Women hold less than 40% of leadership positions across state government in Utah, according to a new study that found the divide in labor falls largely along gendered lines.

They are most often working in jobs that are on the front line and in departments that are considered more “feminine,” like education, social services and health. And they are less likely to be represented as leaders in “masculine” agencies that more often set policies and determine budgets, according to a report released this month from the Utah Women and Leadership Project (UWLP) at Utah State University.

Still, April Townsend, one of the authors of the report, said she was pleasantly surprised to see that women make up 39.3% of supervisory, managerial and leadership positions overall in state government.

“That was higher than I expected,” said Townsend, a research fellow at UWLP.

The report also found a few other surprises. Women are more likely than expected to be in big agencies with large budgets in the state, for example. And Utah has a “considerable number of women in appointed positions” in state government, at 42.3% — jobs that are largely “recognized as positions of trust and authority and often have opportunities to influence public policy.”

While there have been conversations in recent years about how many women run for office or are CEOs, “we haven’t really talked about women in bureaucracy,” Townsend said.

That dialogue is important though, the research argues, because a diverse public workforce mirrors the concept of representation in American democracy and the inclusion of disparate backgrounds can signal inclusion in government decision-making.

Ann Silverberg Williamson, who was appointed as the executive director of the Department of Human Services in 2013, works in one of the agencies that has the highest number of women leaders in the state. And she believes the more diverse workforce there has had a “profound” impact on the department.

“When you have that kind of vantage point in your work, it’s only for the better,” she said.

But while the researchers highlight the importance of transparency around the number of women in state departments and agencies, it’s difficult to compare Utah’s numbers nationally. They couldn’t find any other states that track this kind of data, meaning “we don’t have a baseline” for understanding where the Beehive State lies, Townsend notes.

The best national numbers come from a 2006 study by the Center for Women in Government and Civil Society, which found that women held 32.2% of state government leadership positions within the executive branch and 24.7% overall, including state legislative and judiciary branches of government.

Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune
Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune

Diversity ‘doesn’t happen overnight’

In Utah today, women make up 27.1% of Cabinet positions (C-suite executives, elected state officers, department directors), 37.4% of executive positions (deputy directors, division directors, court administrators), 28.8% of senior positions (deputy-assistant division directors, general counsel/attorneys) and 41.2% of front-line positions (supervisors, managers, administrators).

Most female leaders, 60.1%, are in redistributive divisions that reallocate money or services, such as education, health care and the arts. And they make up 32.4% of regulatory, 24.1% administrative and 14.6% of distributive agencies.

“Because departments and divisions tend to adopt masculine and feminine divisions of labor, where a woman works often impacts her career progression,” the report notes.

The agency with the highest percentage of women leaders is Utah’s courts, at 67%, followed by human services, health, and public education, all at 61.1%. The agencies with the lowest numbers of women leaders were the National Guard and the Department of Veterans and Military Affairs (9.9%), transportation (14.2%) and technology (20.8%).

The fact that Utah has a high number of females leading in the courts sector, which is “considered to be a regulatory agency, is an anomaly,” the report states. And researchers call for additional analysis into how the department has advanced so many women into leadership roles.

Judge Mary T. Noonan, the first female state court administrator in Utah’s history, told The Salt Lake Tribune that the effort to improve diversity within the third branch of government has been ongoing and intentional.

“The judiciary actively seeks in its recruitment and its retention and its human resources … to make sure positions are advertised widely to get the very best applicants,” she said. “And the judiciary has long been mindful that it’s important that we get the best candidates and that we nurture diverse leadership.”

The court’s status as the top agency for women’s leadership is likely a product of those efforts, she said.

Noonan said the court’s work is ongoing, including through a broader initiative to create an independent office of fairness and accountability.

That office, which is still being set up, will look at racial bias and areas where the court system can be improved. But it will also examine the court’s human resources policies and aim to “facilitate the recruitment, selection and retention of diverse communities to serve in the court,” Noonan said — including people from a variety of socioeconomic and racial backgrounds.

One reason the Department of Veterans and Military Affairs may have ranked near the bottom of the report is because of the low number of women who are in the military, according to Kelsey Price, director of communications and marketing.

The number of women serving in the U.S. armed forces has increased in recent years, but in 2017, they made up 16% of active duty military members, according to the Pew Research Center. In Utah, only about 9% of veterans are women, Price said.

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Eighteen Utah National Guard soldiers prepare to deploy to Fort Meade, Md., pose for a photograph at their departure ceremony in Draper, Jan. 2, 2019.

Gary Harter, executive director of Utah’s Veterans and Military Affairs, said he doesn’t know how researchers defined leadership positions in the new report. But he considers 19 jobs in his office to be leadership roles, and nine of those are women. That includes two women who oversee some of the state’s veteran nursing home contracts.

On the Army side of the Utah National Guard, 10.7% of the force is female, and 9.7% are in leadership positions, according to Maj. Jaime Thomas, spokesperson for the department. With the Air Force, 14.26% of females are in those roles, she said.

“We want to be representative of our communities in which we serve. And so for us it becomes, how do we recruit females? And then how do we retain those females into these leadership positions?” Thomas said.

One way the department has worked to do that is by adding more female recruiters, she said. In the past two years, it went from one to six female recruiters for the Army, and the superintendent for recruitment on the Air Force side is female.

The Department of Technology Services has also focused on promoting and recruiting more women, said Stephanie Weteling, department spokesperson. Last year, it helped Utah become involved with Girls Go Cyberstart, a national effort to encourage girls’ interest in IT and cybersecurity.

“The fact is that IT, like most STEM industries … continues to attract fewer women than men. This could account for the lower percentage of women in leadership positions,” Weteling said in an email.

Gender roles also pose a challenge for the Utah Department of Transportation, which has been making a conscious effort “to reach out to girls and young women early in their educational careers,” said Elizabeth Weight, director of communications at the agency.

Part of the department’s focus, she said, is “helping them be aware that transportation is even an industry to go into.”

The low number of women leaders in the department is likely a reflection of the fact that only 17% of its workforce is women, Weight said. But she noted that the agency’s senior leadership team is about 40% female, which she said demonstrates a strong commitment to invest in women within the agency “to get them where they are today.”

“That doesn’t happen overnight,” she said.

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) This file photo shows crews begin building a storage facility near 5600 West and the S.R. 201 as part of the Utah Department of Transportation's top construction project which will link the Mountain View Corridor from 4100 South to S.R. 201. The $335 million four-mile project, includes four lanes (two in each direction) and 13 new bridges.

Seeking ‘stronger outcomes’ for the state

In addition to an analysis of which department women leaders are more likely to work in, the Utah State University research also looked at the sizes and budgets of agencies with high rates of women leaders — and found that Utah breaks from national trends by those measures.

While the authors of the report expected that smaller organizations would have female leaders, their findings showed that agencies with 500 to 999 employees had the highest percentage, at 44.4%.

National research also indicates that women tend to be leaders in departments with smaller budgets. But in Utah, agencies with budgets of $900 million to $6 billion actually had the highest percentage, at 49.5%.

Utah also has a higher-than-expected number of women serving in appointed positions, which are “assigned by a high government official and often carry a sense of trust or authority.”

The report concludes with eight recommendations for how state government could improve gender diversity among its ranks. Those include developing strategic plans showing steps for recruiting and advancing women into leadership positions; evaluating hiring practices to eliminate outdated language and exclusionary measures; and updating interview practices for hiring managers with a lens to diversity.

The Utah Women and Leadership Project also recommends that both men and women are trained to respond appropriately when they encounter gender bias in language, behavior or policy.

Williamson, the state’s director of Human Services, says the high number of women in her department is a byproduct of a solid pool of women candidates who are applying for positions — but it’s also a result of years of intentional design.

“We are never satisfied with the status quo when it comes to policies and operational practices,” she said.

Early on in her career, Williamson crafted a visitation policy to make it clear that family members — particularly minors, children and dependents — were welcome in the workplace in certain circumstances as long as there was no disruption to work. And she said the agency has also been intentional about the design and resources in its buildings, such as offering wellness and nursing rooms to employees.

Human Services’ efforts go beyond gender. Williamson said the agency also seeks out applicants from diverse backgrounds that align with the people they serve, such as people with a lived experience with substance abuse or who were in child welfare.

“We’re always adapting,” she said.

And she hopes others will look to this research to understand how they can improve diversity and outcomes within their own realms in the public sector.

“That is the sum of being continuously curious is taking a look at ourselves and what does this say and what does this mean and how can we act on it?” Williamson said. “How can we use this knowledge to again only make the results stronger of the outcomes that we’re seeking to achieve for quality of life across our state?”

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.