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Ann Ayers, Dean of Colorado Women’s College at the University of Denver: “Here are the five things we need to do to close the Gender Wage Gap”

We’re wired to think men should earn more: For all the progress we’ve made, gender stereotypes, biases and systems still inform our beliefs and behaviors. We need to keep pushing ourselves to broaden our perspectives, to be empathetic, to be conscious of our unconscious. And we need to be willing to change. I’m always curious […]


We’re wired to think men should earn more: For all the progress we’ve made, gender stereotypes, biases and systems still inform our beliefs and behaviors. We need to keep pushing ourselves to broaden our perspectives, to be empathetic, to be conscious of our unconscious. And we need to be willing to change. I’m always curious about what motivates change. In the area of diversity, equity and inclusion, I see the most progress when organizations understand and believe in the business case as well as the moral case, and when their leaders have spent time thinking about why this work matters — personally — to them.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Ann Haley Ayers. Ann has spent over 20 years re-imagining the possibilities available to organizations in the legal, corporate, non-profit and academic arenas. She builds powerful teams and develops energizing strategies that move people to action. Today, Ann is the Dean of Colorado Women’s College at the University of Denver (CWC). A lawyer by training, early in her career Ann worked on corporate mergers and acquisitions as an attorney in the Paris office of the global law firm of Hogan Lovells. Ann is a recipient both of the Robert F. Kennedy Award for Public Service and the Sally McDonald Medal for Extraordinary Service, and is known for her commitment to meaningful causes. Her resume includes business development with Fortune 500 corporations, as well as several prominent civic leadership positions and consulting opportunities with high-profile organizations like the San Francisco Opera, the Denver Art Museum, the Boettcher Foundation and numerous legal organizations and educational institutions. Ann is now leading a series of new initiatives at CWC that reimagine how a College within a University can answer the call for creating more equity (after all, today’s challenges won’t be solved with yesterday’s approaches). CWC’s focus lies in three areas where assumptions and expectations about gender grind the gears of equity progress: Self, Work and Home. The college calls these initiatives Equity Labs, and they will comprise the next chapter in the College’s 130-year legacy of fueling the education and success of women. Ann received her J.D. from The University of Virginia School of Law and her B.A. from Georgetown University. She regularly serves as a keynote speaker, panelist and gender equity ambassador. Her partner, Mark, is an executive at VMWare, and together they manage two careers and four boys.


Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us the “backstory” that brought you to this career path?

I have worked in law, business, non-profit and now higher education — always chasing one thing: the opportunity to develop people and build organizations that serve the public good. Years ago, when I was practicing law in a Paris firm, my husband and I decided to move home to start our family, near family. It would be in those first few years back home that I got my taste of the critical importance of women advocating for each other, and the necessity of working together to elevate diversity, equity and inclusion. Not just as a way to make better moral decisions, but better business decisions as well.

Soon after we moved back to Denver I was offered a job at one of the leading telecommunications and internet service providers of the time, Qwest. The position involved business development and mergers and acquisitions work, which would be an entirely new role and challenge. I was fortunate to wrangle a breakfast meeting with Steffie Allen, a long-time Colorado leadership influencer and member of the Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame. I shared my concerns about leaving law and some other stories. We parted and by lunchtime I had been called for interview by Denver’s top three law firms as well as by a VP from Qwest, who offered to help me negotiate the best possible package. I was an instant believer in the power of women’s networks! (I received offers at two of the three law firms and negotiated an extra $20k on my job contract. I chose Qwest.)

That was my first eye-opener. The second was a less than positive experience, but equally valuable to my career path. During my tenure at Qwest, a palpable shift in my perceived value came with my first pregnancy. I was stunned when my boss, also a woman, shared news that over her objections the executive team was removing me from consideration for long-term succession planning. During a closed-door meeting, top company brass said, “Let’s take her off the list; she won’t come back from her maternity leave.” Ouch. That was in 2003.

That experience would define me and ultimately changed my course. I had already taken a leadership class at a women’s organization Steffie had founded, but would now double down, taking nearly every class they had and volunteering in every role, from staffing name-tag tables to eventually becoming the board chair. With a passion for moving women’s careers forward, I would move on from mergers and acquisitions to do more meaningful consulting work, helping build non-profits across the country.

In 2015 a friend suggested I consider applying for a new position at the University of Denver as the Dean of Colorado Women’s College. I was drawn to the opportunity to lead the re-imagination of what a higher education institution can do in the space of equity and women’s advancement in particular. I’m working at the intersection of my passions and my skill set, and loving every minute!

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began this career?

I’m someone who likes to make big bets. At Qwest, I was working to close a deal with Microsoft, and my colleague, Jim, was working to close a deal with IBM. During one staff meeting, after I announced my first pregnancy, Jim, in front of our all-male team, bet me dinner that I could not close my deal before I had the baby. I was embarrassed he had brought my pregnancy into the conversation in that way, but I took the bet with one amendment. If he closed his deal before I closed mine, I would take him and his wife to dinner. But, if I closed my deal first, he would wear my pregnancy pants to work. Several weeks later, he wore the pants into that weekly meeting!

Can you share a story about the funniest or most interesting mistake you made when you were first starting?

If being naïve is a mistake, this would be my first: As a young professional in Paris, I accepted some pretty bizarre practices, writing them off as “cultural differences” and accepting as they say too often in French, “parce que c’est comme ça” (because that’s the way it is). Some of them were cultural practices, like male partners asking every female associate to dance at the holiday party — no groping, but it still made me uncomfortable! Other gender-based patterns emerged like who was assigned to which case, who got an assistant and who didn’t, who did the shopping for the weekly wine and cheese, who translated documents (boring!) and who got invited to meetings. It was actually my husband who pointed out to me “Don’t you see you’re spending time translating and not negotiating because you’re a woman?” I refused to believe it until it became so obvious that I couldn’t deny it.

Another gender-biased experience happened related to benefits: Many of us got an annual trip home to the US. The first year I heard that all of the American men had submitted their wives’ airline tickets for reimbursement. So, in my second year I expensed my husband’s ticket along with mine, without thinking much of it. I received a note back from our finance department that read:

Dear Ann,

We are happy to reimburse your ticket, but we will not reimburse your husband’s ticket as we assume you followed him to France and that he has his own benefits package.

I wrote back:

Dear Human Resources,

I assume you don’t want me to forward this clearly sexist email to the managing partner.

They paid for both tickets. (And, for the record, I finished law school before my husband finished business school, so he had actually followed me to France!)

Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

It’s in my nature to assume positive intent. It elevates my attitude, changes others’ attitudes and makes for more productive interactions. Faced with this pattern of bad behavior, and explaining it away for quite some time, taught me that there are toxic people who behave badly in this world, and oppressive systems and situations in which we all find ourselves. Today, I still hold myself to a standard of assuming positive intent, but I also keep my eyes open and draw the line when I believe others are taking advantage of me, or those in my circle. I am decidedly protective of people who are marginalized and oppressed, and have developed an ability to evolve our beliefs and behaviors in a way that benefits all involved.

Let’s turn now to the focus of our interview. Even in 2019, women still earn about 80 cents for every dollar a man makes. Can you explain three of the main factors that are causing the wage gap?

The Motherhood Penalty: The economic penalty women face for having children is stubborn and isn’t going anywhere. Maybe you’ve seen the new series gaining popularity on Bravo, “In a Man’s World”? In one episode it demonstrates the motherhood penalty with an eye-opening social experiment. An aspiring politician looking to understand her recent city council election loss teams up with an academy award-winning special effects make-up crew that transforms her into a man. She gives identical campaign speeches to the same audience, as herself and then again as a man. Despite both characters referencing family, the crowd focused its questions for the woman candidate around how she’ll balance her responsibilities at home, where the questions for the man remained focused on the political office. Even more maddening, fathers are rewarded in the workplace for having children in a way that’s out of reach for women. A study by the national think tank Third Way provides data for this dynamic: Women face a wage penalty of 4 percent associated with each child they have, while men can experience a 6 percent bump in pay. This is on top of existing gender-based disparities. So motherhood — even where it’s perceived — entails a relative 10 percent penalty for women!

We Don’t Share Unpaid Care: The global consulting firm McKinsey & Company estimates that women provide a whopping 75 percent of unpaid care in the world. That’s a tremendous physical, emotional and mental burden women bring to the workplace. Until we shift and share more unpaid care with men, the wage and leadership gaps cannot be closed.

We’re Wired to Think Men Should Earn More: For all the progress we’ve made, gender stereotypes, biases and systems still inform our beliefs and behaviors. We need to keep pushing ourselves to broaden our perspectives, to be empathetic, to be conscious of our unconscious. And we need to be willing to change. I’m always curious about what motivates change. In the area of diversity, equity and inclusion, I see the most progress when organizations understand and believe in the business case as well as the moral case, and when their leaders have spent time thinking about why this work matters — personally — to them.

Can you share with our readers what your work is doing to help close the gender wage gap?

The Colorado Women’s College offers a Women Leadership Scholars program, primarily for first-generation college women. So first and foremost we’re teaching these scholars to be leaders and teammates who demand and deliver equity.

Beyond that, we’re launching new and innovative programs we’re calling Equity Labs. This work is based on two big bets. The first is the realization that the way to solve gender equity at work is to look at how we view gender equity outside of work — because equity can’t be achieved anywhere until we’re delivering it everywhere. We’re bringing new awareness, language and action to personal spheres by asking questions like: How do we balance unpaid care more evenly between men and women? How do we create more opportunities for empathy, connection and support?

The second bet relates to the need to take the notion of inclusivity and blow it open. It’s not about benchmarking, best practices, or even raising awareness of unconscious biases. All of those start with the problem. Instead, we want to start from a place of what’s possible. We’re using the University of Denver’s nationally-recognized expertise in experiential education to create a curriculum that teaches people how to be inclusive. We’re focused on behavior and change. We’re looking to override the neuropathways that lead us to favor that which is known and similar and invite that which is unknown and diverse because we believe it’s better for people, and for business. We aim to help people develop reflexes and habits that ensure inclusive behavior because we know diversity, equity and inclusion are ultimately good for business, the community and the soul.

Can you recommend 5 things that need to be done on a broader societal level to close the gender wage gap? Please share a story or example for each.

1. Ask the question! The silver bullet in this lies with jobseekers. Imagine if every time someone applies for a job, they ask about the organization’s pay equity policies. I coach people on asking this in three ways:

• Values-based: “Values alignment is really important to me when I’m looking at an employer. I can tell that you have (insert the values you’ve researched on their website). I am wondering how, in practice, you apply those values to compensation.”

• Societal context: “Pay equity is getting so much press and attention these days. What do you think about all the various statistics and policy suggestions?”

• Straightforward: “Could you tell me how your company ensures pay equity?”

Similar to the way we credit millennials with changing how organizations take interest in and even ownership of work-life balance, this new generation (all of us, really) can shift the market on this.

2. Be transparent! There are many job sites now that allow people to post and see salaries. If employers would own this transparency, instead of letting it fall to the employees, it would greatly enhance the trust people have in organizations to be paying fairly. In my first role working abroad, there were rumors among the associates in the firm that we were underpaid vis-à-vis our counterparts in the States with the same degrees, billing the same hours, doing the same work. Had the firm been willing to engage with me and others on this issue, they might not have lost a full class of female associates, which represented a huge knowledge drain to the firm. The reality is that these conversations go on whether or not the employer is part of them. It’s unwise, and perhaps even irresponsible, not to be in it with our employees.

3. Build Awareness. We’re currently bringing awareness to issues of pay equity by highlighting Equal Pay Day, the symbolic day when women’s earnings “catch up” to men’s earnings from the previous year. The date usually falls in late March or April for Asian and white women. For women of color, the dates are much later in the year — August for Black women, September for Native American women and November for Latinas. Five days a year is not enough, and we’re not engaging all the people we need as allies in this work. What if we added one week a year where men would wear shirts that said, “Pay her what you pay me. She’s worth it, too.” #payhertoo

4. Use Humor. Using humor is an accessible way to engage people in conversation, especially on tough subjects. A video I came across recently cracks me up and serves as an example. A colleague suspended a presentation 82% of the way through with a slide that says, “Pay equity: To unlock the rest of the presentation, I’ll need another $21,282.” She made everyone laugh while making a powerful point. I also remember working with a guy who used to put his hand up in my face when he would man-splain. Worst ever. I once reached out and gave him a high five when he did it. The whole room, including him, cracked up. He got the point and never did it again.

5. Get Educated and Be Brave. Leaders, I’m talking to you. Know your biases, know your culture, know your policies, know your numbers. Make the changes that the best leaders make. It’s worth the investment. The best-known example of this is Mark Benihoff at SalesForce, who directed six million dollars over two years to correct pay disparities revealed in a company audit. But I’ve seen others. CEO Kent Thiry set big public goals about equity in leadership at DaVita. These bold moves change lives, and they’re good for business.

6. I’m putting in a 6th category here because I want to say something specific about men’s role in this. Men: be bolder. It’s crucial. And, it will benefit men as well as women. In many ways, men are constrained by these biased systems as well. Championing flexibility for women has proven over and over again to result in flexibility and benefits for all. (Think about it, we have the Family Medical Leave Act, not the Women’s Medical Leave Act!) I’m also seeing more and more women’s organizations trying to get men on board by talking about dads and daughters. “Support pay equity so that your daughter can be paid what she’s worth.” It’s a conversation that’s taking flight, but it’s incomplete and insulting. We are all someone’s daughter. We want you to advocate for us as wives, partners, colleagues, mothers and friends. Don’t just do it for your daughters; this is bigger than that. You are bolder than that.

You’re a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I’m apprehensive about the tone, pace and length of conversations today. The 24-hour news cycle, identity politics, Twitter, hashtags — they’re tearing our communities apart and are wearing on our souls. As human beings, we have the compassion to hold multiple perspectives, the patience to consider and reconsider, and the sophistication to think and feel at the same time. As leaders, we need to step up and call for these changes. We must stop undermining our ability to reason, negotiate and compromise and do the right things by reducing our communications to soundbites and headlines.

At the University of Denver, our community wants to change the narrative. I’m co-chairing a campus-wide community-building initiative designed to align our beliefs and behaviors, turn up the volume on community conversations and right-size the negative narratives that paralyze and polarize us. I’d love for this to be a global model for how communities of the 21st century can take back their narratives — this isn’t just about one campus or one student body, it’s about the future of humanity.

The movement will drive connections. We’ll meet people where they are. We’ll assume positive intent. We’ll listen, hear and have “the meeting in the meeting”. No pocket vetoes. We’ll speak what’s in our hearts and we know that when people do that courageously, we’ll generate great respect. Connection will drive interdisciplinary work where we welcome and explore the intersections. It will create more innovative curriculum, more impactful partnerships with the private and public sectors. Through this work, our faculty, employees and students will be uniquely capable of facing the really tough stuff the world is seeing today, and doing it by bringing people together to stick together.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“The beginning of awe is wonder, and the beginning of wisdom is awe.” (A. J. Heschel) It reminds me to call on my curiosity when I need to make a decision. The best leaders I’ve known haven’t been great because of the decisions they’ve made. They’ve made a difference because of the great questions they’ve asked.

We’re very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Ariana Huffington is one of the bravest leaders I know. She uses her social and business capital for good and isn’t afraid to rumble with the tough stuff. The Colorado Women’s College is taking a different approach to advancing equity. We’re onto something big with our research and experiential education. I’m sure she’d have ideas about how to accelerate and amplify our work.

Meghan Markle and Prince Harry are doing incredible work as a team and as individuals. They care about equity and they walk that talk, even within their own small family. We need to push past the stagnation we’re seeing on pay equity numbers and numbers of women in leadership roles at work. I have a hunch that the solution for these challenges at work might just lie at home. I’d love their thought partnership on how equity at home can drive equity in the rest of life.

Thank you for all of these great insights!

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