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January 23, 2014

Senate Matters: Can mentoring produce more female leaders?

The value of mentoring is evident in the workplace, and particularly so in academia. Mentoring can be an important resource for women’s career development. In 2010, the Board of Trustees elected Patricia E. Beeson as Pitt’s first female provost. As a member of Pitt’s leadership team, she is tasked with enormous and challenging goals. As the most senior female administrator at Pitt, the provost has become a role model for all women on campus. She is aware of the importance of mentoring, particularly for females, and has been involved in several efforts over the past decade at Pitt to improve mentoring programs.

In addition to mentoring, other issues such as childcare/dependent care and leadership and negotiation skills have been identified as important factors for women.

Gender-focused groups at Pitt

In the early 1970s, Chancellor Wesley Posvar created the Advisory Committee on Women’s Opportunities (ACWO).  Through the efforts of ACWO, many programs focused on women were established. This includes the women’s studies program, established in 1972. Today, there are a number of women’s groups on campus, including the Campus Women’s Organization, which focuses on undergraduate women, and the Provost’s Advisory Committee on Women’s Concerns (PACWC), founded in 1983.

In 2004, the Senate established an ad hoc committee for the support and advancement of women at Pitt, headed by Irene Frieze. A subgroup of the ad hoc committee planned the Senate plenary session on mentoring in 2006. Members of the subcommittee worked with Provost Beeson, who was then vice provost for graduate studies and interim vice provost for undergraduate studies, to improve guidelines for investigating complaints about sexual harassment, as well as to create related brochures and on-line training.

In 2007, the Senate established the ad hoc committee for the promotion of gender equity, also chaired by Frieze. For four years, this committee included subcommittees working on child care (and later dependent care); leadership networking and skills development for women; assisting trailing partners to find positions in Pittsburgh; faculty salaries and retention of women, and sexual harassment.  While these issues are highly relevant to females at the University, not all pertain solely to women. Indeed, the gender ad hoc committee included men, and their input has proven valuable.

In 2010, the Senate established the gender discrimination initiatives (GDI) subcommittee, which I chaired. A March 12, 2012, Senate Matters column by Elsa Strotmeyer summarized activities of GDI, which included:

  • Identification of lactation rooms on campus. The Pitt HR website now lists 16 such rooms.
  • Establishment of sick-childcare facilities on campus. There now is a childcare room available for mildly sick children at the Children’s Center of Pittsburgh near Magee-Womens Hospital.
  • Creation of University policies for non-tenure stream faculty contracts. There are new, written recommendations for non-tenure stream faculty, which were approved by Senate Council.
  • Improving negotiation skills. Several relevant local workshops have been identified.

Mentoring programs at Pitt

While there has been progress as described above, challenges remain. Mentoring is one of the chief underdeveloped strategies contributing to the promotion of women. Several departments have developed mentoring programs for their faculty and staff, but the majority of Pitt departments have no structured mentoring program.

I currently am a member of a PACWC subcommittee focused on improving the mentoring process at the University.  This initiative was started about a decade ago. As PACWC begins identifying structured mentoring programs already established at Pitt, it is our objective that all University departments on all five campuses offer established, structured mentoring programs to their students, post-docs, faculty and staff, thus resulting in the output of more successful women.

As the University develops more programs that can help promote women, how can Pitt better communicate these programs to assist females in their pursuit of success? In addition to seeking mentoring programs in every University department, the PACWC subcommittee is aiming for the development of a well publicized and useful website that would be accessible to both mentors and mentees at all levels at Pitt.


Kacey G. Marra is a member of PACWC and was chair of the Senate’s gender discrimination initiatives subcommittee. She is an associate professor of plastic surgery with a secondary appointment in bioengineering. She can be reached at