Community leaders discuss Utah women inequality and steps for collective action

Susan Madsen, with the Utah Women’s Leadership Project, discusses inequities Utah women face on Wednesday. (Ashley Fredde, KSL.com)

Estimated read time: 6-7 minutes

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah was recently again ranked worst in the country for women’s equality — the fourth consecutive year. Access to child care and a lack of pathways for women to return to work seem to be the greatest obstacles they face in the Beehive State.

But elected officials, community advocates and business leaders are on the trail. They gathered Wednesday to discuss how to implement policies and practices to advance women’s equality in Utah.

In a series of panels, community leaders discussed where collective action was needed for improvement. Utah Legislators Sen. Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, Sen. Ann Millner, R-Ogden, Rep. Sandra Hollins, D-Salt Lake City, and Rep. Susan Pulsipher, R-South Jordan, discussed recent legislative advancements and future plans to bring women workers more in line with men, via salary and advancement in the workplace.

Wednesday’s Women’s Equality Luncheon came several months after the Utah Women’s Leadership Project released its report “Women’s Equality in Utah: Why Utah Is Ranked as the Worst State and What Can Be Done.” The nonprofit analyzed 17 key indicators in the areas of workplace environment, education and health and political empowerment — similar to WalletHub’s annual survey.

The analysis and subsequent report came after WalletHub ranked Utah as the worst state in the nation for women’s equality for the fourth year in a row. A series of recommendations were issued for improvement in the areas of focus to elevate Utah’s score.

Those who spoke at Wednesday’s event celebrated wins like the recognition of community health workers through certifications, establishing grant money for businesses to participate in pilot projects such as returnships, the collection of data regarding students being bullied in Utah schools following a 10-year-old girl’s death, and furthering access to child care.

Expanding access to Medicare coverage for all children by removing eligibility requirements was listed as a continuing pursuit. A newly proposed bill would help address a disparity found in the report regarding affordability of doctor’s visits. Utah women are at a 3.7% disadvantage due to their perception of the affordability of medical visits, according to the report.

Others spoke about education, corporate culture and political representation in advancing Utah women’s equality. Despite each panel featuring different and diverse voices, multiple themes overlapped between the panels.

Lack of representation

The need for inclusive and diverse leadership appeared in multiple conversations surrounding inequality. To advance women’s inequality, young girls should be able to witness women in power, according to Utah System of Higher Education Commissioner Dave Woolstenhulme.

“We really need to start having conversations with our young ladies in the early early stages of life to help them understand what pathways are there for them, what impact they can have in our industries today,” he said. “Our young women need to see women in these positions so they can see the reflection in themselves to be able to drive and to be able to move forward.”

The sentiment was carried by fellow educator Claustina Mahon-Reynolds, a principal in Park City School District, who emphasized representation in mentors.

“They don’t just need to see someone that is on TV as a black woman; they need to see a black woman who was educated, who is there for them and is advocating for them,” said Mahon-Reynolds.

Studies show that representation and mentorship in education can lead to higher educational attainment for Utah women, elevating opportunities in many ways. Among those opportunities and extended need for mentorship is within the political sphere.

Utah has large disparities regarding political representation among women both on the state and national levels. Utah has never elected a woman to serve in the US Senate and currently has no female representatives in the US House. Since statehood, Utah has only had four women serve as representatives.

The disparity extends into the state Legislature, with the state ranking 40th in 2021 for female representation, according to the report. Utah also ranks 33rd for elected statewide executive office.

Utah has a “need for women, as we discuss some of these policies that affect families every day, especially as you break into the committees,” said Pat Jones, a former Utah lawmaker and CEO at Women’s Leadership Institute. “I was oftentimes the only woman on that committee where they discussed gun legislation, environmental issues, health care education, and so forth. It’s absolutely critical that we do that.”

Speakers called for women in the room to enter the political sphere or to tap the shoulder of a woman they know to do so.

Addressing cultural attitudes

To further address inequities, community leaders said that cultural attitudes needed to be confronted.

Cultural attitudes or conversations surrounding educational attainment, corporate advancement and business ownership can heavily contribute to women’s inequality, the report found.

“I think, at an early age, we start to stereotype male (and) female types of careers, they should have the type of opportunities they should have. We absolutely need to release that to where some of our very best engineering, some of the very best STEM fields are women. And we need to start celebrating that and helping young women start to see themselves within that role of doing that,” said Woolstenhulme.

Releasing stereotypes can lead to higher educational attainment for women and can also address the income disparity. The report found that Utah women experience income disparity at 35%, with higher income disparity at 13%, and a disparity in the share of executive roles.

“The industries are starting to realize that they need the women, so they’re willing to have more of a flexible work schedule. So all those things can be taken care of so that they can remain and do the things that they want to do at the same time, have a career,” he added.

Corporate representatives emphasized Wednesday how corporations can advance equality forward through more flexibility, transparency and overall support of the needs of employees.

Future steps

Moving forward, the Utah Women’s Leadership Project and the Utah governor’s office plan to collaborate on plans to address inequities outlined in the report. Included in their blueprint is the goal of an additional 1,000 women-owned businesses, increased access to childcare, addressing sexual and domestic violence with key stakeholders, and elevating marginalized voices.

“The state of Utah is going to be taking the lead and saying we want what’s happening within our workforce and we want to be able to study it and make sure we’re closing the gaps,” said Nubia Pena, senior advisor of Equity and opportunity. “So we can’t ask corporate leaders and private sector public institutions to lead if we’re not personally the heavy lifting the heavy work.”

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Ashley Fredde covers human services, minority communities and women’s issues for KSL.com. She also enjoys reporting on arts, culture and entertainment news. She’s a graduate of the University of Arizona.

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