Breaking the glass ceiling: Women soar to the top at the University of Miami

Hilarie Bass, chair of the University's Board of Trustees; Linda Neider, chair of the Faculty Senate; and Jackie Travisano, executive vice president for business and finance and chief operating officer.
By Robert C. Jones Jr.

Hilarie Bass, chair of the University's Board of Trustees; Linda Neider, chair of the Faculty Senate; and Jackie Travisano, executive vice president for business and finance and chief operating officer.

Breaking the glass ceiling: Women soar to the top at the University of Miami

By Robert C. Jones Jr.
From the Board of Trustees to the Faculty Senate and Student Government, women hold many top leadership positions at the University.

They’ve flipped the script, occupying positions traditionally held by men.

Women, at a time when their numbers in top management positions across the nation have continued to stall, now simultaneously hold the most powerful leadership roles at the University of Miami, bucking a trend seldom seen in corporate America, let alone academia.

“We have women leading at every level,” said President Julio Frenk.

Indeed, from the chair of the Board of Trustees to the chair and two vice chairs of the Faculty Senate to the president and president-elect of Student Government, women have taken the reins of leadership positions at the highest levels of the University. Even among students, the leadership role of women is evident, with Emily Gossett and Abigail Adeleke serving, respectively, as president and president-elect of Student Government, and Leah Colucci serving as both the student representative on the Board of Trustees and as president of the Miller School of Medicine Student Government.

That has never happened before, said Frenk, noting that his administration also recruited the first woman to serve as its executive vice president for business and finance and COO.

“I am also very excited about the work we are doing with respect to gender and equity,” Frenk said. “Across academic fields and industries, from the natural sciences to business, from health care to law, we are engaged in both research related to issues of gender and in preparing the next generation of women leaders. As the world celebrates important milestones related to women in 2020, the U is certainly leading by example.”

Women, Frenk said, have played an important role in his life.

“I have often remarked about how fortunate I have been to have a 360-degree view of women,” he explained. “At home, my experience of interacting with women began in the womb, with my twin sister. We have four other sisters; my mother; my very influential grandmother, who lived to 106; my wife, not just as a partner but a colleague as well; and now, our two daughters.

“In my professional life, I had the privilege of having two amazing women as my bosses, both at the World Health Organization and at Harvard. And, here at the University of Miami, my predecessor is a powerful role model, Congresswoman Donna Shalala,” he continued. “These experiences have given me terrific opportunities to learn from the unique perspective women bring to bear on problem-solving and have certainly helped shape my own approach to leadership.”

If anything, the ascension of women to top leadership roles at the University is testament to an administration that “is actually walking the walk in terms of making inroads with respect to gender and other key areas of diversity,” said Linda Neider, chair of the Faculty Senate.

As evidence of that progress, Neider, who is also professor and chair of the Department of Management at the Miami Herbert Business School, pointed out that the University is committed to rectifying compensation inequities, giving the Senate Equity and Diversity Committee access to gender compensation data, and that exceptional internal personnel are now being considered for leadership positions at the institution.

“By considering internal candidates, the pool is more extensive and provides women and other qualified individuals with a pathway to advancement,” she explained, going on to note that the University in recent years has also hired exceptional external female candidates to fill positions traditionally held by men.

But across the U.S., the number of women in top leadership positions still pales in comparison to men, despite the fact that women, according to a recent Department of Labor report, represent the majority of the U.S. workforce—50.04 percent of all non-farm, payroll jobs in December.

“We are living in a time when the number of women in CEO roles at Fortune 500 companies is in the 30’s,” said Jackie Travisano, executive vice president for business and finance and chief operating officer. “That’s about 6 percent of the top executive positions. In higher education, the numbers are better, but there is still a ways to go.”

Travisano noted that a 2016 report from the National Association of College and University Business Officers showed that only about a third of leadership positions are held by women, which is roughly unchanged from the initial 2010 survey.

“There is clearly still a glass ceiling,” said Neider, adding that even when women attain leadership roles, they are often treated differently than men.

“An interesting study published in the Academy of Management Journal in 2018 by Elizabeth McClean and her colleagues showed men who speak up, particularly about change ideas, are viewed very positively as leaders,” Neider said. “Women, however, still seem to suffer from a ‘backlash effect’ when they speak their minds and may be seen as overly assertive.”

When Hilarie Bass, chair of the University of Miami’s Board of Trustees and an alumna of the School of Law, started her Bass Institute for Diversity and Inclusion, which works with top companies and law firms to identify and create effective strategies to retain and elevate more women to senior management, she was motivated by the recognition that employers, “whether it’s managing partners of law firms or CEOs of Fortune 100 companies, all recognize the economic necessity of figuring out how to utilize the best resources available,” she said. “And that means hiring, retaining and elevating women,” she pointed out.

“But what became apparent to me was that, despite people having the best of intentions, they really did not know how to achieve that goal when it comes to retaining and elevating women,” Bass continued. “It’s relatively easy to hire women as 50 percent of your new employees coming out of school, whether it’s law school, or medical school, or undergraduate studies. But every study that’s been done shows that with the initial promotion to their first management position, there are fewer and fewer women in the mix. By the time you get to the CEO level, there are less than 10 percent women left in the pipeline.”

Bass explained that if companies want to take advantage of the resources that are available, they must first examine the reality of why women are not being promoted into the upper levels of management, whether it be in a corporate setting or at a law or engineering firm.

“What you realize is that there is inherent implicit bias in the way elevations, evaluations, and compensation decisions are being done,” said Bass, former co-president of the international law firm Greenberg Traurig and a past-president of the American Bar Association. “So, despite the best intentions of CEOs, often they’re not able to turn the corner on how to minimize the impact implicit bias is having on these decisions.”

With Women’s History Month—31 days of commemorating and encouraging the study, observance and celebration of the vital role of women in American history—now underway, Bass, Neider, and Travisano weigh in and provide advice on some of the important issues facing women.

What are the biggest challenges for the generation of women coming behind you?

They still face and probably will continue to face, bias, both conscious and unconscious, in the workplace. Many organizations today have diversity training and claim they embrace differences, but the reality is quite different. Before accepting a job, look closely at the benefits that are being offered—does the organization offer and fund maternity leave and personal development? Analyze the organizational chart to assess how many women are in the c-suite, the VP level. What are the turnover statistics? Even more importantly, make sure you negotiate well for the type of package that will help you to flourish in the job. And, finally, make sure you find an organization that does want and support different viewpoints. Talk to other women who work for the organization to find out how they are treated when they offer suggestions and ideas for innovations and change.

—Linda Neider, professor and chair of the Department of Management at the Miami Herbert Business School; professor in the Department of Health Management and Policy; and chair of the Faculty Senate.

Each generation is more educated than the previous one, thereby increasing competition for leadership roles in the workplace. The future offers great promise for those entering science, technology, engineering and math fields. But, STEM is an area where women are still dramatically underrepresented. Programs like Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day at our own College of Engineering are really important to break the gender stereotypes associated with STEM fields. And, I think work-life balance will continue to be a challenge, not only for women, but for any parent who is committed to advancing their career and therefore struggling to disconnect at the end of the day. Having a strong support network among friends and family members is priceless, as is the ability to triage and prioritize the urgency of tasks.

—Jackie Travisano, executive vice president for business and finance and chief operating officer

Who were your role models?

My role models, because of the dearth of women early in my career, were all men. I had terrific senior professors in my department who were there when I needed advice, which was often, and I also worked with a number of exceptional faculty leaders through the Faculty Senate.

—Linda Neider

First and foremost, my role models were my parents. My father was a pathologist and professor at the University of Pittsburgh medical school and my mother was a neonatal intensive care nurse. They both gave very generously of their time and talents to causes they believed in. My mother was a 10 out of 10 on the “mom” scale, and she always continued to learn new things. Professionally, I’ve had some wonderful role models, including university presidents, CEOs of industry, and nonprofit leaders. I am drawn to visionary and transformative individuals, which is why I have carved my niche in higher education. Every day I am challenged to think creatively and push the boundaries of what we are capable of accomplishing as a university. At the University of Miami, I am fortunate to collaborate with some of the top women in higher education in the entire country at the vice president, dean, and department-head levels, and I value what I have learned from them as well.

—Jackie Travisano

What advice do you have for women who aspire to leadership positions, especially those looking to grow within academia?

Women historically have been required to perform at exceptional levels to achieve a comparable level of recognition as men. So, the first thing I would say is, before you join an organization, make sure you do a deep dive into the number of women that have been successful in achieving senior leadership roles there.

—Hilarie Bass, chair of the University of Miami Board of Trustees

For academic women, my advice is to concentrate on developing an international reputation in your field before taking on any major service or administrative roles. Having legitimacy as a solid academic contributor will help you in any academic role you may aspire to later. For all women who aspire to lead, there are a number of key suggestions I make. First, is to be purposeful; know what you want and go after it. Never give up. Be resilient in the face of failure because you will not always succeed.   Second, it is essential to develop support from other women with similar aspirations. The chair of UM’s Board of Trustees, Hilarie Bass, does an outstanding job of connecting top women leaders, and through her institute, helping them develop the confidence they need to move ahead. Third, accept and internalize your accomplishments. Too many women still suffer from the Imposter Syndrome and fail to understand the value of developing their unique brand.

—Linda Neider

The current generation entering the workforce is the most ethnically and racially diverse of any generation in U.S. history, so I advise young women to become adept at working collaboratively and inclusively in diverse environments. Be sure to engage people from all backgrounds in conversations that bring their fresh perspectives to the table. When a woman is seen as a conduit for ideas and innovations that reach the decision-makers, she will be recognized in the workplace.

I also encourage women to take advantage of every leadership training and educational opportunity available to them. And, that can be challenging due to scheduling and things, but it’s a must. At the University, our Talent and Organizational Development team has an incredible curriculum of programs that prepare employees for leadership roles. Not only do these programs teach individuals new skills, they introduce them to other leaders at the institution who can become role models and friends.

Most importantly, I advise women not to be afraid of being their authentic self and to speak up in meetings with the confidence that they are talented and qualified to be who they are and do what they do.

—Jackie Travisano

What can men do to become better allies and supporters of women who are in leadership roles and who strive to attain leadership roles?

Men can ensure that when women make points in meetings, their voice is heard. There are so many occasions when a woman will lend her voice and opinion(s) in group settings, only to have a man raise the same point later who is then recognized for the idea. Men can help by saying, “Yes, that’s the point Susan made a few minutes ago, and I agree, it’s a good one.” Men can continue to recruit, hire, mentor, and promote women throughout the organization and raise their own voices when they feel that discrimination or bias, in any form, is present.

—Linda Neider

I always say there is a special place in heaven for men who promote and mentor women. One of the most important things men can do to support women in leadership positions is to actively dismantle any obstacles to their progress, whether that means confronting bias within themselves or others; acknowledging the contributions of female colleagues, particularly in public settings; or ensuring that women aren’t treated any differently than male colleagues. And, to be diligent and purposeful in making sure that pay is equitable between men and women.

—Jackie Travisano