More Utah women are on state boards, but gender balance is still far off, report says

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Representatives from the Governor's Office of Economic Development and Silicon Slopes meet in Lehi in 2017. The Governor's Office of Economic Development had one of the biggest increases in women members from 18% in 2016 to 30% in 2019, according to research from the Utah Women and Leadership Project.

Like Iowa, Utah has a law that encourages gender balance on state boards and commissions. But unlike Iowa, Utah hasn’t come close to that goal.

Women filled 32.7% of the positions on 345 boards and commissions in the state in 2019, according to a brief released Tuesday from the Utah Women and Leadership Project. That’s a 4.6% increase from research on the same topic in 2016.

“Developments in the last few years are genuinely encouraging, yet many state agencies still have little gender diversity on their boards (with numerous areas showing no female representation),” according to the brief.

Seventy-eight of the boards and commissions had no female appointees, 19 had an equal split, and 60 had a female majority. The remaining boards and commissions were dominated by men but included women.

“Women make up a little over half of the country … and so just from a pure representative government standpoint, you would expect the people serving on those boards and commissions to have a similar make up in their community,” said Kelly Winfrey, who studies this topic as the research and outreach coordinator at the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women in Politics at Iowa State University.

Plus, “more diverse groups tend to make better decisions," Winfrey said, and “think out different pros and cons” for policies and procedures. “Having more diversity means you have better government,” she said.

“Unfortunately, comparable national data are not available” to see how Utah compares to the rest of the country on this topic, according to the Utah Women and Leadership Project. Iowa is the only state that requires gender balance in these positions at the state, county and city levels, according to Winfrey.

Currently, Iowa’s state boards and commissions have a fairly even split between men and women. And more than half of the county boards and commissions Winfrey’s center looked at in 2017 and 2018 were gender balanced.

“There has been a steady increase, but it’s been slow," Winfrey said.

One of the biggest challenges, she said, is that although legislation may require or encourage gender balance, “there’s not really any enforcement mechanism to it.” The hope is that Winfrey’s center “will hold cities and counties accountable by publicizing that information,” she said.

The Utah Women and Leadership Project brief recommends that Utah agencies “collect, analyze and publish data on board diversity, including obstacles interfering with the ability of some female appointees to remain on board for the full term.”

Utah should also “be more transparent” with the process, such as with applications, interviewing and appointments, “including publishing a complete list of names of individuals serving on these boards and commissions,” according to the brief.

“A lot of people don’t really know what (boards and commissions) do or how to get on them,” Winfrey said. In order to get different people on them, “it takes some effort from the people making the decision to recruit,” she said.

Currently, there are more than 200 open seats on Utah’s state boards and commissions, according to the brief. There needs to be active recruitment to reach diverse candidates, and more women should apply and nominate other women for seats, the Utah Women and Leadership Project said.

“If qualified women are not found within the applicant pools, it is difficult for Utah leaders to appoint them to such roles,” the brief states.

To apply for openings on Utah’s state boards and commissions, go to boards.utah.gov/Board

There also needs to be “quality unconscious bias training” for those that oversee board appointments, according to the research.

In Utah, women “continue to have a strong presence on stereotypically ‘female-focused’” and “child and youth-centric boards,” such as the Board of Nursing and Utah Board of Juvenile Justice, while “men in Utah continue to have a predominant presence on boards in the fields of business, finance, natural resources, housing and technology,” according to the brief.

Since 2016, there have been substantial gains for women in certain Utah divisions, including Agriculture and Food (8% to 21%), Insurance (15% to 33%) and the Governor’s Office of Economic Development (18% to 30%).

There have also been significant decreases, including with the State Treasurer (20% to 6%) and Technology Services (27% to 13%).

“We still have much more work to do,” the brief states.

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.