Robert Gehrke: Here are one guy’s thoughts about our state’s direction when it comes to women

Robert Gehrke

When you think about it, who is really better to opine about the status of women in Utah than me — a middle-aged white male?

I’ll readily admit, I’ve never been paid less than my coworkers. I haven’t been passed over for promotions. I haven’t been expected to leave my job to raise kids.

So I’m not going to pretend to be able to describe the situation of Utah women to Utah women. You get it because you live it.

What I can hopefully do is speak to the other half of our readers, the men out there who might not fully grasp the issues confronting women in Utah and what we might be able to do to facilitate a more equitable community.

In a pair of recent pieces, my colleague Becky Jacobs has been looking at women’s perception of their status and role in Utah, including partnering with Suffolk University in a unique poll of 400 adult women living in the state.

What they found is revealing:

And we have a real problem there. As Jacobs reported, just a quarter of the state Legislature is female, less than 5% of corporate CEOs are women and fewer than a third of businesses are owned by women.

The consequence of this inequity should be apparent: We are limiting ourselves as a society because one side of the boat isn’t rowing as hard as it could — not because they’re unwilling but because they have been given a shorter oar.

As a result, we’re losing out on the full contributions, the ideas and perspectives, they have to offer.

Part of addressing the inequity will be chipping away at the dusty stereotypes that once shaped how we viewed “a woman’s place.”

“The biggest thing is role models, and it’s role models for both boys and girls,” Bountiful City Councilwoman Kate Bradshaw told me. In Jacobs’ piece, Bradshaw points to her grandmother who worked, volunteered in the community, went back to school and got a masters degree and introduced her to positive female role models.

It’s valuable for young people — boys and girls — to see strong women succeeding, as well as strong men standing behind them.

“It’s hard to believe it if you don’t see it,” Bradshaw said.

[Read more: More than half of Utah women think they have a lower status than men in the state]

It will also take helping business leaders appreciate the value women offer. That’s the aim of the Women’s Leadership Institute, led by Pat Jones, a former state senator.

The organization was launched nearly five years ago after a national newspaper listed five places where women shouldn’t bother spending their travel dollars: Turkey, Indonesia, El Salvador, Saudi Arabia and — you guessed it — Utah.

“I think that caught the eye of many of our business leaders and they thought it’s harming our ability to attract and maintain talent here,” Jones said.

The institute has developed the ElevateHER Challenge, designed to get businesses focusing on retaining and promoting women, including women on boards of directors, closing pay gaps, creating mentoring programs, and encouraging women to run for public office.

Jones said a record number of women recently went through the institute’s political training. Many of them went on to run for office and to win.

Structurally, there are things we can do to improve the status of women in our state.

A 2016 state report on women in the workforce cited some common barriers that we should be able to address — access to affordable child care, flexibility in scheduling to help balance work and family, educational attainment, and being fairly compensated.

Last session, Rep. Elizabeth Weight, D-West Valley City, (who was once my junior high English teacher) sponsored a bill to give employees of the state and its higher ed institutions six weeks of paid family leave when they give birth or adopt a child.

It addresses the problem of mainly women dropping out of the workforce once they become mothers. It’s not a radical leftist idea — President Donald Trump supports the same notion and it is something The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and Salt Lake City have already done. In January, the University of Utah began offering half-pay for six weeks of leave.

Weight’s bill didn’t get a hearing last session, but she tells me that she’s doing her homework on the cost to the state when women leave the workforce and plans to try again in the upcoming session.

Jones said she is encouraged at how businesses have adapted and embraced the value of a diverse workforce.

“I have never seen anything progress faster than what we’re working on,” she said.

But we need to continue to build on that success and, men, we can play a role in that.

“Men are critical to the success, because our political structure, our corporate structure, was built by and for men and women have had to navigate that for years,” Jones said.

So let’s continue those conversations, help where we can and figure out when it’s time to shut up and listen, because if we do that, we might learn to appreciate a little better how the other half of our state lives and the value they provide.

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