Utah women are clear: They want more female leaders in government and business.
“As a girl growing up here in Utah, that was something that I found concerning as a little kid before I could articulate it — that I didn’t see people like me [in leadership positions]," said Kate Bradshaw, a Bountiful councilwoman.
There are currently no Utah women serving in Congress or statewide office, and despite being elected to a record number of seats in 2019, women make up just a quarter of the state Legislature. Utah lags behind the national rate for women in top leadership positions at companies, with women making up less than 5% of corporate CEOs in the state, 2018 research from the Utah Women & Leadership Project shows. And less than a third of businesses in Utah were owned by women, according to the YWCA’s “Well-Being of Women in Utah in 2019″ report.
But women surveyed in a recent statewide poll overwhelmingly said they want change.
The Salt Lake Tribune and Suffolk University surveyed 400 women, age 18 and older, across Utah in early November through a grant from the Facebook Journalism Project and the Lenfest Institute for Journalism. The poll, which was conducted over cellphones and landlines, had a margin of error of plus or minus 5 percentage points. In coming weeks, The Tribune will publish additional stories from the results.
Of those surveyed, 81.75% said they would like to see more women in leadership positions in government in Utah, and even more, 84.25%, said they would like to see more women in leadership positions in business in Utah.
“Those numbers are … frankly higher than I anticipated, in a positive way,” said Sarah Brinton, CEO and founder of Elect Women Utah, a nonprofit focused on getting women in office. It shows “that more women than I thought are thinking about this issue and are thinking about the problem and are interested in a solution,” she said.
Bradshaw said she’s lucky “to stand on the shoulders” of women who came before her, like her grandmother. Jean Bradshaw, who’s now in her 90s and was “very progressive for her time,” was a reporter and columnist at the Deseret News and involved with hospital foundations. She also went back for a master’s degree at the University of Utah in the 1980s, when it was uncommon for older women to do so, according to her granddaughter.
"She would take me to different Rotary events to see and meet business leaders,” Kate Bradshaw said. "I remember the first female astronauts came to Salt Lake City. She took me to that luncheon so I could see these women.”
Now, Kate Bradshaw — who is a Bountiful councilwoman, co-chair of the Utah Business Coalition and director of government affairs for a law firm, among other roles — said she wants to do the same for her four young nieces.
“I’m excited to do the things my grandmother did for me," she said, “to take them to events and show them the different ways they can engage and they can lead and they can serve, and the different people that can be mentors to them along the way, so that they can stand on my shoulders at some point and start from a different starting point.”
In the poll results, consensus about desire for more female leaders was strong across all ages, education levels, religions, income levels and political viewpoints. Conservatives were less likely than liberals and moderates to say they wanted more women in these roles. Of those who identified as conservative, 67% said they wanted more female leaders in government, and 70% said they wanted more female business leaders, compared to 97% on both questions of those who identified as liberal.
In interviews, some of the women surveyed said they “absolutely” wanted to see more women in leadership positions. If women make up half of the state’s population, they should hold the same proportion of leadership roles, they said. Others left the decision to individual women, saying if they wanted to be in these types of positions, then they should.
“I would definitely love to have a more diverse representation in leadership,” said Alisha Larson, 30. “... I feel like people have different experiences, and so I think it would be nice to have those experiences represented.”
Larson, of Salt Lake City, said she’d like to see this change in government and in business, including in her job in the dental field.
“When I think of the businesses I interact with, I don’t know who they’re owned by. I don’t know that they’re owned by a man or a woman,” said Laurel Obsorn, 62, of Millcreek. But she said, “Women are smart. Women have great ideas. Women should be contributing in all aspects of society."
As more women graduate from college and enter the workforce, Utah companies need to make sure they have inclusive policies and equitable pay to retain women as employees, said Kelsey Price, executive director of the Emerging Leaders Initiative of Utah. “Business leaders being proactive is absolutely essential” to get more women in leadership positions.
With Elect Women Utah, Brinton tries to help women see themselves as candidates, but she can understand why women may not want to run for political office. They may think they don’t have time or are hesitant about putting themselves in the spotlight. But “the accumulative effect of those decisions [for women to not run] is why we are where we are," Brinton said.
Next year, Bountiful City Council will have three women — Bradshaw, Millie Segura Bahr and Kendalyn Harris — and two men, along with a male mayor. In the 2019 election, Bradshaw said there were still “frustrating” questions for female candidates about who was watching the children and commentary around whether “was Bountiful ready for three women on the council?”
While there’s room for improvement, Bradshaw said, she has seen gains for female leaders in Utah. She’s noticed more women in the hallways at the state Capitol than years before. Murray and South Salt Lake will have new female majority city councils next year. Erin Mendenhall was elected Salt Lake City’s third female mayor. And Rep. Candice Pierucci, R-Riverton, is Utah’s newest and youngest lawmaker.
“I call it a ‘women’s renaissance’ right now,” said Pat Jones, CEO of the Women’s Leadership Institute and a former state senator. Jones said women are feeling a responsibility to get involved in politics and leadership positions to make sure issues they care about get fixed.
Erin Jemison, who works with Real Women Run, said “there’s no shortage of hunger for that change” to get more women in leadership positions. “It’s not even just a hope, I really believe that we’re on a path that we won’t turn back from, in terms of recognizing that having women in leadership and at decision-making tables makes a difference and is important."
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.