsylvania. She is the first black woman to receive the award and one of only three women to be so honored in the 34 years it has been given.

How does it feel to be a woman leader in a male-dominated field? When I started medical school at Yale in 1994, ours was the first class where women outnumbered men in the school’s history. It was a big deal, and not that long ago. We understood what that meant, not only for the school but for us as the next generation of female physician leaders. To reach that stage in an early career, we all knew even then as students we had to outperform our colleagues to have legitimate seats at the table, and it still feels necessary.

Often as a female leader, you find yourself the only — or one of the only — women in a room of men. Finding or creating your place and voice in that room requires often unconscious mental strategies of when to inject an opinion, what to say, and how to say it. I find that is not the same for my male counterparts. Women have to walk the fine (and frequently blurred) line of being assertive without being called aggressive or “b*tchy,” collaborative without labeled a “pushover,” and deliberative without seeming indecisive. All of these are things we subconsciously do, or worry about. At the end of each day, it’s exhausting, but we know we are forging an important path for those who come after us like our mothers and grandmothers before us. That’s what keeps me energized.

She said it: “Every organization has leadership gaps. Don’t be afraid to offer to step into them and take on a role or project that you or others identify as an organizational need.”

Grace Ma

Associate dean for Health Disparities and founding director of the Center for Asian Health, Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University

women health-care leaders

Photograph by Bill Cardoni

Badge of honor: In 2000, Ma established the Center for Asian Health, one of the first organizations in the nation dedicated to reducing cancer and health disparities among underserved Asian Americans. The center’s collaborative Healthy Chinese Takeout Initiative helps teach restaurant owners and chefs how to cook with less sodium to reduce rates of conditions like hypertension.

When you face challenges as a leader, what encourages you? Being a leader is, in itself, a challenge. The bar for effective leaders is high. As leaders, we are responsible for our organization’s vision and mission, for upholding quality, standards, and outcomes of programs. Leadership challenges are ongoing and may occur daily. We must have the ability to cope with challenges and make tough decisions. When I face challenges, I try to stay positive, motivated and focused, and develop the best coping strategies to get back on track. It is also important to engage and inspire team members and experts in strategically overcoming the challenges instead of dwelling on what is not working.

She said it: “The greatest inspiration is to see positive changes flow out of our team’s science, to see gaps of health disparities narrow, and to see health status improve at population and community levels.”

Published as “Leading Women” in the May 2020 issue of Philadelphia magazine.