Put Women in Charge

Elaine Ullian

Elaine Ullian came to Michigan in 1972 thinking she'd pick up the skills she needed to run a small feminist health center in a poor community somewhere in Boston. She left convinced there was a "much bigger world I could play in." Ullian, MPH '73, went on to make health care history - and a name for herself - as one of the first women in the U.S. to become CEO of a major academic medical center.

In the mid-1980s, at a time when just one of Boston's 60+ hospitals was run by a woman, Ullian and a dozen or so other women - all in their 30s, all health care professionals in senior management, most of them married with children - began meeting regularly with one goal in mind: to rupture the old boys' network that seemed to dictate their career paths. As Ullian later told the New York Times, "We were all working for new CEOs. We could be CEOs. But none of us was."

They called themselves Women in Health Care Management, and they took a "one-for-all" approach - working the phones, advocating for each other, talking up headhunters and politicians. By the late '80s, nearly half of them had scored top positions in health care management. Ullian herself became CEO of Boston's Faulkner Hospital in 1987. In 1994 she clinched the top job at Boston University Medical Center Hospital.

Now retired, Ullian says despite the progress she and others have made, too few women hold top jobs today. While in Ann Arbor last winter for a colloquium sponsored by the U-M SPH Griffith Leadership Center, Ullian spoke to Findings about the need for women leaders in health care:

Why is it so important to have women at the top?

Without getting into stereotypes, I think women bring a very deep sense of purpose to their work. I think it's the way we're socialized. So when women come into the health care setting, I think they are there deliberately - there is a deep connection to sense of purpose and making a difference. They're there because they believe that's a place where they can shine and contribute.

My other observation is that they have a strong spirit of team, maybe because so many women in health care have been part of care teams, and nursing and ancillary support services are all about the team delivering exceptional care. My experience of women working in health care is they celebrate the results of the team. It's not about, "I have to win, so therefore you need to lose." It's about, "What do we do for these patients, what do we do for this community today?" And that's very powerful - it's magical.

For women who want to go into health care leadership, what are the challenges?

Multiple. First of all, you have to shine in every arena. Secondly, you have to be very clear about your ambition, and I have seen a lot of women being a little apologetic for being ambitious, and a little tentative as they go after jobs or promotions or raises. We've got to lose that behavior - you have to come in confident and sure of yourself and believe you're just as good as any other candidate (if not better than the other candidates), regardless of their gender. I'm still very frustrated as a feminist that we haven't done enough of that.