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Ann Ayers, Dean of Colorado Women’s College at University of Denver: “COVID is turning up the volume on the things we must fix”

COVID is turning up the volume on the things we must fix. Crises have a way of helping us see problems in high definition. I am hopeful that the issues around diversity, equity, inclusion, the divisiveness in our political system, the plague of domestic violence, and the outmatched need for mental health services can remain […]

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COVID is turning up the volume on the things we must fix. Crises have a way of helping us see problems in high definition. I am hopeful that the issues around diversity, equity, inclusion, the divisiveness in our political system, the plague of domestic violence, and the outmatched need for mental health services can remain at the forefront of our minds and actions. We were chatting at a board meeting just after George Floyd’s death, and I referred to seeing things differently, that the “veil had been lifted.” One member of my board, Black, remarked that the veil had always been lifted for her. For her, this outcry for social justice doesn’t represent a new world; it addresses the pervasive and persistent reality of millions of Americans. Let’s remember that for many, this isn’t a moment that will pass. Let’s keep reality at the forefront so that we can change it.


The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. Many of us now have new challenges that come with working from home, homeschooling, and sheltering in place.

As a part of our series about how busy women leaders are addressing these new needs, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ann Ayers.

Ann Ayers has spent over 20 building energizing strategies that move people to action. Ann is currently Dean of Colorado Womens College (CWC) at University of Denver and is leading a campus-wide culture shift project called Community+Values. In DEI specifically, her Womens College team is launching two exciting programs: Equity Labs — a barrier-breaking immersive education program for catalyzing beliefs and behaviors that yield a more equitable world; and Hack-the-Household, a first-of-its-kind program that will engage learners in a conversation about equity in the personal ecosystem.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would love to get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?

I grew up in a HUGE family. My mom is one of 10, and her dad is one of six. I have more first cousins than I can count on my fingers and toes. Every Sunday, we would gather around the table for dinner at my grandparents’ farm. The energy was addictive for me. I used it as my fuel all week long, and as I got older and moved around, I always knew I had a strong foundation in my family, which is key when you find out that what you love to do is build. I was born to scale and grow good ideas and to bring people together to support that growth. Combine a passion for building with hitting my head on the proverbial glass ceiling enough times, and you find me now in a space to grow diversity, equity, and inclusion in a sector (higher education) that desperately needs disruption and growth. (By the way, the worst part about a glass ceiling is that you don’t see it coming and then — WHAM!)

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started at your company?

When we started working on our strategic plan, we invited dozens of people to help design thinking workshops. We asked participants to bring in something that symbolized equity for them. What we noticed over time was that most people brought in things that symbolized inequity. At first, it was frustrating, like — didn’t they read the assignment before they came? Were we unclear? Then, we realized it wasn’t about that at all. We don’t live in an equitable world, so it’s tough to show up and talk about what equity looks and feels like because it calls on our imagination, not our reality. That was a mind-bender for me, one that fueled my passion immensely.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

YES! We are launching Equity Labs, programs based on a ground-breaking approach to shifting beliefs and behaviors at home, and work in pursuit of a more equitable world. We know this work doesn’t happen overnight. It takes practice, courage, and commitment. It also takes literally re-training our brains to think and react differently to situations and people. We gathered a group of psychologists, social workers, computer scientists, language gurus, and a few other faculty to develop a program that would drive change that sticks. The team leveraged interventions that have worked in other areas and applied them to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI). We’re just in the pilot stage, but the work is… working! We’re so excited. Join us at EquityIs.org, where we share our research and look to crowd-source a vision for an equitable world. Prepare to have your imagination sparked!

None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

Mark and I now have four boys, but we started our family with our first son, Timothy, in 2003. When he was 11 months old, Timothy was diagnosed with Sandhoff’s Disease, for which there is no cure. He passed away in 2004, and a part of us died with him. We weren’t sure we’d ever recover. About seven months after he died, our friends from a summer community in Chautauqua, NY, created a tournament in his honor — first hoops and then after a few years of pulled hamstrings and twisted knees, kickball. I remember walking onto that basketball court and instantly knowing that I was somehow going to make it through to another chapter. I couldn’t breathe, but I could feel the love our friends directed our way. It was like a cool lemonade on that hot, sweaty July day. It rejuvenated me and gave me hope. We have gathered every summer since to raise money to find a cure for Sandhoff’s and build a playground along the lake in Chautauqua. In 2016, that playground came to be, and as we stood there cutting the ribbons surrounded by these amazing people, I realized that “community” helps me get where I need to go every time. It’s not one person but rather the collective spirit that inspires me. It never gives up on you. It never let’s go. I think that experience is why it’s become so important to me to build supportive, values-led, energizing teams, and communities in my work. There is no resource more precious or worth investing in than people who want to uplift each other.

The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. Can you articulate to our readers the biggest family-related challenges you face as a woman business leader during this pandemic?

Well, to start with, I became a short-order chef overnight. Mark and I have a busy household of two working parents, four boys, 14, 12, and 10-year-old twins. We go through 4 dozen eggs, 5 frozen pizzas, about 20 pounds of meat, and countless cereal boxes a week in this house. Beyond feeding the masses, I feel maxed out when it comes to flexibility, multi-tasking, psychological support, and creativity. Some days can be really draining. The hardest part is that no matter how much Mark supports me (and believe me, he does!), I am the family backstop. If someone is sick, I’m the one who reorganizes plans to accommodate a doctor visit or homework pick-up. If carpool falls through, I am the one who drops everything to drive, or I recruit Mark, a friend, or a sitter to step in. If someone needs support outside of school, I organize the lessons like a tutor or music teacher. A recent study out of the University of Southern California suggests that in nearly one-third of the two-parent households that have lost childcare during COVID, it’s the female partner who picks up the slack entirely. I wouldn’t say that I end up doing all of the work, but I am the person who orchestrates the vast majority of it. I am the gyroscope in the middle of our family. I wish I could calculate the thinking time that goes into it all, but I know that it’s far more difficult for others, even if I could. I pray for people who are living with domestic violence during this confinement and isolation. Those who have lost their livelihoods. Those who can’t work from home or who take care of multiple generations. Yes, this situation is hard for us, but I am acutely aware that it’s even harder for other women (and men). I’m grateful that we are tracking and noticing the toll COVID is taking on women’s careers and lives — there are articles about it almost every day now, but I would like to see us taking bolder actions to change the course of things. In higher education, women professors are publishing less, teaching less, and struggling to stay on the tenure track while their male colleagues speed up their output during this time. The United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women) pointed out in its April report that the vast majority of the healthcare workers on the front lines are women. The statistics on women being affected by COVID are shocking and scary. We have to find a way to propel positive change instead of letting it set us back.

Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?

On a personal front, Mark took over the cooking — lock, stock, and barrel. When we sat down to talk about how he could pitch in more, I wanted something that could be entirely carved-out, and food seemed to be a good one. What I appreciate most is not needing to do the mental work of planning, executing, and adjusting as the week unfolds. I also made a chore chart for the boys that includes everything from emptying trash to picking up dog poop and from dishes to laundry. And hey — after a few months of teaching about Zout spray and the difference between cold and hot water, we now have four kids who each do their own laundry. I think that definitely goes in the COVID win column! Also, I am working on not watching media so much. I find I’m better at the everyday challenges if I don’t let the news stress me out, no matter how tempting it is to hear the latest numbers, stupidities, and scandals. I grab the headlines and skip the commentary, and that has helped immeasurably. On a professional front, we are working on an Equity Lab called Hack the Household, which is directly focused on making changes at home that can help propel changes at work.

Can you share the biggest work-related challenges you are facing as a woman in business during this pandemic?

With the economic and health crisis absorbing everyone’s attention, I find that doing work on future ideas, equity, and innovation is lost. It’s not that we don’t recognize the need for it, but everyone around me is putting it on the back burner. As someone who is focused on those areas, I find myself alone a lot right now. Unable to move things forward as fast as I’d like. There is also a loss of collaboration in the midst of all of the firefighting. We are working together on COVID, but we are working together less in other areas. The management consulting firm McKinsey and Company revealed in its September Women in the Workplace report that as many as two million women could leave the workforce due to COVID. The number is staggering, but when I look at their faces and hear my female colleagues’ voices, I am not surprised. It’s too much to bear — being the gyroscope for our families while trying to have an impact on a full-time job outside the home.

Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?

I’m doubling down on my own reading and education about problems and innovations that interest me, equity work I want to do, and partners we might want to connect with. The more I can learn now, the more I’ll accelerate the conversations when the time is right. Also, when it comes to women losing jobs or feeling like we might have to leave them, I am doing my best to create networks and support systems that can help women see their way through this challenging time.

Can you share your advice about how to best work from home while balancing the needs of homeschooling or a family’s needs?

Plan. Laugh. Communicate. And definitely permit yourself to screw things up completely at least once a week. If my boys had any idea the number of emails I have missed, forgotten, or just ignored, they might fire me. But hey, how many emails about masks, lunch protocols, and login information can one mom read? I have set-up alerts to get emails from their teachers and the school-wide weekly updates. But the rest will have to wait until 2021. Also, Mark and I give each other nights off once or twice a week. Those are precious hours for me. No meetings, fewer emails pouring in, and I can stay at my desk and catch up while he takes the boys through dinner, showers, homework, and tuck-in. Because we declare it in advance, we don’t feel guilty, and we can communicate clearly to the kids.

Can you share your strategies about staying sane and serene while sheltering in place or simply staying inside for long periods with your family?

We play games a lot. Darts is our current favorite. Perrudo is a close second. For darts, it’s so serious that we actually each have walk-up songs. Mine is usually a Bon Jovi tune — I still have a crush on him and his music after all these years. We also have a relatively big family, so if one person is driving another crazy, they have four other choices of who to hang with. Numbers have diluted what could otherwise be pretty heated moments here and there. Finally, we are really working to enjoy this time. It feels like a time to make memories, so we are, and we are recording them. We’ve created a COVID cookbook complete with photos. The boys even won a baking contest at school. The cake was a chocolate mud pie topped with pink Starburst pigs! I’ve also added some special things to our chore chart. Someone might get a note that says, “Do something nice for Dad.” Or, “Call Granny for 10 minutes.” Or, because we are catholic and our two youngest will be confirmed soon, I recently added, “Look up a saint and tell us about that person at dinner. How might their life inspire you to live?” We’re also a family that loves practical jokes. If I had a nickel for every smelly sock or shirt that has been hidden in Mark’s pillowcase before bed and then thrown across the room by him in the middle of the night, I’d be doing pretty well! Finally, we walk — a lot. We’ve logged some serious steps over the past nine months. That makes me think, what if we set a family goal of 10,000,000 steps before the 1st anniversary of the shut-down, which for us was March 6? I sense a new family goal coming on.

Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. From your perspective, can you help our readers to see the Light at the End of the Tunnel”? Can you share your 5 Reasons To Be Hopeful During this Corona Crisis”? If you can, please share a story or example for each.

1.) Be a post-COVID detective. We will eventually be on the other side of this crazy time, and I take great joy in thinking about what I’d like to bring forward. In fact, it’s so joyful for me to think about that I’ve made a practice of it, and I have a list going. My top 3?

I’d love to keep giving up the rat race. We don’t have evening events, yet we are still getting our work done and building connections! I’m determined to keep evening meetings and weekend emailing at a minimum.

Our kids are happy and healthy, yet many sports and extracurriculars are missing from their lives. Can we enjoy the down-time and avoid going back to over-scheduling, please?!

Online grocery shopping. Shopping has become so convenient and efficient! I wouldn’t trade our Instacart account for anything! I have gotten so much time back in my life by having a meal plan that populates a list and that with the push of a button, I can buy things and have them delivered in under an hour. Oh — and now that Mark has taken that over, it’s even better!

What would others want to keep? I’m so curious!

2.) COVID is turning up the volume on the things we must fix. Crises have a way of helping us see problems in high definition. I am hopeful that the issues around diversity, equity, inclusion, the divisiveness in our political system, the plague of domestic violence, and the outmatched need for mental health services can remain at the forefront of our minds and actions. We were chatting at a board meeting just after George Floyd’s death, and I referred to seeing things differently, that the “veil had been lifted.” One member of my board, Black, remarked that the veil had always been lifted for her. For her, this outcry for social justice doesn’t represent a new world; it addresses the pervasive and persistent reality of millions of Americans. Let’s remember that for many, this isn’t a moment that will pass. Let’s keep reality at the forefront so that we can change it.

3.) Remember, whatever it is, we are doing it! Between March and September at my work, there was a frenzied sense of purpose at best. Not only were we uncertain day-by-day as to what the world would hand us, but we were uncertain as to whether we could marshal the wherewithal to handle it. Then, one day, about a week after the students starting coming back to campus, there was a seismic shift in attitudes and perspectives. It went from, “Can we do this?” to, “We are doing this!” Pride radiated from everyone. Our resilience has seen us far enough down the path that we knew we could make it the rest of the way. We can see the light at the end of the tunnel. We are raising a generation of people who will be intimidated by very little from here on out. We’ve seen COVID and all that 2020 has handed us, and we feel confident we can handle whatever else comes our way. I’m so curious to see how this new mindset will change the way we approach non-crisis work! If we can carry forward the same focus and assuredness, we will make revolutionary progress on some of the tremendous issues we’re facing like equity, climate change, and political discord — in our lifetimes!

4.) We can work together better. The international cooperation we are witnessing, much of it fueled by the private sector, will result in the cure we require and the wide-scale distribution we need to bring to everyone. Scientists are sharing more information than ever. It’s not about one person or one group winning; it’s about us all surviving, which has tremendously changed the interactions and incentives. Maybe, if we are lucky, we’ll find out that we truly are better together and keep the ball rolling on the innovation and cooperation we need for many other issues we face as a global community.

5.) Our kids ARE learning. I hear so many parents worrying that our kids will fall behind because of the virtual instruction and relative distractedness teachers are experiencing due to having to manage all of this. I beg to differ. Yes, my twins may not have mastered long division, and they are definitely missing some spelling words. They might even be missing out on learning the historical contexts for many of the systems and practices we have today. However, in huge proportions, our kids learn how to connect with people across distances and build teams across differences. They are learning how to be resilient. They’re learning how to prioritize and develop a sense that learning happens beyond a classroom’s four walls. So we can take this off our worry list and know that no matter what, this will be an important part of the makeup of the generation we are raising, and I have high hopes for what lies ahead for them.

From your experience, what are a few ideas that one can use to effectively offer support to their family and loved ones who feel anxious? Can you explain it?

Listen. As leaders, as parents, as friends, we tend to want to fix problems, set things on the right course, and demonstrate progress. I’m finding out that just as often, the value I offer comes from simply listening. Whenever I can, I validate, “Yes, this is ridiculously hard!” Also, be a gentle drumbeat. Let me explain. When everything else is uncertain, it’s so helpful to people to be the opposite of that — consistent and reliable. My sister and I call each other several times a week after morning dropoff at school. If my phone rings as I am driving to work, I know it’s Katy just checking in, and it feels so — normal! It completely helps equilibrate my day. On our dean’s council at work, there are four female deans, and as I have weathered some really tough weeks professionally with the financial strains of COVID, they have been like the drumbeat that keeps the song going. Every couple of days, they check-in. How are you? How are things going? How can I help? And I do the same for them.

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 a wonder, and the beginning of wisdom is awe.” (AJ 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 thoughtful questions they’ve asked.

How can our readers follow you online?

I’m on Twitter, LinkedIn, the DU Community + Values page and Colorado Women’s College website and Facebook page.

Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!


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