Women looking to become power players in southern New Jersey should think about getting into health care.

Women have the top jobs in Atlantic and Cape May county hospitals, and there are plenty of female administrators at all levels, being mentored for greater leadership roles.

But in other fields, such as the casino industry, even when women have risen to the top, they haven’t been able to pass on their success to other women.

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The Institute for Women’s Leadership at Rutgers University says it’s a common problem across the state and nation. Despite getting more than half of all college undergraduate degrees, reaching parity in many graduate and professional degrees, and entering all fields in large numbers, women are not reaching the highest level in most fields. Even in education there seems to be a glass ceiling. Just 12 percent of all New Jersey college presidents are women.

“This is the paradox. While access (to education and most fields) has been largely overcome in terms of the gender gap, leadership participation at higher levels has stalled,” said Institute Director Alison R. Bernstein. She cited the 1990s as the last time women made significant strides nationally or statewide.

Hospitals in southern New Jersey have been defying the negative trend, nurturing talent from within employee pools that are largely female.

Lori Herndon holds the top job of president and CEO at AtlantiCare Regional Medical Center, overseeing 4,200 employees in hospital campuses in Atlantic City and Galloway Township and a satellite center in Hammonton. The person who replaced her in the No. 2 position as chief operating officer in 2009 is also a woman — Margaret Belfield, of Egg Harbor Township.

“Of senior executives for the entire organization, 12 out of 21 are women,” said Herndon, 51, of Brigantine.

Herndon started as a nurse in the Atlantic City hospital’s intensive care unit in 1983. She didn’t take a career break to raise her two sons, now young adults, but said others in top management did when they had children.

Herndon’s mentors are George F. Lynn, retired CEO of AtlantiCare; and David Tilton, current CEO of AtlantiCare, the umbrella organization that oversees the medical center and other services in almost 70 locations. She said they coached her as she took on new roles and responsibilities, giving her confidence.

Bernstein agreed that the health care industry has promoted women more than other industries. The American Hospital Association says about 25 percent of its almost 6,000 member institutions are led by women.

Joanne Carrocino is president and CEO of Cape Regional Medical Center in Cape May Court House. Shore Medical Center in Somers Point says 18 of its top 30 administrators and executives are women and its highest-ranking woman is Joan Gavin, vice president of nursing. At South Jersey Healthcare in Cumberland County, three of 11 top positions are held by women, including Regional Medical Center COO Elizabeth Sheridan, a representative said.

Women in top jobs in most industries — such as Stockton’s longtime president, the late Vera King Farris — typically pass their positions to men. Some don’t mentor younger women, said Richard Stockton College of New Jersey social work and Africana studies professor and author Patricia Reid-Merritt, who has written about black women leaders.

“The climb to the top is so difficult and challenging, they focus on holding on,” Reid-Merritt said. “Certainly women are prepared to assume greater leadership roles.”

In 2003, five Atlantic City casinos were headed by women; none are today. However, the three-member state Casino Control Commission has been led by Linda M. Kassekert since 2002. Several current and past women casino executives did not return calls, or declined to be interviewed for this story.

Michael Pollock, managing director of Spectrum Gaming Group in Linwood, said industry consolidation in the economic downturn cut off career opportunities for men and women. And regulators stopped emphasizing equal opportunity and affirmative action about a decade ago, as a result of court decisions, said the casino analyst.

“That doesn’t undo the good that took place when it was a top priority,” Pollock said. “There are a number of women in middle-management positions (such as vice presidents) throughout the industry. ... They are going to be rising to the top.”

When it comes to political representation, southeastern New Jersey trails the rest of the state.

Only three of 15 state legislative seats (20 percent) representing Atlantic, Cape May, Cumberland or southern Ocean counties are held by a woman, although statewide women hold 35 of 120 state legislative seats (29 percent), according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University in New Brunswick.

There isn’t a woman on the boards of chosen freeholders in Atlantic or Ocean counties, although Cumberland and Cape May county freeholder boards have two and three, respectively.

“You’re looking at a couple of counties that have a pretty dismal record when comes to electing women to office,” center Director Debbie Walsh said about Atlantic and Ocean counties.

Assemblywoman DiAnne C. Gove, R-Ocean, Burlington, Atlantic, 62, of Long Beach Township, is the lone female state legislator from the southern Jersey Shore. She was appointed in 2009 to fill the seat left by Daniel Van Pelt, who resigned after his arrest on corruption charges. She was elected to a full term in 2011.

Gove speculated that more women will be elected at the shore after longtime legislators retire. She said as many women as men were considered for the seat to which she was appointed.

Linwood City Council President Donna Taylor, 49, is an attorney for Atlantic County and was recently elected president of the Atlantic County Bar Association. She would like to see more women get involved in politics, and stresses how important it is to get women’s names known in political circles.

Women make up about half of all law school graduates, and Taylor said women are well represented in all areas of the profession, except judgeships.

“But just recently, (Gov. Chris Christie) appointed a woman for Atlantic County Superior Court judge,” Taylor said of Nancy Ridgway, 49, a former Linwood councilwoman. Ridgway brings the number of female Superior Court judges to four of 23 in Atlantic and Cape May counties. In Cumberland County, the number is six of 20, and in Ocean it is five of 22.

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