Utah is the second-most sexist state, researchers say — and women’s internalized sexism appears to play a unique role here

Utah is the second-most sexist state in the nation, behind only Arkansas, according to a new index of sexist attitudes.

But one factor in particular appears to have pushed Utah up in the rankings: Women’s own “internalized” sexist attitudes.

Utah is in a minority of states where women responding to a nationwide questionnaire showed more sexism — beliefs that isolate or devalue women — than men did, according to an analysis of survey results by economists from the University of Chicago, Northwestern University and National University of Singapore.

The researchers unveiled their findings this month, not long before the personal finance website WalletHub on Tuesday deemed Utah the worst state for women’s equality, based on an array of metrics covering economic equality, education, health care and political representation.

“When you're dealing with norms and socialization in upbringing, values and beliefs — which, most of them are wonderful for people who live in Utah, but some of them not so much — those things are really hard to change,” said Utah Valley University business professor Susan Madsen, who has studied issues of bias and economic inequality affecting women in Utah.

To measure the prevalence of sexism, researchers with the University of Chicago’s study looked at responses to eight questions dealing with gender issues in the General Social Survey, a national survey that gathers data on Americans’ beliefs on a range of topics.

Respondents were asked to react to statements and questions like:

• “Women should take care of running their home and leave running the country up to men.”

• “It is much better for everyone involved if the man is the achiever outside the home and [the woman] takes care of the home and family.”

• “A working mother can establish just as warm and secure a relationship with her children as a mother who does not work.”

• “Would you vote a female for President?”

• “Are men better suited emotionally for politics than are most women?”

A state’s “sexism index” reflects the respondents’ level of agreement with beliefs “that women’s capacities are inferior to men’s; that the family unit is hurt when women focus on activities outside the home; or that men and women should occupy specific, distinct roles in society,” the researchers wrote.

Utah — the only state among the 10 “most sexist” not in the Southeast — ranked behind Arkansas and just ahead of Alabama, West Virginia and Tennessee.

When researchers divided respondents by gender, Utah women stayed at No. 2, again behind Arkansas. But the Utah men’s index — while very high compared with most other states — showed less sexism than did Utah women and than the men in four other states.

“Women often judge each other way more harshly than they judge men,” Madsen said — and that likely is tied to the narrowly defined roles by which women are taught to judge themselves in Utah’s conservative climate. “Any time you have a culture that has more traditional views and more specific perspectives around the role of men and women ... you’re going to judge more harshly. It’s natural, and a lot of it is unconscious.”

Men’s sexism and women’s sexism played out in different ways, wrote the researchers, who used the sexism indices to learn how sexism played out in women’s lives.

Men’s sexism, and not women’s, was shown to cause wage inequality and women’s underrepresentation in the workforce. But women’s sexism, not men’s, was tied to women getting married and having children at younger ages.

Family outcomes and economic outcomes for women both are extreme in Utah, which has the nation’s youngest brides on average and, according to the new WalletHub report, the largest wage gap, the largest gap in educational attainment between men and women, and the worst general health and education score for women. The report also ranked Utah 46th for women in executive positions, 48th for women’s work hours, 43rd for women’s political empowerment and 45th for workplace environment for women.

Madsen’s own research has suggested that the family and economic results for Utah women are related.

Sixty percent of Utahns belong to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, whose culture emphasizes marriage and motherhood as high priorities for women, and Utah has high rates of marriage, fertility and a large average household size, the report notes.

“Many women in the state prioritize family during their key earning years,” Madsen wrote in a 2017 report, which can leave them at a disadvantage for potential and actual pay. Many women don’t plan for careers, because they believe “motherhood will be their ‘prime career,'" Madsen wrote, and that expectation may also discourage some women from investing in education that would lead to higher-paying jobs, or from ever seeing themselves on a “career track” even if they end up working for many years.

The career opportunities actually are there for Utah women, said Patricia Jones, CEO of the Women’s Leadership Institute, which works to elevate Utah women in business and politics.

“I have seen a lot of our male CEOs and business leaders stepping up, very much wanting to get engaged in trying to help elevate women to senior level,” said Jones, a former state senator. “I’m getting so much demand — ’How do we do this?’ They’re starting to really put high expectations on the value of gender diversity.”

But there is a “very difficult talent shortage,” Jones said.

“What you see more here is women not having the confidence to step up or to visualize themselves in the C-suite, or to visualize themselves as maybe running for political office. … It’s an aspirational barrier, and it might be cultural and socialized in women here. It might be more exacerbated here than other places, but it’s true everywhere. Women don’t seem to see themselves as a CEO, and part of that is because they don’t see CEOs who are women very often. We need to change that.”

But the setbacks for Utah’s women today likely began long ago, when they were children, shaping their identities and absorbing cultural norms that taught them to imagine their futures within “strict roles” that did not include leadership, Madsen said.

“You just don't see women leading when you're a girl, and then you don't think women should lead,” Madsen said.

For women to suddenly flip a switch and envision themselves in positions of power after their kids are out of the house requires both women and men “to really dig down into perceptions gained in childhood,” Madsen said.

In the University of Chicago study, economist Kerwin Kofi Charles and his colleagues specifically tried to measure how women’s economic and family statuses were tied to the prevalence of sexist beliefs not only where they live as adults, but also in the places where they grew up.

“Sexism is highest in the Southeast and least extreme in New England and the West,” Charles and his colleagues wrote. “The figure shows that there is substantial variation in mean sexism across states within each geographic region of the country.”

New Hampshire residents demonstrate the lowest levels of sexism, according to the study, followed by Alaska, Wyoming, Vermont and Connecticut.

These differences are not based wholly on political beliefs, such as conservative outlooks on the family.

Some of the least sexist states, such as Wyoming and Alaska, also tend to be the most reliably Republican in presidential elections. On the other hand, some Democratic strongholds, such as Illinois and New York, end up in the middle of the pack, suggesting that these questions are measuring differences in beliefs not typically reflected in the ubiquitous red/blue framework dominating much of the national discourse.

According to the research by Charles and his colleagues, these state-level distinctions can have significant impacts on women’s lives.

“Sexism in a woman’s state of birth and in her current state of residence both lower her wages and likelihood of labor force participation, and lead her to marry and bear her first child sooner,” they find. Even more striking, the prevalence of sexism in a woman’s birth state seems to affect her later earnings and outcomes even if she moves to a place with less sexism.

“Sexism where she was born, which we call background sexism, affects a woman’s outcomes even after she is an adult living in another market through the influence of norms that she internalized during her formative years,” the study finds.

The General Social Survey data show that sexist attitudes are declining across the board. Nationwide, the share of Americans who say men are “better suited” for politics than women has fallen from 48 percent in 1977 to 18 percent in 2016, for instance.

But the state-level differences persist, and they have been remarkably consistent over time, Charles and his colleagues find. “There happens to be substantial stability in cross-state differences in sexism over time, even as sexism has declined everywhere,” they wrote.