Utah women’s views on their status, biggest challenges differ by age, poll shows

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Geneva Lawrence, 52, of Salt Lake City, said she “definitely” believes Utah women have a lower status for many reasons, including the pay gap, which is one of the worst in the country. “It’s already bad. And if you break it out, I mean, it’s even worse for women of color.”

Camille Price waited until she was 27 to get married and had worked without having children in the mid-1980s, going against the norm in Utah. But “cultural expectations” eventually led her to give up her career and stay home, said her daughter, Kelsey.

But when Kelsey Price was growing up, “I was told, ‘You’re going to school. You should have a career. School was to get a career to work.‘” These generational differences, the 29-year-old Price said, are reflected in a recent statewide poll.

In early November, The Salt Lake Tribune and Suffolk University surveyed 400 women, age 18 and older, over cellphones and landlines across Utah through a grant from the Facebook Journalism Project and the Lenfest Institute for Journalism. The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 5 percentage points.

Younger women were more likely than older women to say they had an overall lower status than men in the state. And older women were more likely to cite low wages as their biggest challenge, while younger women chose cultural expectations about gender roles.

“That definitely speaks to kind of the cultural and generational changes that you’re seeing nationwide,” as more women wait to have children and work full time, said Price, executive director of the Emerging Leaders Initiative of Utah.

Amy Wadsworth, president of the Utah Women’s Forum, said women her age — she’s 66 — and older “kind of came to terms with things, figured things out, or else were in careers that worked for them.” They might not have wanted “to do some of the things that young women are now saying, ‘Yeah. I want to do that. I want to throw my hat in the ring.‘”

Geneva Lawrence, 52, of Salt Lake City, said she “definitely” believes Utah women have a lower status for many reasons, including the pay gap, which is one of the worst in the country. “It’s already bad. And if you break it out, I mean, it’s even worse for women of color.”

For younger women, “it’s kind of like a double-edged sword,” said Brandi Maull, 36, president of Young Professionals Salt Lake City. “We fight for gender equality, but then we also have the whole gender roles to follow," balancing work and taking care of the home.

It makes sense why older women chose low wages, said Susan Madsen, 58, founder and director of the Utah Women and Leadership Project. Women newly out of college may get a glimpse of the gender wage gap, but those who have been in the workforce longer and experienced the “motherhood penalty” have a clear idea of the effect, she said.

Women ages 35-64 were the most likely to say they had definitely been paid less than a man who was doing the same job, with the percentage dropping after age 44.

Younger and older women were split; 28% of those 18-34 said they definitely had been paid less and 26% said definitely not. Of women 65 and older, 21% said definitely and 25% said definitely not.

“Those numbers, if we would have done this survey three years ago, have gone up," as there’s been more discussion about the wage gap in Utah, Madsen said.

Women of all ages said state and local government leaders, as well as business leaders, should take action to close Utah’s gender wage gap.

“I was personally really excited and glad,“ Price said, “to see that there is universal agreement that is not just like the individual’s responsibility, but that is a cultural problem that we all need to work together to address.“

Most Utah women have worked for pay outside the home in the past 10 years, ranging from 89% of 18-34-year-olds to 44% of those 65 and older. Women ages 35-64 were most likely to have worked full time.

Those age 65 and older mostly worked part time, and those 18-34 said they had worked both part time and full time.

When Niccolina Balderree, 22, of Provo, graduates from Brigham Young University, she wants a full-time public relations job, hopefully in higher education, she said. “I’ve been lucky to have pretty supportive people in my life for my career and going to college and having that,” she said. “But I know others who haven’t been as fortunate to have that kind of support.”

Geneva Lawrence is originally from Virginia, but she’s lived in Utah for about 14 years. Some of her friends here have gone back to school in their 40s because “the social and cultural pressure was that they would marry early and have children and tend to their own wants and needs later.”

Lawrence graduated with a bachelor’s degree and then got her master’s degree in applied linguistics in the mid ’90s. After she married a man serving in the military, she said, “what you do with your life takes second for a bit, for as long as your spouse is active duty."

Moving around for the military didn’t make it easy for Lawrence to find a full-time job at a college, and adjunct positions didn’t pay enough for child care. But now, years later, she’s "reentering the job market as a woman over 50 with an 18-year employment gap. Fun times,” Lawrence said. The job search has been tough, but she hopes to stay in her field.

Utah women of all ages said they were supported by their family, friends and faith, in their aspirations for a career and higher education. According to the poll, 95% of those 18-34 said they felt strongly or somewhat supported, as well as 95% of 35-44, 84% of 45-64, and 89% of 65 and older.

And most Utah women in the poll said they had reached, or were reaching, their educational goals.

When Wadsworth started out as a teacher in the late ’70s, “I had lunch all the time with men that were saying, ‘I’d never let my wife work. There’d be no way.’ And I think that that definitely changed over time,” she said.

“My husband has always been very supportive of anything that I’ve wanted to try,” said Brenda Hawker, 43, of Cache Valley. “I actually enrolled in college and was really excited to go back and learn. But I also had two kids still in school and because I was too busy working on my homework, I couldn’t help them with theirs.”

It wasn’t the right time then, but Hawker said she hopes one day to get her bachelor’s degree in business management. “It’s kind of an equal thing between the time and the money to do it,” she said. “Because I won’t I sacrifice my kids’ education to have my own.”

Large percentages of women, of all ages, said they’d like to see more women in leadership positions in government and business, with support especially high among women 18-34.

“Gender is a very important identity when you’re talking about representation and issues in government and business,” Price said. Policy issues, whether it’s the pink tax — higher prices on products marketed toward women — maternity leave or abortion rights, “are harder to discuss without women having a seat at the table.”

Younger women in the poll were more likely to say they had had experienced sexual assault and domestic violence.

“I think that older women, things that are on the edge of being inappropriate were tolerated. Or there was no recourse, or they just kind of blew it off,” Wadsworth said. “I think younger women would look at some of those behaviors and absolutely label it as abusive.”

The higher numbers with younger women could also have to do with the #MeToo movement, Price said, and “how we, as a culture, have evolved with our conversations and how we view things like sexual assault and violence for the better.”

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 by clicking here.