Gender Equity Research and CWIMS: An Interview with Dr. Rebekah Pratt

Congratulations to Rebekah Pratt, PhD, who recently received the Center for Women in Medicine and Science (CWIMS) Leadership Award for Advancing Gender Equity and Inclusion in Medicine and Science Fields. She was presented the award at the CWIMS February Quarterly meeting on February 18.

In the following interview, Dr. Pratt discusses the vital importance of gender equity work, her leadership role in CWIMS, and what positive changes she would like to see in the future.

How did you first become involved in gender equity research?

I first became involved in gender equity work alongside Anne Joseph, MD, MPH, from the School of Medicine, who was involved in the group that preceded CWIMS. I found it very interesting to learn more about the experiences of women faculty in the Medical School. That initiative led to CWIMS being established, which Jerica Berge, PhD, MPH, LMFT, CFLE, leads and continues to do such a great job as a result of her vision and leadership.

I had the opportunity to become involved as the faculty lead for the CWIMS recruitment and retention action group, a role which I held until December 2020, when my two-year term ended.

What themes did your CWIMS action group focus on?

We know there is an attrition of women through academic medicine. Compared to men, the number of women in academic medicine dwindles as we get to associate professor, professor, department heads, and beyond. That means we have to think about how we recruit people equitably and how we retain them. Where is that pipeline leaking?

Our group focused on those kinds of topics and creating actionable steps to close this gap. I was fortunate to help facilitate the process. It has been a very engaged and wonderful group of women that I've worked with over the last two years, and I've been very happy to pass the mantle to one of our recruitment and retention group members, Sade Spencer, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Pharmacology. It's very much like being part of a movement where we have women from all over the Medical School coming together to brainstorm, act, and create work in that space around recruitment and retention.

Are there particular projects in gender equity that you would like to tell us about?

One project we did was work with the Office of Faculty Affairs (OFA) to help think about exit interview practices. When women are leaving the institution, is there an opportunity to actually sit and consider the circumstances with them? Why are they leaving? What is it about a different opportunity that might be appealing to them? What is it about their experiences that led to their leaving?

We worked to provide some recommendations to OFA about how they can systematically collect that data with the goal of having an opportunity to identify potential areas for action. Our first priority was figuring out how we capture all of that so we don't lose the tremendously valuable resource of people's experiences and feedback as they leave the organization.

Another project has been helping to facilitate the development of a survey around the experience of women faculty during COVID. We're seeing a number of studies finding that women faculty may have carried a heavier burden around their home life or may have had more challenges during COVID compared to men. This could have an impact on their productivity and some of those markers for success that help people move forward in their career progression. At the same time, this could be an issue that's facing all faculty—but especially amplified for women faculty.

Anything else you've been working on?

Yes! We are starting to do focus groups with women who are assistant and associate professors about their experience and thoughts about recruitment and retention. We're interested in asking some key questions: What happens when they are at the point of going from assistant professor to professor? Why might some people feel that going up for promotion is particularly challenging? What might be some of the barriers that are in place? If we can identify that information, we can start moving toward action with addressing some of those barriers. That's the work that's underway.

How has COVID affected your research in the past year?

Like a lot of things, it's been delayed due to COVID.

A lot of the people who are involved in CWIMS are also on the frontline, responding to or dealing with challenges in their clinical lives. So it is understandable that there would be delays. However, we have made substantial progress and will continue to do so.

For example, despite the pandemic, an additional project that our recruitment and retention group has done under the leadership of Dr. Spencer and Rahel Ghebre, MD, MPH, professor in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, is providing mentoring opportunities for women who are new at the University of Minnesota. The idea is to help women get more connected with each other and with University resources. This group is called Early Pathways to Success. This group has been able to keep meeting during the pandemic and provide a space of support to new women faculty and to engage in actionable steps to respond to the needs of junior faculty during COVID. They even submitted a perspective piece for publication to Preventive Medicine addressing the needs of junior faculty during COVID.

One of the things that has been really helpful in our action group role is that we've been able to help gather information for learning. We can now use that information to help advocate on behalf of women faculty and to advocate for changes that will help address some of the barriers around recruitment and retention.

If you were explaining CWIMS to a colleague, how would you characterize it and your experiences being part of the group?

CWIMS does many wonderful things for participants. Just one of those is that it provides a collaborative community of people coming together. And it's not just women; men are also very welcome to participate and be part of the thinking around these issues. It provides a community of thinking. And that can be very powerful—building connections, building knowledge, building action, and developing a community around this. Over the past two years, it's been a real privilege to be involved and have the opportunity to be involved in leadership and to continue to support those activities.

What's really unique is how collaborative it is and how it brings together various viewpoints. Often it's an opportunity to meet with people who might be in vastly different disciplines or departments but who face some of the same issues. It has been a wonderful journey of collaboration.

What are some gender equity challenges you have seen that ultimately became part of CWIMS' mission?

I have noticed that when given the chance, people have a lot of stories to share. They offer a lot of knowledge and support to each other when it comes to particular shared challenges.

One of those challenges can be around pay equity, such as working to negotiate equity in their role compared to their colleagues. That is where CWIMS comes in. Leaders like Dr. Berge provide great opportunities, training, or information about negotiation and how to approach these situations. A lot of women faculty have participated in those trainings. CWIMS also allows for people to share with one another about the challenges they face and how they address it. In that sense, it is a ready-made system of support and action.

For a lot of women, the promotion and tenure processes present challenges. They might end up with a much higher service commitment than some of their male colleagues; they're being asked to participate in committees or asked to participate in service work. They pick up the work and then find that it's not particularly well valued. It doesn't have the same weight in the tenure process compared to the other activities they might have had to put to one side.

So, we have some deep questions to ask ourselves: How do we engage in deep, transformational change for gender equity? And what are the systems in place that can help support that? Those are tough conversations and very controversial ideas. We need to look at how we are organized structurally in order to provide opportunities for genuine leadership for women faculty. We also need to ask ourselves how we can be inclusive of all genders in this work, including acknowledging the experiences of transgender and gender non-conforming faculty. Additionally, we know that BIPOC women faculty often face compounded challenges, and we need to continue to center racial justice in our work to advance gender equity.

There's a lot of work to do, and we are chipping away at it from all kinds of angles. The transformation is happening slowly, but it is happening.

What would you like to see in terms of gender equity changes in coming years?

I would like to see a world where CWIMS doesn't have to exist... where we'd have equity, and we didn't have a need for a group that's fighting for it.

Meanwhile, I want to see the transformation continue to grow. We do have serious and invested leadership here at the University of Minnesota Medical School. They care. They're listening, and they're willing to act. That's a huge advantage.

In the future I would love to see increased awareness, increased action, increased transformation, and an increased dialogue, because it's going to take time. We want to see continued growth and change. We want to bring about this transformation so well that we in CWIMS actually do ourselves out of a job—so we can devote our energies to living lives of fulfillment, leadership, and equality.

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