Etta Pisano, first female MUSC medical school dean, balances work and family

Dr. Etta Pisano, the Medical University of South Carolina's vice president for medical affairs and dean of the College of Medicine, is a radiologist and an expert in breast cancer imaging. She is the first woman to hold the position at MUSC. (provided)

Women are making progress. South Carolinians elected their first female governor. A woman leads the state Supreme Court. The state's only billionaire is a local woman. Charleston even has its first female fire chief.

And MUSC has its first female medical school dean.

Dr. Etta Pisano grew up with a physician father who introduced her to female doctors. Her mother, whose engineering job forced her out after she married, also encouraged her oldest child's passion for medicine.

And when Pisano met her future husband, ophthalmologist Jan Kylstra, they discussed balancing work and family equally.

Both became physicians who loved their work. Both also wanted to be involved parents.

However, Pisano's career in radiology allowed more flexibility. After her residency, she worked part time for five years while raising young children. When she returned full time, she saw patients three days a week and spent the others doing research, which allowed a more flexible schedule.

Did her time raising children hurt her career?

Today, Pisano is one of only about a dozen female medical school deans in the nation.

“The whole country is going through a transition from traditional leadership to more diverse leadership,” Pisano said.

She credits MUSC President Dr. Ray Greenberg and its board of trustees for looking beyond the obvious male successors to the dean's office.

“It takes leadership to recognize the best candidate may not be who you expect,” Pisano said. “Maybe things change slower in South Carolina, but I am very optimistic about the future.”

She also is passionate about opening career doors for those who see them as closed, be they women or minorities.

“The more women in leadership, the easier it will be for other women,” Pisano said. “It becomes more natural.”

As dean, she encourages her department chairs to consider everything from shared positions to part-time work and scheduling routine meetings during the workday rather than during hours when parents have child pickup and other family duties. She also urges women to seek what they need in the workplace without feeling guilty.

“You have to ask for what you want,” Pisano said. “But they also have to be willing to give it to you.”