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April 27, 2017

SAC panel discusses women in the workplace

Two young professionals working with computer


Discrimination can be prompted by the subtle ways women often are assumed to be different types of workers than men, one panelist said at an April 18 discussion on women in the workplace, sponsored by the Staff Association Council (SAC).

Women, more often than men, take time off from their careers to raise kids, observed Anupama Jain, an instructor in the gender, sexuality and women’s studies program who also is founder and principal consultant of Inclusant, a diversity and inclusion consulting company. Women usually are the primary caretakers of children even while having careers outside the home, and are called on more often than men to take care of aging parents.

Because of these choices or obligations, “they are excluded from full participation” in the workplace, she said.

Unfortunately, corporations requiring workers to learn about the value of diversity did not result in more diverse workplaces, Jain noted, citing studies on companies’ hiring and promotion practices.

“What were intended as diversity efforts that were going to create more equality — a lot of those diversity programs really didn’t work,” she said. “It led to a lot of tokenism; it didn’t really break the glass ceiling” for women in management.

“Inclusion, however, is actually something that requires us to be active … to be intentional,” she said. “Inclusion means looking around and asking, ‘Who’s not here?’”

In the last few decades, the definition of leadership finally has come to include women, Jain added. Women, in fact, make very profitable leaders for corporations, she said.

Another panelist, Erin Gibson Allen, a Pitt law alumna and attorney with Marcus and Shapira, said she encountered difficulty re-entering the workforce 10 years after leaving a job as a lawyer in a private firm to raise her children.

She noted that men’s careers generally have a straight trajectory while women’s careers are up and down. She pointed to statistics on, which offers advice to people returning to work after a break, that show work re-entry assistance programs growing enormously in the last few years, from nine prior to 2004 to 189 today, with 58 of them offering paid professional internships.

“We are recognizing this loss of talent,” she said. “A lot of these programs are online, so even if you’re in Pittsburgh you have resources that you didn’t have before.”

But there are steps to take when preparing to leave the workforce temporarily, and during such a leave of absence. Those contemplating a career break for children should develop and maintain their industry-specific network: “Networks are magical things,” she noted.

“I’m a big proponent of skills-based volunteering,” she added, advocating that women stay engaged in the community in ways that keep their working skills sharp.


Gender bias can stem from implicit bias, Vice Chancellor for Diversity and Inclusion Pam Connelly said: “It’s easy to see that it is there; all humans have implicit bias. It is harder to shine the spotlight on yourself.”

She suggested trying Harvard’s online implicit bias test ( to gauge one’s own degree of unconscious prejudice. “You might be surprised” at the result, she said. “It is very illuminating.”

The bias against women who have children affects the workplace even when supervisors think they are being kind or generous to their female workers, Connelly noted: “There’s a very human reaction to say, ‘She has a baby — or four — and I don’t want [her] to do this, it is going to be hard on her.’” Such discrimination is explicitly illegal in current anti-gender bias laws, Connelly added, and urged Pitt employees to report bias incidents to Pitt’s online system (

Cheryl Ruffin, affirmative action manager in Connelly’s office, pointed out that some people face an intersection of biases about their identities as women and as African Americans, for instance.

“You bring your whole self into the workplace and what people see about you is not one thing; they see it all and react to it all,” she said. “You have to navigate how somebody is going to perceive you.” Does an experienced worker, perhaps, wonder whether a new hire is simply “filling a particular quota?” Ruffin asked.


How can individual offices improve their diversity and inclusion?

“Part of what we have to do is challenge what we think careers look like,” said Audrey Murrell, associate dean of the College of Business Administration. She believes notions of career ladders are outdated, “particularly for women.”

In fact, she said, women’s career progression no longer looks like a ladder: “It’s very much a labyrinth.”

Traditional ways of defining career success must be challenged, she said, proposing “a much more holistic, I’d say a much more realistic” way of looking at them.

Murrell believes it’s not realistic to think of work and home lives as separate; that workers, particularly women, are too often warned against performing “non-promotable tasks” in the workplace, lest they harm their chances for advancement; and that the definition of leadership must include those who value teamwork over competition, including the principles of diversity.

Non-promotable tasks are workplace duties not weighted heavily on job evaluations, such as contributing to team projects or taking on volunteer assignments. At a university, that may mean mentoring students and supporting new faculty, she said.

Employees who undertake tasks above and beyond their job descriptions really help make organizations most effective, she asserted. And labeling the mentoring of students a non-promotable task at a university “is like Nordstrom’s saying customer service is a non-promotable task. These non-promotable tasks are exactly what drives organizational effectiveness.”

She called such outdated notions “ghosts of the workplace past.”

To overcome workplace discrimination, Murrell suggested using the “power of peers” who may provide counsel, support and protection to those not lucky enough to have been mentored by a workplace supervisor or veteran.


The panelists were asked to offer their best advice, briefly, as their parting words.

• “Don’t stay where it’s safe and where it’s easy,” said Allen. “People who have switched jobs have always had to reinvent themselves.”

• “It’s also very useful to build that professional relationship up in the organization,” not just down or laterally, said Connelly.

• “Don’t believe the lie that everyone is in competition with you,” said Jain. “Competition is real and it can be healthy, but … it’s nonsense” as a governing principle in an office.

• “Don’t be afraid of a lateral move in a different area,” said Ruffin. “It allows you to broaden your skills.”

• “Get involved in SAC,” said Murrell. “It is a really important resource on this campus. If there is something they are not doing, maybe they are waiting on you to get things started.”

Besides, she added, “the time to build a network is before you need the help.”


—Marty Levine 



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