Sally Dixon has worked with a lot of men.
At Coopers & Lybrand, where she was hired in the public accounting department and then advanced to public consulting, she was the first woman in her office.
Currently leading Memorial Hospital, Dixon is one of only two female CEOs of an acute-care general hospital in the Business Journal's coverage area.
And when as a young woman she worked at the sand and gravel plant her father owned, her co-workers were all men.
"I learned how to run stone crushers," Dixon says. "It was a situation where I had to change to fit the situation as opposed to having the company change and accommodate me. My dad was very stringent on that."
Understanding flexibility without compromising personal values is, she says, "critically important and probably the most significant piece of my early career."
Today, Dixon finds herself a role model for women in business, but at the same time, she doesn't think her gender has affected her career.
"That's not to say that along the way there haven't been some small challenges here and there where people kind of look at you and you have to work twice as hard to earn respect, but by and large I don't feel like I've had any disadvantage," she says. "I grew up in an atmosphere where, if you wanted to do something and you put forth enough effort and hard work, you anticipated being successful at it. I never really believed that there were jobs for women and jobs for men. I just saw what I liked to do and progressed through it."
She recognizes that she has been fortunate in that respect, and she tells people that finding the right places to work is a big part of why her story is positive. She also credits a succession of mentors.
Dixon wasn't aiming for this job initially. She started in the financial sector, working with banking, construction and health care. The next step was a consulting position in finance, which gave her more health care experience. Then she got married, decided she didn't want to be on the road as much and started looking for a stationary position.
So in 1981, Dixon became chief financial officer at Memorial. In 1995, she became president and CEO. She never expected to be at one place this long, she says, but she still relishes the multifaceted challenges of running a hospital.
Dixon notes that health care has typically had more women in leadership than other industries because of the preponderance of women in nursing. The finance and administrative parts of health care are a different story, but she says she has seen some increases over the years.
"It's the top seat that seems to be eluding women," says Susan Gordon, chief nursing officer at Memorial. She has logged several decades of working with Dixon and considers her a great role model for having broken into the executive ranks in her 20s. Beyond that, Gordon says, Dixon's commitment and integrity are to be emulated.
Would health care look different with more women leading? Perhaps, Dixon says: "Female leaders are bringing in the whole compassion side of leadership. There have been a lot of studies done on that. When you look at that side of it, I suppose that you could make that natural linkage, given the type of product, if you will, that we deliver. I think there are some great synergies there."
Dixon's influence extends beyond Memorial, as her years of leadership have also included much community involvement.
"I have lived in York for a long time and have always been impressed with how Sally transitioned from CFO to CEO," says David Hess, president of PMSCO Healthcare Consulting. PMSCO is a wholly owned subsidiary of the Pennsylvania Medical Society, and Hess calls Dixon's contribution as a board member invaluable.
"In her professional style," Hess says, "she remained available and responsive to PMSCO even during the time-intensive process associated with York Memorial Hospital's affiliation with Community Health Systems."
Chloé Eichelberger, who is known for turning United Piece Dye Works into Chloé Eichelberger Textiles Inc. and for her charitable work, has known Dixon since she was CFO of Memorial.
"Since then, I have been privileged to work closely with her on a number of important projects," Eichelberger says. She describes Dixon as "not only outstanding in her profession but shines equally bright in character," "punctual, conscientious and hardworking," "a leader who inspires loyalty in her co-workers" and "a continually evolving source of information."
Women who aspire to follow in Dixon's footsteps, Eichelberger says, "have chosen a difficult path, but one that will lead them to success."
About Sally J. Dixon
Position: CEO of Memorial Hospital
Education: Bachelor's degree in accounting from Ithaca College, 1976
First significant job after college: Audit staff accountant at Coopers & Lybrand in Binghamton, NY; rose to audit supervisor before leaving in 1981
Current professional and community involvement:
• Hospital and Healthsystems Association of Pennsylvania, member of the Council of Small Hospitals
• Better York, board of directors
• Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health, associate in the Department of Health Policy and Management
• Cultural Alliance of York County, chairwoman of the board of directors
• Team Pennsylvania Foundation, member of the board of directors and chairwoman of the finance committee
• PMSCO Healthcare Consulting, member of the board of directors and chairwoman of the finance committee
Editor's note: This story has been modified from its original version to correct that Sally Dixon is one of two female CEOs of acute-care hospitals in the region. Sister Romaine Niemeyer is president and CEO of Holy Spirit Health System in Cumberland County.