My self-imposed glass ceiling (and how I’m pushing through it)
by Dr. Kathryn D. Bass, M.D.
A few years ago, my oldest son was appalled to learn that after 15 years of practice, I was making the same salary as more junior male surgeons who had significantly less experience.
As I thought about his reaction, I realized that I was a part of the problem. I had administrative accomplishments, financial impact, and “Top Doc” peer ratings, but I had to take a harder look at my own expectations and what I was signaling.
Dean Sally Blount nicely summarizes the biggest obstacles facing a woman in her career. They definitely apply to me:
- The launch
- The child-raising years
- The transition to senior leadership
My launch was terrific. I graduated with honors from Northwestern University’s McCormick Engineering School and worked in R&D at Baxter Travenol designing heart-lung bypass oxygenators. After finishing medical school at Northwestern, I matched into a surgical residency in Boston and went on to a spot in a highly competitive fellowship in pediatric surgery, ranked fourth in the nation at the time. My first job out of training was as division chief leading two separate programs in two hospitals. I was later promoted to the associate chair of a large academic department managing medical students, residents and fellows.
Then the child rearing began in earnest with two toddlers and a nanny. The pace of my career didn’t slow, but my ability to maintain the triple threat of clinical work, teaching and research faded as the boys and their childhood called for more of me. I gave more of myself to motherhood with wholehearted enthusiasm, but in the process, I tabled important research initiatives. I felt that work would always be there but the moments and memories of childhood were fleeting.
While clinical, administrative and teaching have consumed my working hours, my nights and weekends have been filled with swim meets, hockey games, lacrosse tournaments, and of late, national championships in scholastic rowing.
My advice to other women is to invest in your family and your career. Don’t discount the importance of either.
I’ve taught my boys the value of a working woman in the world. They have come to expect that mom will expect them to care for themselves and others, sew them up when they break, and should be paid by merit indiscriminate of gender. I couldn’t have done that without a career in my pocket. Both my boys have served as People to People Ambassadors to Europe and Australia at the sweet young age of 12. They have served the homeless at shelters, helped build a youth center In Costa Rica, entertained orphans with soccer, fed hungry college students for service hours, and rescued fish, a red tailed turtle, a tail-less bearded dragon, and a neurotic cockapoo. Who could regret any of those moments?
In retrospect, I realized that I had discounted my salary for family life, even though I was putting in fulltime hours. My male colleagues had no discounts, and as a team we all contributed different pieces to the pie. Each with a differing value added.
My teenage son’s reaction helped me acknowledge that I had been pressing my nose against a self-imposed glass ceiling for a while. I had to change my point of view. There were some elements of transition to senior leadership that I needed to advance. Research was part of it, but not all of it. I realized I needed more than a list of publications on my CV to grow — I needed to grow my leadership skills. I felt the credentials of the EMBA would be important as a woman in my profession.
Kellogg has given me the opportunity to work with a world-class group of super achievers, where I contribute as much as I can, but come away with much more. I am outside my comfort zone learning my new language of business.
I’m doing what I love best, exploring what else is possible in life, through growing deep connections to those around me. It is both humbling and exhilarating to recognize how much room for growth I have.
No, life doesn’t wait for you to raise your kids and freeze opportunities in time for you to choose at your convenience. You must always train, work hard and grow new connections. Ultimately, the work you put in will help you connect the dots in your career.
Dr. Kathryn D. Bass is a pediatric surgeon with more than 15 years of experience. She graduated with honors in Biomedical Engineering from Northwestern, studied in graduate and medical school at Northwestern, and trained as a general surgeon at Tufts University New England Medical Center before specializing in pediatric surgery at The Children’s Hospital at University of Colorado. Currently, she is Director of Trauma at the Women and Children’s Hospital of Buffalo, Associate Clinical Professor of Surgery, at the State University of New York.