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Opinion: Lessons for the next generation of female leaders


By Julie Fidler Dixon | Retired CEO, On With Life

Retiring after 45 years in the rehabilitation field, I know one thing that has changed markedly in the workplace is the empowerment of women. While no one could argue that there isn’t still significant progress to be made, we now have more power to develop our futures and more resources to handle the many hassles – ranging from gender discrimination to pay inequality to sexual harassment. 

As the torches pass on to younger women in the workforce, you have my wholehearted support to always strive to do great things. 

Here are a few of the lessons I learned after spending 45 years as a female leader:

In 1972 I began work at Pleasantview Rehabilitation Center, a very large halfway house on the campus of Fort Des Moines. I was excited to begin my first professional position and mortified when the CEO called me “cupcake” and repeatedly asked me to sit on his lap (I declined). The only other woman there believed that to succeed as a woman you “had to be more like a man” and advised me to avoid being around women so “I didn’t get emotional like them.” 

Lesson 1: Never ever compromise your values, no matter who wants you to do so.

I then had the opportunity to work as a correctional counselor — the ultimate challenge for a young female, as the field was exclusively male. It was a toss-up as to who struggled most with me being a female — the guards bringing male prisoners to Des Moines to start their work-release experience or the convicts themselves who struggled mightily with a woman being in a position of authority over them. 

And as frustrating as those facts were, being sexually harassed by a major authority figure in the correctional system who also made inappropriate advances made things even tougher. 

After years trying to help these work-release individuals secure jobs, I was thrilled to be the first person admitted into Drake University’s master’s degree program, the only one in the U.S. to focus on rehabilitation job placement/job development. I then was hired by the Iowa Department of Vocational Rehabilitation to place Iowans with disabilities into employment positions commensurate with their skills and interests. 

While most employers were receptive to this possibility, some were baffled by my courage in making cold calls for such a cause. One CEO stated, “You are an MS at both ends: Ms. Julie Fidler, MS. What is that about? You are married, why aren’t you an MRS staying home?”  

Lesson 2: A woman can handle any position for which she has the experience and skills to do so.

During the next couple of years I married, had children, and spent a couple years at home with them after our son’s asthma prompted us to move to the high desert in Southern California. During that time I wrote a book, substituted in programs serving individuals with intellectual disabilities and consulted in the private rehabilitation field.  

Despite staying active, I was stunned when I panicked at being asked to present a keynote at a national rehabilitation conference. Despite my master’s degree in job placement and many years of experience, it was difficult to visualize myself again being valuable in the workplace. It was an astounding lesson, after placing people with severe disabilities who faced enormous employment challenges, that I felt less than prepared because I had been a stay-at-home mom. But I did. 

Lesson 3: Believe in yourself first, so others will believe in you.

When I did go back to work with dual-diagnosed adolescents in Southern California, the label placed on me by most employers was that I was an Iowan. They would routinely opine that as an Iowan, I must be hardworking and that they would gladly hire any clients I had who were from Iowa.

Lesson 4: Pay attention; sometimes the message is a nice surprise.

Back in the Midwest, again working in psychiatric rehabilitation, I was reminded over and over how difficult things still were for women in the workplace. The male CEO would routinely schedule meetings at the end of a workday and impulsively decide that the leadership team would just order dinner and keep working. As the only mom on the team, I was always made to feel less professional when I had to leave to get my kids, so I always had to get as much done as possible during the workday. The group began to refer to me as “she who has to work harder than anyone else because she has less time to do so.” 

Lesson 5: Don’t sacrifice your family time when you don’t have to do so. You can never get that time back, and there will always be work.

In 1994, I came to On With Life as the director of case management services, reporting directly to the CEO. When he resigned, the staff encouraged me to apply for that position. Despite my many years of work at the senior level of organizations, it took some encouragement to get me to do so. When selected for the position, my first thought was that I would need to get more education to handle the job. An executive coach chastised me, saying that while women very often say that when they are promoted, men rarely ever do so, and that I wouldn’t have been hired if I didn’t have the credentials necessary to succeed.  

Lesson 2 againA woman can handle any position for which she has the skills and experience to do so.

As I begin a new chapter in my life, I can say with joy that the workplace has become a much more diverse and accepting place where success is less tied to gender, ethnicity, age, disability, etc. Nevertheless, women still make significantly less than their male counterparts, efforts continue to dilute protections mandated by the American With Disabilities Act, people of color still face discrimination in the workplace, and on and on. 

Final lesson learned: The struggle isn’t over. To young women beginning their careers, I challenge you to be bold, to speak up for what you know is right and for those who can’t do so. Don’t settle for less than what you need to be the best you can be. The world needs you.

Julie Fidler Dixon recently retired after working for 22 years with On With Life, an Ankeny-based brain injury rehabilitation center. The last 17 years she worked as CEO. Dixon’s career encompassed work in the fields of substance abuse, corrections, vocational rehabilitation, mental health, special education and workers’ compensation in Iowa, California and Nebraska. Dixon can be reached via LinkedIn

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