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Female firsts: What it means to be a groundbreaking woman in the 21st century

Maj. Gen. Linda L. Singh, a former high school dropout, had to overcome the dual traumas of sexual abuse and homelessness. In 2015, Singh became the first woman and first African-American to command the Maryland Army National Guard. (Amy Davis / Baltimore Sun)

Ah, the glass ceiling. There it floats, just overhead. It's so alluringly crystal-clear, so temptingly translucent, it's easy to convince yourself it isn't really there — right up until the moment you crash it into it full-tilt.

Just ask Maj. Gen. Linda Singh, a former high school dropout who had to overcome the dual traumas of sexual abuse and homelessness. In 2015, Singh became the first woman and first African-American to command the Maryland Army National Guard.

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Or ask Redonda Miller, who was tempted to sabotage herself just as she was about to ascend to the upper echelons of Baltimore's medical establishment. (Last year, she became the first female president of Johns Hopkins Hospital.)

Two other female trailblazers — Baltimore County Fire Department Assistant Chief Jennifer Aubert-Utz and Donna Woodruff, athletic director of Loyola University Maryland — also succeeded brilliantly in fields that even today remain male fortifications.

It can be exciting to be a pioneer, but it's not easy.

A few of The Baltimore Sun's Women to Watch answer the question: "If you could give one piece of advice to up-and-coming female leaders, what would that be?" (Lloyd Fox/Baltimore Sun video)

"When I enlisted in 1982, women had been fully integrated into the armed forces for less than a decade," says Singh. "Women were still so new that when I signed my contract, I had to initial a special line saying that I was willing to use weapons."

The quartet have learned lessons along the way. They have wisdom to impart, stories to tell. But sadly, all four remain rarities.

Make no mistake — despite almost daily advances in gender parity, men still rule the world. Just 18 of the nearly 150 countries monitored by the World Economic Forum are headed by women in 2017.

Last fall, when Hillary Clinton lost the U.S. presidential election despite near-universal predictions to the contrary, it ensured that the U.S. will remain among the majority of nations that have never been led by a woman until at least 2021.

What does it mean today to be the first female hospital president or university athletic director? Does being first open the doors for other women?

Singh vividly recalls being 18 years old and pregnant and going toe to toe with a non-commissioned officer while she was still in boot camp.

"He told me that he did not want women in his military," Singh says. "That was a shocker to me. I felt like he was going to do whatever he could to put me out, and I was just getting there. That's when my persistence really started coming out. I knew that was not right."

Luckily, she has grit to spare.

She developed that tenacity after she was raped as a teenager. Traumatized, Singh spent long stretches of the next 18 months surviving as best she could, sleeping on porches or in the back office of the pretzel stand where she worked. When she joined the National Guard at age 17, she found it difficult to trust men or follow her superiors' orders.

Gradually, Singh overcame her authority problems. After boot camp, she was deployed to Kosovo and Afghanistan and was awarded the Bronze Star.

Then three months after she assumed charge of the Maryland National Guard in early 2015, Freddie Gray died following a ride in the back of a police van. Singh was thrust into the national spotlight as the person responsible for quelling the subsequent unrest.

"Over the years, I've learned to look at the situation from the perspective of other people," she says. "I've learned to adapt the way I approach problems. Leadership is the ability to change."

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Perhaps surprisingly, success doesn't necessarily beget success. There's often a long gap between the first female path-breaker in a field and the second or third. According to the World Economic Forum, though almost half of the nearly 150 nations the organization tracks have been led by a woman during the past century, just 28 countries have had two female heads.

"Moral licensing," a term coined by Stanford University professors Benoit Monin and Dale Miller in 2001, might help explain this apparent contradiction. Study results demonstrate that past good deeds can sometimes pave the way for unethical future conduct.

"Once people have established their moral credentials as non-racist or non-sexist, that enables them to relax and not scrutinize their own behavior so diligently," Monin says. "If I've appointed a woman or person of color to a high-visibility position, it's easier not to do it the next time around."

It's lonely at the top — and sometimes, it's just as lonely at the bottom.

Last fall, Aubert-Utz was named one of two assistant chiefs in the Baltimore County Fire Department, making her the highest-ranking woman in the organization's history. It took so long for a woman to rise to second in command, she says, because there are so few women in the rank and file. In 2015, just 7 percent of firefighters nationwide were women, according to the National Fire Protection Association.

It's not just she trained at a time when it was wrongly assumed that women lacked the strength to fight fires. (Along with her male counterparts, Aubert-Utz demonstrated that she could could extend a 35-foot ladder, handle the nozzle on a fire hose and pull an adult man to safety from a burning building.)

She also had to master the nuances of the department's paramilitary culture. It's a climate in which newbies are expected to be seen but not heard, to pay their dues and know their place.

Those rules apply to both sexes, but Aubert-Utz said some women may hear that message differently because they're accustomed to being dismissed.

"Taken as professional advice, it's a good thing," she says. "But it can be used against you. It can be used to silence you."

Even when women somehow scramble to the top, they're unlikely to stay there for long. According to the World Economic Forum, 31 nations — or nearly half of all of the countries that can boast at least one female leader— were piloted by a woman for fewer than five years.

The briefest tenure? Ecuador's Rosalía Arteaga Serrano was acting president for just two days.

The Forum has said that female leaders often ascend to prominence through the side door when they're tapped to replace a man who exits office prematurely as a result of death or scandal.

Woodruff, for example, started her career in 1991 as an assistant athletic coach at the University of Pennsylvania, where she had been a standout field hockey and lacrosse player. She rose steadily through the ranks, serving as second in command of the athletics department at New York's Stony Brook University until 2013, when she was suddenly elevated into the top post during a scandal that made headlines nationwide. Woodruff's boss, Jim Fiore, was abruptly forced out of his job amid allegations that he'd sexually harassed a female subordinate.

Now, she is one of just two women to head an NCAA Division I athletics program in Maryland, and among 37 female Division I athletic directors nationwide. (That's out of 351 Division I schools.)

When Title IX legislation was passed in 1972, more than 90 percent of the coaches of women's athletic teams were women, according to a study by the NCAA. Title IX resulted in women's team coaching jobs with higher salaries and enhanced prestige — and virtually overnight, those positions became attractive to men. In 2016, just 40 percent of female athletic teams were coached by women, the NCAA report found.

"I get asked a lot why there aren't more women coaches," Woodruff says. "I don't have a definitive answer. Coaching can be tough on women who are the primary caregivers of their families. This is a job that takes you away from home at night and on weekends."

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It doesn't help that sometimes women sabotage themselves by taking their names out of the running for their dream jobs — as Redonda Miller, the Hopkins Hospital president, admits that she nearly did.

The day after giving birth to her second child, Miller was notified that she was one of three finalists to become Hopkins' vice president of medical affairs, a position representing a significant leap up the ladder. Could she come in Friday for a series of interviews?

"I was in pain from my cesarean section," she said. "I had a new baby and a 4-year-old at home. That was a moment when I could very easily have become derailed. Don't think it didn't cross my mind."

The culprit, she thinks, are outdated social roles casting husbands as breadwinners and wives as family managers, to the detriment of both. How, Miller wondered, could she possibly do justice to her spouse, her children and a new job with hugely expanded responsibilities?

"That's the moment," she says, "where I just worry that we women say, 'Oh, how will we ever do it?' and we pull our names out. And, we just can't."

Miller consulted with her physician husband. She sought counseling from her mentors. They told her to not even think about withdrawing her candidacy. So she took a deep breath and threw herself full-tilt into pursuing her dream.

She prevailed — and the glass ceiling developed another hairline crack.

"The moment we start second-guessing ourselves," Miller said, "is the moment we have to stay right where we are and go for it."

5 recent female firsts
  • Ann E. Dunwoody, four-star general (2008)
  • Kathryn Bigelow, Academy-Award winning director (2010)
  • Janet Yellen, chairwoman of the U.S. Federal Reserve (2014)
  • Jennifer Welter, woman coaching men in professional football (2015)
  • Carla Hayden, Librarian of Congress (2016)
5 female firsts we’re waiting for
  • President of the United States
  • Member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff
  • Chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court
  • Governor of Maryland
  • Head coach in the National Football League, Major League Baseball, National Basketball Association or the National Hockey League
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