Panels confront issues faced by women during the pandemic


A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education pointed out the well-documented decrease in women’s journal submissions because of increased caregiving responsibilities during the pandemic and conjectured that the caregiving crisis would lead to a “widening gender division in attaining tenure and an increase in the gender pay gap.”

For the participants on two panels at Pitt during Women’s History Month in March, this was not news.

On March 30, the Pitt Alumni Association hosted a discussion on “Women in the Workplace: Advocating and Navigating in the Era of COVID-19.” On March 31, the Office of the Provost Faculty Diversity Development team sponsored a panel looking at ways women have adjusted during the past year in “Pandemic Pivots and Power Moves: Planning for a New Normal.”

‘Pandemic Pivots and Power Moves’

Lise Vesterlund, a Pitt professor of economics whose research focuses on trying to understand why it is that women struggle to advance in the workplace relative to men, said at the “Pandemic Pivots” event, “If the last four years did not remind us of how fragile the progress we’ve made on equality has been, the pandemic more than anything has made that clear.

“Women have been hurt exceedingly hard by the pandemic. They have been carrying the brunt of the work that resulted from kids not being able to go to daycare, kids not being able to go to school, elderly parents that needed to be cared for. The setback we’ve seen in terms of women’s attachment to the labor force has been detrimental. And we’re now talking about this potentially setting us back an entire generation in terms of the progress that we’ve made.”

In her research, Vesterlund has found that one of the reasons women don’t advance as quickly as men is that they are often given tasks “that go unrewarded or that we call non-promotable tasks.” In academia, this often means women do more service-oriented work rather than the research that is more likely to get them promoted. This is particularly true for women of color, she said.

The solution to this can be quite simple, according to Vesterlund. “The organizations that we’ve been working with have just not been paying attention to how they distribute work, so once you talk to them, they get excited about fixing this,” she said.

“The pandemic has made clear to me how important these issues are and I have very much shifted my attention to really trying to communicate my research,” she said, in the hopes it will start people talking about the work that men and women do and improve these outcomes.

In her opening remarks, Provost Ann Cudd said, “Women’s History Month provides a framework to observe and acknowledge that even good and great institutions need to reinvent themselves at times to ensure justice and equity. It also reminds us that women’s full inclusion in society is still very much a work in progress.”

Jeannette South-Paul, who was the first woman to chair a department in the School of Medicine before retiring last year, said in her keynote address that “it’s important to recognize that we are successful as women faculty in spite of the pandemic.”

Moving forward, she recommended using a framework that requires recognizing purpose, process and presence. Purpose is knowing what your personal mission is, and then following the steps or process to achieve your goals. Finally, she said, you have to be intentional in managing your presence of mind and realize that you have your own way of moving forward. This includes forging strong relationships, being inspirational, developing communication skills, and building and motivating followership.

In times of crisis, South-Paul said women need to “aviate, navigate and communicate. … We need to be able to keep moving and keep doing our job, while we are trying to work around the obstacles we might face, and then communicate to others what we are doing. We have to do it within a framework of courage, initiative, perseverance, integrity and success.”

For sociology professor Melanie Hughes, the pandemic has taught her three lessons. Her research looks at women’s representation in political leadership positions and public administration. During 2020, she was set to mark the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage and the 25th anniversary of the U.N.’s Beijing Platform for Action, which committed to women’s right to equal access to decision making positions in public life. Both of these milestones didn’t get much attention during 2020 because of the pandemic.

Instead, Hughes pivoted to collecting new data on women’s representation and leadership on COVID-19 task forces.

The lessons she learned from this were: Be diversified in your career and research; be flexible and be willing to take advantage of moments that present themselves; and be willing to ask for help and guidance.

Tiffany Gary-Webb, associate professor of Epidemiology, definitely took advantage of the moments the pandemic created. Her specialty is chronic disease, such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease, and she had planned to take a two-year sabbatical starting in 2020 to do more international work studying these diseases in the Caribbean and Africa. When COVID-19 first hit, she was not involved in research on it, because it wasn’t her specialty.

“Quickly I realized that articles were coming out from across the country that black people … were impacted more by the pandemic,” she said. “I started to get calls from friends and family. And so I quickly got involved in COVID equity work.”

She helped found the Black Equity Coalition — a group of physicians, researchers, public health practitioners, social scientists, data scientists, government officials and community funders trying to ensure an equitable response to the COVID 19 pandemic.

‘Women in the Workplace’

At the Women in the Workplace: Advocating and Navigating in the Era of COVID-19 event, alumni and others talked about how they’ve weathered the past year.

Cheryl Ruffin, institutional equity manager in the Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, said: “I think that it’s vitally important to have supportive colleagues who are willing just to reach out on teams and say hey, how’s it going, just so you don’t continue to feel isolated and feel completely alone.

“I look at support, internally and externally, … What kind of support am I getting within the workplace, and then what other kind of support am I getting from my home, and even from myself. I think it’s vitally important that you have leadership that understands the nuances of having a family life and having different things going on in your life.”

For Glory Durham (Arts & Sciences, Psychology ’11; GSPH ’14), one of the benefits of the past years is that she’s learned to speak up more when she might have previously held back.

“Exposing the imperfection of not having everything together used to feel like admitting a point of failure, and now it just simply feels like asking for help,” said Durham, who has worked at the Penn Center for Health, Devices & Technology at the University of Pennsylvania since 2017. “Everyone needs help at various points in their life. … Allowing myself, what I see as the luxury of vulnerability with people I trust increases their ability to provide the support that I need.

Elif Yazici (SCI ’16), a digital product manager who is leading the development of a Turkish audio app called Dinle, confronted an issue faced by many women during the pandemic. “Being a mom, working full time and also trying to study, it’s definitely been hard juggling everything,” she said. “And as time went by, I’ve learned that the things that I used to do very efficiently now I can’t do because I have other responsibilities. But for me the most important thing was trying to focus on what makes me feel good, and what can contribute to my success.”

Debra Thompson (Nursing, BSN ’77, MSN ’81, Ph.D. ‘10) has worked from home for a long time as chief executive officer of her own consulting business. She’s also an adjunct faculty member at the School of Nursing. “The thing that you have to learn to do is you have to set a schedule that you can get your work done, and people know that you are working, whether it’s a friend or a family member.”

See a recording of the webinar here.

Susan Jones is editor of the University Times. Reach her at or 724-244-4042.


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