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The City Journals

WGU firmly includes proactive efforts for women

Sep 05, 2019 03:28PM ● By Jennifer J Johnson

Western Governors University expresses robust commitment to workforce-diversity practices, a philosophy beneficial for those who work for the nonprofit organization, as well as those who pursue their education there. (Pixabay)

By Jennifer J. Johnson | [email protected]

Western Governors University (WGU) was formed in 1997. Now, with 22 years under its belt, the organization which started with two women on its board of trustees, seems to be making earnest efforts to stay as cutting edge in its hiring-retaining-promoting efforts as it is in its electronic delivery of course content and performance-based testing measures.

What is WGU?

WGU is a private, nonprofit, online university with headquarters in Murray. The nonprofit university is the bipartisan brainchild of former Republican Utah Governor Mike Leavitt—who still sits on the board of trustees for the entity—and former Democratic Colorado Governor Roy Romer. 

WGU uses an online competency-based learning model as opposed to the traditional credit-based model present at most universities. It also boasts costing about half the cost of today’s online university—even though its pioneering efforts helped pave the way for what has now become a standard way of learning.

In the early days, then Gov. Leavitt spoke of WGU’s being “one small click for mankind.” Today, from a human resources perspective, the virtual university has its sights set on not just mankind, but all kinds.

WGU and the WLI (Women’s Leadership Institute)

WGU was recently one of 30 companies to participate in the “ElevateHer Pledge” sponsored by another nonprofit organization — the Women’s Leadership Institute. 

The six-part challenge seeks to inform organizations of hiring, retaining, and promoting practices for women, as well as to heighten women’s leadership on internal and external boards and even encourage them to bring their skills beyond the organization into the public realm by running for public office.

While WGU participated in the May event and was even quoted by WLI in a press release about the project, it really does not represent anything new for WGU. This perspective comes from Bonnie Pattee, senior vice president of people and talent, who has worked for WGU for almost seven years and was promoted in July from VP to senior VP.

In a given year, Pattee’s team will hire 1,500-1,600 individuals across the country for virtual roles, as well as the mainstay academic and administrative bricks-and-mortar presence WGU hosts at is Murray headquarters.

“We have been doing this for a while, and we have probably hit all (the aspects) that are included in the challenge,” she told the City Journals.

According to Pattee, companies are just beginning to really recognize and figure how to assess, monitor, and combat compensation equity gaps between male and female employees. “We have always looked carefully at our internal equity,” she said. “That is not new space to us.”

WGU and women at the highest levels

WGU had two women among the 13 founding members of its board of trustees and three women be among the 11 founding members of its National Advisory Board.

The company has four women — including two women of color — on its board of trustees. Both of the women of color have been added late in the game, with Van Ton-Quinlivan joining in February of this year and Jessie Woolley-Wilson joining in 2017. Only Therese Crane is a veteran, serving since 2002, almost since the dawn of the organization.

Its other key governance organizations — representing everything from academic leadership to assessment — WGU has 38% of these board-type entities comprising women.

Pay equity, the WGU way

The math varies slightly, but most sources agree that, in the United States, women are paid 80 cents for every $1 earned by men in similar positions of responsibility. The hourly compensation rate severely decreases for women (and men) of color.

Key to WGU’s efforts for recruitment is the concept of “partnering”—something Pattee learned from her former gig at high-tech company Novell, Inc. “[We] make sure we are partnering with the right organizations that are supporting and advocating for women and minorities,” she said.

To that end, the WLI is synergistic with WGU. “We are doing so many of these things already, that it was a natural fit,” said Elke Leeds, dean of WGU’s College of Information Technology. 

“A perfect meld of mind,” she continued.

Leeds, who joined WGU about a year ago from Georgia after serving on the Academic Leadership Guiding Council for the virtual university and now heads a college with more than 20,000 students, said she met WLI CEO Pat Jones at a Salt Lake Chamber event. She views WLI and other networking events as “wonderful opportunities” to pass along to women throughout the WGU organization.

Leeds said she heard “lore” about Utah’s being a nonprogressive state for women in business and leadership. “Utahns themselves are their own worst enemies when they describe this region,” she said emphatically.

She said Utah is much more progressive at exploring issues such as childcare and eldercare and how they impact not just women, but men in the workforce. She credits WGU’s team as being “incredible” in terms of being on the leading edge of ensuring a diverse workforce.

“There is always more work to do, to do the right thing,” Pattee summarized.