How one family put one child on the path to helping revolutionize the workplace.
By Renee Forcey
If you can catch Diane Jorkasky between, say, Switzerland and China—much less one of her many commitments to community, professional, or academic activities—consider yourself fortunate. The chief science officer of Complexa, she has run clinical research functions for some of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies (Pfizer and SmithKline Beechman), has served as the chief of the renal division for Presbyterian Medical Center of the University of Pennsylvania, and has more than five academic appointments, including posts at Yale and the University of Pennsylvania. She also counts more than 40 awards and honors and speaks at venues across the globe.
Of course, she only reached this peak by blazing the kinds of trails that have helped define the past generation’s ascent of women in the workplace. Jorkasky recently shared her insights on leadership differences between genders and among differing cultures, as well as her thoughts on the broader responsibility of us all to nurture good leaders. Her credo is inspiring, but simple: If you do the right thing, the world will recognize it.
At a very young age, Jorkasky witnessed the combined results of oppression, a weak economy, and cultural boundaries. But more importantly, she witnessed forgiveness and determination. Her father had served in the U.S. military during the Korean War and returned to work on the railroad, only to be laid off a short time after. Her mother, a first-generation U.S. citizen, had wanted to be a teacher. But her brother was given the family’s lone opportunity for a college education.
Her grandmother, who immigrated to the U.S. from Poland with only a sixth grade education, would later recognize the error of her decision (and the perniciousness of gender prejudice at large), pledging to protect her granddaughter against being circumscribed by such bias. Her mother joined in this effort, and her father, determined to make a better life for his children, reacted to his layoff by going to college. As a curious first grader at the time, Jorkasky was left with a lasting impression of the value of perseverance.
The elements cohered: a family determined not to let the child’s potential be bound by her sex, plus a father in college on the G.I. Bill—spending hours reading and educating himself so he could provide for his family. And, in the wider world, society was cracking open the doors to possibility; no longer were the dreams of young women limited to being a teacher, librarian, or nurse.
After attending college Jorkasky applied to medical school in 1972. During her interview with a male physician who was part of the admissions team he asked, “Do you plan on getting pregnant?”
To which Jorkasky responded, “Do you plan to have sex with your wife tonight?”
The response was just as relevant to the question being asked, and Jorkasky made it known. Looking back, she credits her mother, grandmother, and father with giving her the strength not to remain silent, or give a politically correct answer. This was the first of many glass ceilings she would encounter, but her ability to crash through it both bolstered her resistance to future discriminations and helped weaken that ceiling for the women who would eventually follow her.
Brilliant, with a witty sense of humor, Jorkasky (not surprisingly) has been invited to deliver commencement speeches at various colleges and universities, including her graduate school alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. During that speech, given in 1990, Jorkasky declared to the graduates that above all else, ethics and morality must never be compromised.
Invited to deliver another speech, at the Gateway Community College in Connecticut (where 75 percent of the population is female and the average age is 29), she took the time to get to know the students, riding the bus back and forth between classes. She listened to the stories of students struggling to finish their degrees, and she witnessed endless tears. She heard countless times of low-income households and environments where success was measured by how quickly a woman could attach herself to a man and delivered a baby. But she also heard again and again from women who realized their faith in “male investment” would pay no dividends and were starting over.
Jorkasky shared her own worldview: that bad choices are a part of life, of every life, and do not predestine failure; that having an arsenal of healthy coping mechanisms to manage bad choices—whether your own, or someone else’s—is critical to the success of anyone, male or female. Jorkasky’s hypothesis raises another question. Could this be true regardless of economic standing, affluence, and education? One element that seems abundantly clear is that the foundation for this critical lesson is not the classroom or office; it is the playpen. This lesson starts at home.
For Jorkasky, it is more than curiosity that drives her to understand the struggles of men and women; it is a true commitment to mentorship and the belief that our futures are not predetermined by past mistakes. Yet in in order to move forward, she says, we do need to keep one eye on the past. For that reason, she counsels young men and women that if they want to be “A players,” they should surround themselves with other “A players.”
Her advice to corporate America: Extinguish the bonfires of egotism. She references the tragic scene in Gladiator when the emperor realizes that his expectation that the people of Rome must love him simply because of his title is profoundly wrong. She compares this to the hero-making opportunities that CEOs and many other leaders are presented with today, and how their choices about ego versus right behavior can determine their success or ultimate failure. We have witnessed this recently with the Catholic church, Penn State, and countless corporate entities. Do what is right, and the world will recognize it. Do what is wrong, and the world will also recognize it, but not as you hoped.
Today, in addition to her day job, Jorkasky sits on the boards of Tengion, the Scientific Advisory Board, and BioMotive, a BioEnterprise company (founded by the Harrington Foundation). She also serves on the executive committee for the American Course of Drug Development and Regulatory Science, and as an advisor to several other venture-funded companies. Dedicated to making our world a healthier place—and our men and women better leaders, she has done the right thing. And the world has recognized it.
This is the second in a series of articles by Renee Forcey, an executive search consultant with JM Search, a national search firm based in King of Prussia, PA. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. This topic will also be discussed at a panel at the HRO Today Forum, April 30-May 2, 2013.