Sherdina Harper’s very first job was as a student patrol officer at Duquesne University.
“It was a job where they gave us flashlights, belts and they called me ‘Big Money’ because I made 25 cents more as a supervisor,” said Harper, drawing laughs from the room of 50 women gathered for a Women in the Workplace panel discussion co-hosted by the Women’s Affinity Group and Staff Council.
Harper, cross cultural programming director in the Office Cross Cultural and Leadership Development, was one of four Pitt women on the March 21 panel at the William Pitt Union to share reflections on work that were humorous, poignant and authentic. Joining her were Jennifer Woodward, vice chancellor for research operations and professor of surgery and immunology; Samantha Balbier, director of the Institute of Politics (IOP) and the Elsie Hillman Civic Forum; and Valerie Njie, president-elect of the Pitt Alumni Association and former executive director and senior vice president of Bidwell Training Center.
The four spoke for about an hour on topics ranging from women who’ve inspired them and the best advice they received to overcoming career challenges and the best ways to advance professionally within the Pitt system.
Like Harper, Woodward described a humble start to her work experience — at her mother’s hair salon after school and on Saturdays.
“Cleaning hair out of hairbrushes, washing rollers, sweeping the floors,” said Woodward. “I’ve come a long way.”
Family figures into both Harper’s and Balbier’s inspirations — both women said their grandmothers helped to shape who they became.
At about age 3, Harper said, she would spend summers in South Carolina with her family and her grandmother, a Methodist missionary. Her experiences taught her the value of taking care of family.
“We went to so many funerals — so many people I didn’t know… just crying,” she said. “My grandmother would always bake cakes, always visited the sick, she always would show the community the support that was needed during times of grieving.”
Balbier’s grandmother was also active in her community — specifically in local politics.
While “it was frowned upon” that her grandmother “would presume that she could be involved at the level that she was involved in,” Balbier said that it inspired her as a young woman. “She’d been to the rallies, had the buttons, she was so engaged in civics in her community.”
Balbier said she’s also lately drawing inspiration from a younger generation of women.
“It’s young leadership that I find really inspiring, because they’re risk takers,” she said, of Greta Thunburg, a 15-year old Swedish student who founded the Youth Strike for Climate movement and was recently nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize, and Emma González, a Parkland High School shooting survivor and activist for gun control.
The best advice they’ve received from mentors
For Njie, the ways in which one of her first supervisors managed her and her team served as inspiration later in her career.
“She was so hard — we had to do four times as much work as everyone else,” said Njie of her former supervisor.
But Njie said that manager was teaching valuable lessons and skills she needed later on in life: to always go above and beyond, to always document everything that you can, to always remain professional regardless of how others treat you and to always make sure that your staff knows that you care.
Njie said that the value of connecting with her employees on a personal level, by spending much time walking around and asking about their families and their children, was that they knew they were being treated like individuals. When employees have that personal connection — when they feel valued as individuals — it helps them understand what is important in helping move forward the agenda of the organization, Njie said.
Woodward received invaluable advice from the many mentors she’s had, but among the best advice they gave, she said, was to “pay it forward.”
“No one wanted anything in return for providing that mentorship, except for telling me to pay that forward,” she said. Even when she feels that she doesn’t have the time to mentor someone who needs guidance, she said that always creates the time. “It’s important for me to help women continue to be successful and to navigate the waters out there in their professional and personal careers.”
Balbier recalled the mentoring she received from the older sister of a college friend. The woman had just bought a house and took Balbier in as a roommate/tenant.
“She was 30 years old, and I lived with her for $100 a month,” Balbier said. “And boy was that was a nice break!”
In exchange for inexpensive rent, Balbier helped with the home renovation work the woman was tackling on her own. She wasn’t just a landlord to Balbier — “She was a mentor… She was about six years older than me, she’s independent, bought her own house, it needed to be fully renovated, she did all the work herself.
“It taught me a lot about relying on yourself, develop skills that are outside your comfort zone, take initiative in a way I hadn’t been taught before,” she said.
On overcoming challenges and roadblocks
In a professional setting like a meeting where there may be only a few women — or even just one — many women find that they’ve overlooked, talked over or even had ideas co-opted by their male colleagues. As a woman in the field of transplant surgery for much of her career, Woodward said that she could — and still can — relate to this.
She shared her advice for making sure you’re seen, heard and taken seriously in these situations:
- Go in confidently. If you go in thinking that you’re just one of many, it will be hard to assert yourself in any way.
- Do your homework. Prepare before the meeting and make sure you know what it will be about. In order to speak intelligently, you have to be prepared.
- Dress for the room. “If everyone in the room is going to be wearing a black power suit, I’m not going to be wearing jeans.”
- Connect with others before and after the meetings. Woodward said that often, the real meetings happen before or after the scheduled meetings. “Getting there a little early or staying a little later after the meeting’s over gives you some time to connect with the individuals who are doing a lot of the talking,” she said.
- Pay attention to your body language. You can signal that you have something you’d like to say by nonverbal cues such as sitting up straight and making eye contact with or giving a slight nod to the person running the meeting. “It’s a way to get attention without talking over someone or cutting them off or acting out of turn.”
Njie spoke about how when she went to work at Bidwell Training Center 37 years ago, it was “a man-powered agency.” There were times throughout the years where she and other women weren’t invited to board meetings, or if they were, they were given limited time to present.
“I made sure that my presentation was dynamic,” she said. “I always stood up for my presentations… They were always factual and they really gave the board the true sense of what our school was all about. Not just flowery…anything that would make it seem like it was a bed of roses.”
This fact-based approach had board members coming to her afterward to continue the conversation, she said. It took years and years of hard work to earn this respect from individuals in the organization, Njie said.
Continuing to develop professionally and advance at Pitt
All four panelists advised the women attending to take advantage of the opportunities at Pitt to meet new people and gain more experience.
Woodward in part attributed to her longevity at the University — she had joked about having planned to stay at Pitt for just three years, but it’s been 20 years now — to all of the opportunities that have come along. Many of these included informal opportunities that she said “kind of fell into my lap and I happened to be at the right place at the right time.” She said that when she wanted to learn and be part of things, she’d raise her hand to volunteer. If someone asked for help, she’d take advantage of the opportunity and leverage it into experiences where she could make connections, gain exposure to different areas of the University and show off her skills and expertise.
Harper said that she’s taken advantage of as many opportunities to attend conferences as she could, including ones on campus as well as those around the state. She also said that she’s at the point in her career where she’s getting out of her department more and more, so conferences and workshops across campus — including events such as the panel discussion — provide space to network with new people and expand her presentation skills.
Njie encouraged lifelong learning: “Being around people who have different thoughts and ideas – that’s how I grew, that’s how I spread my wings.”
Balbier said her experience in working through the Pitt system was limited since she just began her position with IOP earlier this year, she noted that she had been involved indirectly and directly with the institute for the past 20 years. In addition to taking part of institute programming and serving on committees, her faculty advisor while she was a graduate student was IOP founder Moe Coleman. The institute knew her before she was hired as director, she said.
“I think that’s what everyone’s saying here,” Balbier said. “Make yourself known, stretch yourself outside of your comfort zone. Involve yourself in different activities.”