The Ladder to Leadership Starts with Stepping Up

‘One thing I learned was not to think I couldn’t do it’

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We think of some people as born leaders. But Carol Nadelson, MD, didn’t think of herself as a person in charge.

“I don’t think people in my class in grade school or high school, even, would have seen me as a key leader. I was president of this or that, but it wasn’t the same thing and I didn’t see myself that way,” she recalls. “I wasn’t one of the ‘in’ group a lot, because I was an outlier [due to my interest] in medicine.”

Men are raised to lead, infused with the confidence that they can craft a vision, inspire and motivate others—followed by the opportunity to put their leadership acumen into practice.

That legacy has not been consistently passed on to women.

“[Women] take a passive position, and they’re too quick to say they don’t know enough, or they can’t or [won’t] take on the lead,” she says. “Women apologize for everything, whether it’s their fault or not.”

When she decided to step up in the 1970s and become president of what is now the Association for Academic Psychiatry, Nadelson made no apologies.

“Well, one thing [I learned] was not to think I couldn’t do it, to think if people respected my ability, I should, and to get advice and think about what I could do to influence things,” she says.

Nearly half a century later, it is easy for girls to lose sight of the opportunities they enjoy, thanks to those who came before them. Nadelson took her grandchildren to the ceremony when she received an honorary Doctor of Science degree from Brooklyn College. Her 9-year-old granddaughter was amazed that Nana was the first to achieve several recognitions.

Then Nadelson told her granddaughter that her great grandmother was not allowed to vote because she was a woman. Her granddaughter was stunned.

“It never occurred to her that women couldn’t always do everything because her world is that way now,” she says.

Despite significant advances, a leadership gap remains for many.

“I think a lot of women don’t see themselves in the lead or still take second place,” she says. “It’s still hard and looking around the world, it’s hard.”

For Nadelson, the confidence in her abilities took root when those asked for advice in selecting the president of the Association for Academic Psychiatry expressed their confidence in her. That included men she worked with, as well as her husband.

“Taking charge and not being afraid to do that, as well as being encouraged and supported, that was important to me,” she says. “I talked to some of the guys who I was on the board with and they said, ‘Yeah, you should do it. You can do it. That would be a good idea.’

“So I did.”

This story is taken from the oral history of Carol Nadelson, MD. The full oral history is available here as part of the Foundation’s exhibit at the The Countway Library of Medicine, through our partnership with the The Archives for Women in Medicine

Katie Burkhart