In honor of Women’s History Month, we’re featuring female-led organizations and talking to their leaders about their work and the importance of having women in leadership positions. Today we talk to Dr. Sherry Keramidas, Executive Director of the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA).

About AOTA

Headquartered in DC, AOTA is a nonprofit professional association representing over 200,000 licensed OTs, OT assistants, and students. As a professional association their mission is focused on the profession and the practitioners, assuring that practitioners have the tools they need to provide quality care and services. AOTA provides advocacy for federal and state policy, accreditation of university programs, advanced certification, professional development and continuing education, and professional journals and textbooks. AOTA also builds connections between professional OTs through conferences, meetings, online discussion groups, virtual learning, and online learning.

About Sherry and Her Career

Sherry says her career was inspired by the amazing women who came before her, including her mother and grandmother, both working women. These women inspired Sherry to have the confidence that women can do anything they want to do.

A science-oriented kid, Sherry thought she would go into biology or medicine. In fact, she does hold a PhD in neuroscience. Sherry’s original research was about plasticity in the brain, and she believes that has become a metaphor for her career.

During an economic downturn, the funding for Sherry’s postdoc appointment was frozen. Sherry went to work for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) as a consultant in the area of research evaluation and strategic planning. A brand-new PhD, Sherry found herself working with Nobel Laureates and other experienced scientists, often in fields she knew nothing about. It was her job to help them explain the importance of their research  in a way the public could understand and facilitate thinking about directions for research from new and different perspectives. With the guidance of mentors, Sherry learned that you can have an appreciation for science that lets you talk to people about their work.

For 30 years Sherry has built a career in health-related professional associations. She served as the Executive Director of the Regulatory Affairs Professional Society (RAPS) for 20 years; the CEO of the American College of Dentists, the Associate Executive Vice President of Research and Education of the American Physical Therapy Association, and as the Scientific Director of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. She enjoys leading diverse teams and building partnerships between staff and volunteers to really transform an organization.

About Being a Woman in Nonprofit Work

As a neuroscientist, Sherry has looked at the neuroscience of leadership. She believes that science supports the idea that women tend to be more nurturing in their approaches to leadership both at work and at home. Early in her career she felt a need both to prove herself to men and to be perfect. Now, she knows that while her approach to management and leadership may be different from the traditional male approach, it is just as valid. She believes that women in the workplace are phenomenal collaborators, and are good at acknowledging and honoring the work of others. Sherry finds that women often are more open to finding creative and different solutions, and sees this style of leadership as especially well-suited to association work. As a female leader, she’d like to make that the norm. She would also like to see more women in positions like tech and finance. She is especially proud that at AOTA, both the VP of Information Technology and the CFO (as well as many other executives) are female.

Sherry believes it’s important to acknowledge and appreciate the women who came before us, both those who worked outside of the home and those who didn’t. She thinks of her own mom, who in her mind was always well dressed, with a clean, organized house and dinner on the table. For a long time, Sherry thought that level of perfection was expected of her as a working woman. She now knows that you don’t have to do everything, and she hopes that women coming up in business don’t feel that pressure.