After having one of the worst gender wage gaps in the country for several years, Utah women have a message for their government and business leaders: Take action.

More than half of Utah women surveyed in a new statewide poll said they believe they have been paid less than a man who was doing the same job. And a strong majority said they want state and local government leaders, as well as Utah business leaders, to work to close the state’s gender wage gap, the poll shows.

Günseli Berik, a professor of economics at the University of Utah, said she “was blown away” by the poll results, especially given that some people call Utah’s wage gap a myth. “(The results) indicate a high level of awareness and, perhaps, indignation at this sort of persistent bottom-of-the-barrel status of Utah in terms of the gender wage gap,” she said.

“It’s a pretty strong mandate,” Berik said.

Utah women earn 70 cents per dollar earned by men, while women nationally earn 80 cents per dollar, according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. And the gap grows when looking at women of color. Hispanic women in Utah earn 47% of what white men earn, according to the institute.

Nicole Droitsch, 47, of Holladay, recently decided to buy her own business, managing health-food vending machines, “because there is no way that I have found as a female in Utah that I can get paid what I’m worth, [what] I ever got paid outside of Utah.”

Droitsch moved to Utah from Virginia about 20 years ago. After getting her first job offer here, the wage was so low that “I just cried because I was like, ‘What did I do so wrong?’” She called the employer to see why the pay was so reduced, “and they were like, ‘Oh my gosh, we’re so excited. We went the extra mile to get you everything we could get.’ I’m like, 'Wow.’”

Droitsch was among the 400 women, age 18 and older, across Utah that The Salt Lake Tribune and Suffolk University surveyed 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, 76.5% said that state and local government leaders definitely or probably should take action to close Utah’s wage gap. Even more — 80% — said that Utah business leaders should definitely or probably take action.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)
(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)
(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)
(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

“I would have predicted the business one to be so high, but that’s higher than I would have thought for state and local leaders,” said Erin Jemison, director of public policy at YWCA Utah.

In Utah, there’s a “very hands-off-businesses kind of attitude that we have here politically,” Jemison said. “People feel like we need to let businesses fix this themselves and/or suffer the consequences if they don’t.”

According to the poll, 53.19% said they definitely or probably believed they had been paid less than a man who was doing the same job, while 33.76% said definitely not or probably not. (The margin of error for this question was slightly different than the rest of the survey, at plus or minus 5.53 percentage points.) Women ages 35 to 64 were most likely to say they had been paid less.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)
(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

While working in both Virginia and Utah, “I actually know that I did (get paid less than a man) because I was in the H.R. [human resources] world," Droitsch said. “I saw the payroll of people that were in the same position I was in, and the men all got paid more.”

Knowing about the gap but being unable to change it, she said, “was a ‘Catch-22,’ for sure.”

There was strong consensus among those surveyed that government and business leaders should close the gender wage gap, across all ages, education levels, religions, income levels and political viewpoints.

Conservatives were less likely than liberals and moderates to say they definitely wanted government and business leaders to address the issue, but roughly a majority still wanted to see action taken.

Of those who identified as conservative, 56% said they wanted Utah business leaders to act, and 48% said government leaders should address the gap — compared to 77% of liberals who wanted business leaders to work on the gap and 73% who said government leaders should help.

Some women interviewed said they didn’t believe that the wage gap “is real.” Others said “it is definitely not a myth.” While many said they wanted both government and business leaders to act, a few said women need to also advocate and negotiate for themselves.

Jessica Parsons, 34, of Roy, said businesses need to take responsibility. A woman hired for the same position as a man at her mortgage compliance company was paid less, she said, “just because he negotiated for himself better." But she added: "I can speak for myself that now that I’m in the hiring position, if we bring on another man, it’ll be at the same rate as all of our other team members doing the same thing.”

As far as the government is concerned, Parsons said, the wage gap “would be a difficult thing to regulate,” but “I would love to see (government leaders) try."

Sen. Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, in 2018 asked the state to spend $125,000 for an in-depth look at whether men and women with similar jobs and backgrounds are paid differently in Utah’s executive branch. But Republican lawmakers shut down the proposal.

“It’s embarrassing when you look at the wage gap” in Utah, said Rep. Mark Wheatley, D-Murray.

During the 2019 Legislature, Wheatley proposed a bill that would prohibit employers from asking about past salaries, but it didn’t make it out of committee. Wheatley said he’s going to try again this upcoming session. “This is one small step in the right direction,” he said.

(Chris Detrick | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rep. Mark A. Wheatley, D-Murray, speaks at the Utah State Capitol in 2017. Wheatley said he will propose a bill again in the upcoming session that bans employers from asking about previous salary.

Asking about salary history “is a very insidious practice, basically, that follows women. You know, if they started at a lower pay, it follows them around,” Berik said. Since 2016, at least 19 states and 17 localities have begun regulating use of salary history, including Salt Lake City, according to the American Association of University Women.

Berik said another good first step to address the wage gap would be “eliminating pay secrecy rules” and banning employers from retaliating against employees who discuss their salaries with co-workers.

Joelyn “Joe” Stewart, 65, of Kanab, said she found out that she was making $12,000 less than a male co-worker at a Park City-based company because he told her. Talking about wages has “always been taboo," she said, “and that’s what’s killing women.”

Stewart eventually retired in 2014 “because I was fed up with the gender wage gap,” she said. That year, she asked her boss about boosting her salary to compensate for extra tasks she had picked up at the office, but he told her there were “no resources." So she went to her cubicle, called her financial adviser and then said she was going to retire.

The wage gap is “the number one issue facing women in the state of Utah," said Linda Wardell, general manager of City Creek Center and chair of the Salt Lake Chamber Board of Governors. "And for anyone who doesn’t understand how important this issue is, they should sit with a woman who has been compensated at a lower level than a man who has held the same job, and understand what that feels like.”

Earlier this year, the chamber and the Women’s Leadership Institute released a guide with what Wardell said are practical steps to address the gap. It suggests analyzing employees’ pay, making that information transparent and working to fix inequities.

“I like to think that we don’t wake up and come to work and want to pay women less,” Wardell said. “This is something that for lots of different reasons comes to be. And so we really have to be quite conscious about the decisions and the choices that we’re making in the workplace.”

(Becky Jacobs | The Salt Lake Tribune) Susan Madsen, front left, and Katie Hudman, front right, speak in October at a briefing about the gender wage gap at the University of Utah.

“Sometimes we do ourselves an injustice in this area by getting caught up on the definition and fighting about the width of the gap," said Katie Hudman, an attorney with Employers Council Utah. Instead, she said, “we need to talk about it [as] a societal issue” and look at all the causes and solutions.

“Why is it that so many women end up [in] and are attracted toward lower-paying jobs? Is that because society values them less and therefore sets the pay different?" Hudman said. "Is that because they are attracted towards those jobs because they feel a heavy burden to take care of child care responsibilities and family responsibilities?”

As Droitsch interviewed for jobs in Utah, “I was asked questions that were just basically flat out illegal, and I would tell them that,” she said. She was asked when she planned on starting a family and what her husband did.

In the 1970s, Stewart said, one of her first bosses told her, “You know, you’re a single gal. If you’re a guy with a family, then I’d pay you more. But this is what I’m going to pay you.”

To fix the gap, Hudman said, Utah is going to have to try different pieces of the puzzle to see what works. Government and business leaders will have roles to play in that effort, she said.

“We’re not going to close it once and we’re done," Wardell said. "This is something that we’re going to have to monitor always. ... But by being aware of the gender wage gap and being aware of the steps that we can take to monitor what’s happening with it, we can be much better than last” in the nation.

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.