HBA Woman of the Year: Freda Lewis-Hall - Pharmaceutical Executive


HBA Woman of the Year: Freda Lewis-Hall

Pharmaceutical Executive

The Concrete Ceiling

Lewis-Hall grew up during a time when the glass ceiling around female advancement in the professional world was so firmly in place that many never bothered looking up, if they were even aware it was there at all. For example, despite Lewis-Hall's excellent grades and demonstrated leadership abilities in high school in Annapolis, Maryland, her guidance counselor suggested that being a Navy officer's wife would be an excellent "career" choice. "I was absolutely stunned," says Lewis-Hall.

When asked about her views on the glass ceiling today, Lewis-Hall says, "Well, first of all, I never thought it was glass. I thought it was concrete and lead-lined, so Superwoman couldn't even see through it with her X-ray vision. I don't know who was nice enough to call it glass, but it wasn't me." But even this experience was something her supportive family, with its mantra of positivity, spun into gold from straw: "I went home that evening and told my mother," recalls Lewis-Hall, "and she said, 'We're going to take the best colleges list and start at the top and apply until the money runs out.'" And so the two women sat down together and applied to the most prestigious schools out there—Harvard, Yale, Brown, Johns Hopkins—shunning society's expectations for women to accomplish the very least, defiantly aiming instead for the very best. Lewis-Hall ended up earning her undergraduate degree in Natural Sciences from The Johns Hopkins University in large part because it was close to her Maryland home, and because, "I wanted to be a doctor, so where else but Johns Hopkins?"

Trips such as this to Ethiopia helped Lewis-Hall begin to shape her thoughts on the future, where she sees an opportunity to "serve in a broader way and to really change the face of global health."
Currently, says Lewis-Hall, that concrete ceiling "is being chipped away. Now around our [industry's] tables as part of our leadership teams are people who look different from each other—we come from different backgrounds, we have different perspectives that allow for robust decision-making and sharing. I don't think it's gone by any stretch of the imagination, but it's coming down; it's more porous. The value of complementary leadership is being seen by women who have gotten through the cracks in the concrete ceiling and by men who have realized that this is much better in a lot of ways."

After college, Lewis-Hall was faced with another choice that would become a stepping stone on her journey to becoming a doctor: getting into medical school. She was working at the time for the Federal Power Commission in Washington, DC, when she told her mother she wanted to attend Howard University Hospital and College of Medicine. Her mother replied, "Isn't that right up the street from where you're working? You should go over there and ask them if you can be in their medical school."

"I said to my mother, 'That's not how it works; you don't just walk in and ask someone if you can be in their medical school,'" recalls Lewis-Hall. Nevertheless, she walked over on her lunch break one day and filled out the application, and was accepted for the upcoming school year. Was the decision to become a doctor based on it being a lucrative career? A way to provide solutions to public health challenges? The draw of the mix of policy and medicine? "That all sounds so profound," says Lewis-Hall. "I just ... wanted to help people."


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