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American Association of University Women: Empowering for Over 130 Years

An interview with CEO Kimberly Churches on how the AAUW has been blazing a trail to empower women as individuals and as a community

CEO Kim Churches with AAUW Fellows and the Empire State NYC leadership members at the annual Appreciation Dinner on March 13, 2019 in New York City

With Women’s History Month coming to a close, we decided to meet with the CEO of a long-standing and generous organization, the American Association of University Women (AAUW) and its New York City branch’s leadership team, working together as a national grassroots organization to improve the lives of millions of women and their families.

Since its first meeting in 1881, the American Association of University Women (AAUW) has been a catalyst for change. Today, the nonpartisan, nonprofit organization has more than 170,000 members and supporters across the United States, as well as 1,000 local branches and over 800 college and university partners.

At its onset, the group’s founders envisioned an organization where women college graduates could band together to open the doors of higher education to other women and to find wider opportunities for their professional training. Throughout its history, AAUW has examined and taken positions on such fundamental issues as women’s role in education, society, economics, and politics. And while AAUW boasts a long, illustrious history, it continues to be a very contemporary and vibrant organization today.

Members of the AAUW at the beginning of the XX century

AAUW is one of the world’s largest sources of funding exclusively for women who have graduated from college. Each year, it provides millions of dollars in fellowships, grants, and community project awards. AAUW’s Legal Advocacy Fund (LAF) is the largest legal fund in the United States that focuses solely on sex discrimination against women in higher education. Each year, AAUW sponsors the National Conference of College Women Student Leaders (NCCWSL) – a student leadership conference designed to provide female college students with access to the resources, skills, and networks they need to lead change on campuses and in communities nationwide. Additionally, AAUW advocates for equal pay laws on a state and federal level: Most recently, AAUW worked to pass the Paycheck Fairness Act, which was passed by the House of Representatives on Wednesday.  AAUW also works with employers on continuous improvement of their workplace policies so that women have better access to opportunities.

Kimberly Churches, AAUW CEO

AAUW Empire State NYC Branch (ESNYCB) recently hosted the annual AAUW Fellows Appreciation Dinner in New York City. We had the pleasure of speaking with AAUW CEO Kimberly Churches, an American of Italian origin, at the event to discuss the organization’s current initiatives and AAUW’s role at the sixty-third session of the Commission on the Status of Women that took place this month at the United Nations Headquarters in New York. Ms. Churches share her vision of AAUW’s future with La Voce. 

This is a special month. In Europe, they celebrate only one day, March 8th.  Instead, in the United States, an entire month is dedicated to women and the rights of women. Tell us about your organization and what its main goals are, and what your strategy is on how to reach those goals.

We have a storied history at AAUW. We were started at a time when most women were not permitted to enter into higher education. There actually was a Harvard research report in the 1880s that said if women work their brains, they wouldn’t be able to make children, and this was a very well-known research report, and our very first research report debunked that and proved that women could, indeed, work their brains.

This was around the turn of the century….

Ellen Swallow Richards, AAUW Founder, 1880s

This was around 1885, when we issued our report debunking this. Our organization is non-partisan, therefore we are a non-political, non-profit organization dedicated to advancing equity for women and girls and we do that in a few different ways. One, we believe in facts. We start first with facts, data and analysis, and then we believe you have to develop the right policy tools, so the right bills to be introduced at a city or municipal level, state or provincial, federal and international. We are here this week because of the UN CSW convenings, so we’re working very much on an international scope as to how we can all share policy ideas and pragmatic programs. And that last is the third part of the effort; it’s programs. Because you can pass all of the right laws or sign treaties or sign pledges, but real change happens by working with human beings on programs that work. Our first emphasis is on education and training. We believe education is still the great equalizer for all, in that giving access and ensuring that we are getting rid of bias and discrimination allows all to thrive, not just women. Because there are such growing inequities in the world and in the nation we’re sitting in today, we also believe in work place development, work force development and training, so that may not be higher education, it may be certificate programs, apprenticeship programs, pathways to good paying jobs. As our middle class is shrinking, we need to think about this and that half the population on this planet can do a lot to produce towards the economy. Second, is economic security. So, economic security for families, when today more and more women in this country and around the world are heads of household; that they are responsible for their children and their families’ financial well-being. So, we’re working to make sure that women can be paid the same amount as their male colleagues, if they have the same skills, the same education and training, the same asset-base.

On this particular subject, on equity and salary payment, some panels at the UN General Assembly were giving the rankings on which countries are doing the best for women. The United States and Italy were not ranking well, at all.

Yes. We passed something here in the United States called the Equal Pay Act in 1963, almost 56 years ago, and the workforce has changed astronomically since then, so the way that women enter the workforce, post WWII, post-Vietnam War, different even then today in the 21st century, and so we have to update our laws, but importantly, we also have to update our practices. You can pass your laws, and there are many laws being passed, like in London, Mayor Sadiq Kahn passed some very robust transparency laws and the like, on pay equity in the city of London. We are doing some of that work in San Francisco, in the state of California, in Massachusetts, even in states that are very conservative in the United States, like in Kansas and Missouri, very good new legislation coming up, but, if we’re behind because we have not changed the way people behave, and the reality is in most work places, bias and discrimination is too easy to continue because nobody is holding you accountable, so hiring managers, for example, if women have children, they are faced with a motherhood penalty, but when men have children, they get a bonus for fatherhood; they are perceived as family men, they are perceived as the provider, yet if you’re a woman in the workplace, you’re passed over.

1921: AAUW headquarter in Washington, DC

Your organization promotes equity and education for women and girls, but are you also functioning as a watchdog? Are you denouncing situations where the government or a company does something — are you out there to scream?

Yes, yes, and not just to scream, I would say, importantly, to work on continuous improvement, because it doesn’t do much good for me, in this position, just to wag my finger and scream and be angry, it has to be about shining — I believe  sunshine is a great tool  as a disinfectant to change things, putting things out in the sunshine, making them transparent, ensuring that we’re looking at regular pay audits, for example, by employers, or eliminating salary history as a question for women – or men – on an application. These things provide for a greater ability to avoid the biases of the discrimination, so when we look — at AAUW, we run research on the gender pay gap in the United States, and we don’t only look at it on the national level, we can look at it by state, by city, and by industry and by sector, and we can see our doing. Overall, we’re not doing so hot; we have stagnated over the past two decades — 20 years – very, very little movement, so that’s why we’re looking at how to work with policy makers, elected and appointed officials, how can we work with employers to understand that half of your work force – either if you just want them as your consumer or you want them as an employee – you‘re going to be more productive, have better return on investment, meaning more earnings for your shareholders, if you’re paying women what they’re worth, and then last, we’re training women how to negotiate on behalf of their own financial future. Men are four times more likely to negotiate their salary then women – that’s absurd. So, if we can train them how to negotiate, that can be part of the puzzle to solve the gap.

AAUW headquarter today, in Washington DC

What do you think is the main reason for which this country, that started the fight with suffrage and the movement for the right to vote – compared to other countries – and won, has begun to roll back in recent years?

I think it’s a few reasons. One, we have a habit in this nation of sometimes passing federal laws, and thinking we’re done; we stop having the national dialogue. The Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964, but racism is still prominent, and we see a lot of that happening in criminal justice issues and issues with the police and human beings on the ground in a lot of urban settings right now, because we didn’t continue the national dialogue and the programs to ensure that the Civil Rights Act could be upheld. Likewise, with the Equal Pay Act, it can’t just be one bill and we’re done, one law and we’re done, it’s not a complete law for how we’re working today, and the reality is, it’s still a pretty parochial society. All of the systems for the workplace were set up in this old paradigm where the man ruled the family. Now, those things have changed. Both of my parents worked, my husband and I work, but, that’s not how the systems are set up. So, for example, even if you are a woman who wants to become a professor, and you earn your Ph.D. at about 28 years old — the system to become a tenured professor says you have seven years to publish or perish, to earn, but those are your prime baby making years. So how set up is that paradigm? It works well for men, it doesn’t work well for women. It’s the same for law firms, the same with accounting firms. The work we haven’t done that laws alone can’t fix, is that we haven’t fixed the paradigms of how we work, and that’s one of the things that we’re working on right now.   

Kimberly Churches, AAUW CEO at the UN CSW63

Do you see some systems abroad that work, like in the Scandinavian countries? And is there something that you, through your organization, want to lobby, that you want to have happen here? Is there something in particular?

Yes, so there are two big things: one is the Paycheck Fairness Act, which we helped to champion and introduced it on the 10th anniversary of another fair pay act that was passed in this nation. So, if we can this through Congress, it should be voted on by the House of Representatives by the end of this month, and that can be a really great tool for women. The next is parental leave, and I am thinking of Scandinavia, in particular here. Our leave, for family leave, is atrocious in this nation; it’s simply insufficient and it has become more maternity leave than parental leave, so even with us passing new parental leave, which we are lobbying for very hard and advocating every day for, it can only work if men also take the leave. So, when I am out talking with groups regularly, you can’t have parental leave. There are many companies, multinational companies — because they are formed and working all over the globe — offering parental leave to keep good employees. But if only women take it, it just goes back to being maternity leave. So that’s where the Scandinavian example is terrific – they were offering one year of parental leave, but what was happening was that only women were taking the year. So, what they did in Norway was, they changed the law, and they said, ‘Nope, nope, nope — six months for the man, six months for the woman’.

I want to go back to education, which is also how your organization really made progress in this country, to provide an opportunity to all women — no matter what social class – and help them to get into higher education. With the latest big college admissions scandal with the Ivy League schools, what was your reaction when you heard of it? Did you expect it? Did you have an idea that this was going on?

Really, really qualified humans should have been in those places. I was not surprised. I’ve worked in academia, I’ve worked in a public university and a private university, and I know how competitive admissions are and how competitive it is for full-paying tuition, legacy students, etc. That said, the system is broken. However, I will say – and I think it’s important to say — that are a lot of exceedingly good college admissions advisors, counselors, vice presidents, that are working very hard every day on inclusion, diversity, intersectionality, so they ensure they have the right student body at an undergraduate level and graduate level. These are some bad actors, so I don’t think the whole system is broken, but there is work that needs to be done. The inequities in this world – socioeconomic, race and ethnic, gendered – these inequities that continue to grow with a shrinking middle class around the globe — we have to address this. For our organization, we have been supporting international fellows and American fellows for over 100 years. We give away millions of dollars.

Kimberly Churches, AAUW CEO during her speech at the AAUW Fellows Appreciation Dinner on March 13th in New York

Including women coming from other countries?

150 different countries — for over 100 years! Each year, we select about 50 international fellows from a wide variety of people, and what happens with our fellowships, as opposed to it going to Harvard, or Stanford, or the University of Chicago, or wherever, the money comes directly to the woman. Because the reality is, for a woman pursuing her graduate degree or a doctorate degree from another nation, or from the United States – we have American fellows, as well – they typically have more expenses than just tuition and board. They have childcare issues, they have elder care issues, they have home and living expenses, and might need to take care of siblings back home, as well, and so we know that in supporting our fellows, it’s not just about writing the check for tuition, it’s making sure that they have enough resources to support their families.

Since we are discussing international countries, and there are countries in which women’s rights are greatly lacking and being violated, do you have a sort of preference for applications, for women that are looking for higher education opportunities here in this country, to assist women that come from situations in which they are really in need?

Yes, geography matters, the socio-economic status of the nation, obviously the scholastic background of the woman applicant, as well, but then a lot of ours are restricted fellowships set up 100 years ago as endowments, so they have specific areas where we’re looking. It’s very well diversified across the disciplines, so we don’t have 100 fellows studying law, or 100 fellows studying economics. Right now, about 40% of our fellows are very much focused on STEM fields, so we know women are falling behind in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. Therefore, we’re really looking for candidates from around the globe that are seeking those degrees.

Kimberly Churches, AAUW CEO at the UN CSW63

How many women do you sponsor, not only internationally, but also here in the United States? How many women are able to go through higher education thanks to your organization? 

We have had a total over 12,000 women that were able to pursue their graduate degrees. We give about 50 American fellowships and 50 international fellowships annually. We give $4 million dollars a year. That’s from our endowment that we give away each year.

You come from another institution, the Brookings Institute, which is a global phenomenon that is very famous, not only in Washington, DC, but around the world. You were doing a certain kind of job for a large institution. This one has a different scope. What convinced you to accept this mission?

The time. I’m bullish about what I feel we can do for women and girls today. There’s a moment right now, where we’re having a global discourse, and a very much national conversation here of what we’re going to ensure that the next generation can really live up to all of their dreams, and really live and fulfill all of their dreams. I would say that the greatest generation, that kind of created the systems here that we have in place, the Baby Boomers in the United States, the Gen Xers —  kind of accepted the status quo for what it looked like in education and in the workforce, but the Millenials, and the generation behind them, Generation Z, do not accept anything other than inclusion and diversity. They’ve grown up with technology, they’ve grown up with the financial crisis, and they have too many choices. And they see that the world is becoming more blended, and they want to see that in every part of their community, so I’m very optimistic that we’ll be able to effect many of these changes, and frankly I can say that there are many employers – SAP Corporation is a very good example of this – they’re a major tech company and they saw actually that their bottom line, the dollars they bring in in revenues each year, was going up, when more women were represented. So, the CFO walked into the boardroom and to the CEO and said, “We need to change this”. They didn’t need Congress to make that decision or a UN STG signed to say, “we must do this as a sustainable development goal”. They knew it made good business sense because they knew that for their consumers, for their ability to make good decisions to problem solve, and for their ROI, including women was right. So, I took it, it’s a narrower focus than Brookings, because I felt that we could make a good bet on facts, analyses, the right policies and the right programs to make change.

A group of AAUW members in 1924

The word feminist in the past years has all of sudden gone from being a positive, something people were proud to call themselves, to something negative, and not only here; it’s everywhere. Would you be proud to be considered a feminist?

Even the Dalai Lama is proud to say he’s a feminist because being a feminist is just merely saying that all of us have an opportunity to grow and thrive, right? That’s really what it’s about. I think some of the anger came from marching and the idea that somehow women were angry about our position — sure, we deserve and have earned the ability to have equal rights to our male counterparts, right? I’m very proud to call myself a feminist, but in addition to being a feminist, I‘m a humanist, and humanist means I believe in advancing equity for all, and last, I’m a pragmatist; I know we can’t do all of this work tomorrow, but I know that we can look at it on a chart and say, ‘how do we pick away at everything one by one and really allow the sunshine in so that people can see the issues and find the solutions?’.

Data that was recently released states that 1 leader out of 5 in the world is a woman now. It’s not at 50% yet, but are you satisfied with this data?

No, no, never, satisfied and we certainly aren’t there in the US, either, even with the 116th Congress finally looking like the woman of the year.

Yes, the last election brought about a big wave.

Yes, a big boost, and I was there for the State of the Union, and it was wonderful to see all of these women representing so many different constituents from around the country, but no, I am definitely not satisfied. I think that better decision making happens, when we’re all seated at the table together. This isn’t about excluding men, this is about including women. This is about us working together to make this nation, this globe, this planet that we all love and that we all reside on, better and stronger and more resilient, and we can’t do that with the old system. We have to decide and be definitive, to know that together we are stronger and to move forward.

Kimberly Churches, AAUW CEO during her speech at the AAUW Fellows Appreciation Dinner on March 13th in New York

You have now been in this organization for a few years. If you were to be offered Aladdin’s lamp and you were granted three wishes for this organization that you lead, what would be the three main goals that you wish to secure by the end of your mission here?

One is leadership. We need at least one third, 30% of all leadership positions, whether that’s elected, appointed, private sector, public sector, non-profit, NGOs, a third of the leadership — and we should be striving being that for 40% and then 50%. But if it was within 3-5 years, I would love to see that become a massive phenomenon. There are organizations that are achieving that, and they’re seeing great results; you’re seeing it in some city councils around the world, in some national parliaments and the like, but we’re not there yet. And so that would be one major one; let’s get to 30 knowing that the power of three is real in leadership; you can’t just have one, you can’t have two, you need to have at least three. That’s a biggie. Second, is pay equity – it’s achievable. Our own research, the simple truth on the gender pay gap, says that we’re more than 100 years away from solving the gender pay gap. That’s unacceptable to me, so I believe so I believe that we can actually close the gap by 2030, within our lifetime, but we have to look at it in a three-pronged approach, of making sure that we are training men and women on barriers, biases, discrimination, unconscious bias, and teaching women negotiation skills; 2) we need to be working directly with employers with industries, with sectors, with associations and chambers, to really get to the nuggets of what they need to do to improve their practices, and help them along in this. It will really help them to retain customers, it’ll help them retain employees, and we know the evidence is there that their bottom line will increase. And then 3) We need to pass stronger laws; it’s wonderful all that we’re doing with the UN this week, but we can be even stronger in this work at a national level, provincial level, or state level, and city and municipal level. And you’re seeing some good trends of this around the world, including in our nation; the state of California is at 91 cents on the dollar, whereas the national average in the US is 80 cents on the dollar. They have passed many, many laws and worked with many, many employers to improve those practices, and the numbers went up. So, I know it’s possible.

Are you optimistic that you can reach those goals? Do you feel that the environment that we’re in now, in 2019, is the right moment to jump?

Yes, I will give you an example. We sometimes get deemed as a progressive organization. If progressive just means equality, ok, I’ll take it. But we’re non-partisan, as I said; we’re not aligned with democrats or the republicans. If I can get a mayor of a very, very conservative city to give me the key to the city, because he knows and believes that what we’re doing is about the economic security for the families that he protects and serves every day, we’re on the right track. It’s not just the right now, the democratic House of Representatives talking about these issues; these are issues that cut across. They cut across national lines, they cut across state lines, they circle around the globe; that it’s an opportunity and a moment. Is it going to be solved in five years? No. But one last: I have an 11-year-old daughter. When I left Brookings and came to AAUW, she said, “Mommy, why do we even need AAUW? Everyone knows girls can do everything boys can do. If we can keep that optimism, and keep this generation believing that everything — and break down those old paradigms — I think that we’re onto something. 

Kim Churches with AAUW Fellows and the Empire State NYC leadership members at the annual Appreciation Dinner on March 13, 2019 in New York City.



Maria Ellis AAUW Empire State NYC President

The AAUW Empire State NYC branch, headed by President Maria Ellis, promotes AAUW National’s initiatives and mission by expanding its membership base at the local level. The branch’s Communications and Visibility department, under the direction of Dr. Jessica Ryan Sims (AAUW American Fellow), disseminates information about AAUW on social media and at its in-person professional women’s networking events. Dr. Sims explains, “I received an AAUW American Dissertation Fellowship for the 2016-2017 academic year. The American Fellowship provides financial support to scholars in the final year of their doctoral research. The award both helped me to graduate without taking on debt and shaped my dissertation project. In particular, it encouraged me to apply my theoretical work on Stockholm Syndrome and psychological coercion to the practical issue of domestic violence in the United States. Now I am working on a book length project that will introduce my ideas to a popular audience. AAUW members have been extremely supportive of my work and the feedback that they provide to me is invaluable. I serve as the director of communications for the Empire State New York City branch. My primary objective is to build a broad-based professional network in New York City that helps women advance their career goals in one of the most competitive cities worldwide. Our mission is to provide these emerging leaders with the support they need to get ahead in this fast-paced city.”

Emmelina De Feo, Vice President of Funds (left) and Dr. Jessica Ryan Sims, Visibility and Communications Director at the AAUW Fellows Appreciation Dinner on March 13th in New York

AAUW Empire State NYC Vice President of Funds, Emmelina De Feo, recognizes the importance of having a permanent AAUW voice in New York City. She sees the vital importance of communication, growing the branch through memberships, ensuring that important information is disseminated, while forging partnerships with other like-minded groups and organizations throughout the city: “The mission of AAUW has always aligned with my beliefs as a woman, as a career professional, and now also as the mother of two very young daughters. Whether with legislation, educational funding, leadership, salary negotiations, or global connections – all that AAUW has done, and continues to do today, I believe remains paramount in reaching the goals we wish to achieve for women and girls, and their families. I was honored when the president of the Empire State New York City branch, Maria Ellis, asked me to broaden my relationship with the branch to become its Vice President of Funds, and I am thrilled to be working with such an amazing group of highly talented women. For more than 130 years, AAUW has worked together as a national grassroots organization to improve the lives of millions of women and their families, and now I will be able to help continue AAUW’s mission here in New York City within this role.”

For those interested in finding out more about AAUW, the AAUW Empire State NYC Branch and how to become a member, please visit this website, the AAUW Empire State NYC Facebook page, YouTube or follow them on Instagram

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