Utah ranked worst for women’s equality — again — with a long way to go to catch No. 49

(AP File Photo | Rick Bowmer) The floor of the Utah House of Representatives is shown on Jan. 28, 2019, the first day of the legislative session in Salt Lake City. The low number of women elected in Utah plays into the state's ranking as the nation's worst state for women's equality.

Utah has been named the worst state for women’s equality, again. And it’s not even close to the state ranked 49th — its neighbor, Idaho.

WalletHub released its “2019’s Best & Worst States for Women’s Equality” on Tuesday, evaluating states on workplace environment, education, health and political empowerment. There was more than a 50-point gap in the total scores between the top state — Maine — at 76.75, and Utah’s score of 25.10.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Idaho was ranked 49th, with a score of 40.03. The biggest difference between Idaho and Utah was in the political category, which includes the number of women elected to federal and state political positions and state executive jobs.

Neither Utah nor Idaho have female lawmakers on the federal level. But women made up nearly a third of the 2019 Idaho Legislature, at 31.4%, while women held 24% of the seats in Utah, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Women have entered high-profile races in Utah this year. For the first time, Salt Lake City voters will decide between two women — Councilwoman Erin Mendenhall and state Sen. Luz Escamilla — in November for mayor. Angel Castillo is running for mayor against Mike Caldwell in Ogden.

And Morgan County Councilwoman Tina Cannon and Kaysville Mayor Katie Witt are considering runs in 2020 for northern Utah’s 1st Congressional District to replace retiring Republican Rep. Rob Bishop.

Erin Jemison, who works with the YWCA’s Real Women Run program, said she thinks a cultural dynamic of women wondering whether and how those in their lives will support them, and “how to balance it all," often keeps women from running for office in Utah.

Potential candidates think about “how to take time away from other things in women’s lives, because campaigning and then serving in office can be a full-time job. And making sure that they have the support in their home life and through their employer, if they’re working outside the home, to make it all work,” she said.

Jemison said she also hears from women who are “turned off by some of the divisiveness and what they feel like are dirty tactics with campaigning” at the national level.

Former Idaho state Rep. Kelley Packer, a Republican from McCammon, said she was “blessed to be raised in a home where I was told I could do anything and everything” by her family, and that is “critical to getting ... women involved."

During last year’s primaries, Idaho newspapers highlighted the number of women who ran for election.

“Never before has Idaho had a woman be the lieutenant governor. Never before has Idaho had three women hold at least three statewide offices at the same time. Never before has Idaho had a woman as its major-party nominee for governor. But Idaho is likely to have all those now,” the Idaho Statesman reported in May 2018.

Packer said she isn’t sure why Utah women don’t have a level of representation closer to Idaho’s percentage. But seeing Utah and Idaho in the bottom two spots of WalletHub’s report, she said, shows “there’s still a lot of work that can be done in both states.”

“We all know that we came from a culture where men in general were the leaders and women were to stay home and take care of the kids. Fortunately, those things are changing to a large degree, but there are still some characteristics that I think carry over, regardless of whether you see more women in these roles or not,” said Packer, who this year became director of the state’s Bureau of Occupational Licenses.

Women are questioned more often than men about their attire or their responsibility for staying home and raising children, Packer said.

“I mean, yes, yay, women are participating more," she said. "But everyone in general could be more supportive and less judgmental during these discussions, especially in those two areas.”

Utah needs to create “more of a pipeline” for women to get leadership experience at local and municipal levels, Jemison said, so that when openings come up for executive office or the state Legislature, “women are ready to kind of take that next step." And there needs to be more “women being elected and being in leadership roles on both sides of the aisle if we’re ever going to make a huge difference,” she said.

According to WalletHub’s report, Utah had the largest gap in the nation between men and women in educational attainment, the unemployment rate and work hours.

Utah ranked 49th for the biggest gap in earnings and political representation. Louisiana had the largest political representation gap, while Wyoming ranked last in income gap.

Utah was 46th in executive positions, but higher in entrepreneurship, coming in 42nd.

To compile the rankings, WalletHub evaluated the states using 17 metrics and a 100-point scale, “with a score of 100 representing the most favorable conditions for women’s equality.” The metrics compared men and women on issues such as income disparity, poverty rate, doctor-visit affordability and the share of lawmakers in state legislatures.

Earlier this year, WalletHub ranked Utah 29th out of the 50 states and the District of Columbia in terms of living standards for women. Utah was dead last in the personal-finance website’s 2018 study looking at women’s equality across the country.

Becky Jacobs is a Report for America corps member and writes about the status of women in Utah for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today.