Utah ranked worst state for women’s equality three years in a row

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) The 2019 Women's March on Utah at the Utah Capitol in Salt Lake City on Saturday Jan. 19, 2019.

For the third year in a row, Utah has been named the worst state for women’s equality, and it continues to lag far behind the state ranked 49th — Idaho.

WalletHub released its “2020′s Best & Worst States for Women’s Equality” on Monday, evaluating states on workplace environment, education, health and political empowerment. There was a nearly 50-point gap in the total scores between the top state — Hawaii — at 75.13 and Utah’s score of 25.74.

“It’s not shocking” to see Utah in last place, again, said Susan Madsen, founder and director of the Utah Women and Leadership Project at Utah State University, “but it’s a bit disappointing.”

“If we still do the same things we’ve been doing,” Utah won’t see any big changes in these types of rankings, she said. There have to be “serious” efforts and initiatives supported by government and business leaders to analyze the underlying issues.

“Unless we get more vocal on these things and have women and men stand up and say it’s time to make these changes,” Madsen said, “... things are not going to change anytime soon.”

Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune

The biggest differences between Idaho’s score of 40.03 and Utah’s score of 25.74 was in the workplace environment category — which includes income disparity and the share of women in executive positions — and in the political empowerment category, looking at the number of women elected to federal and state offices and state executive jobs.

Utah women want to see changes in these areas. A statewide poll conducted by The Salt Lake Tribune last fall found that an overwhelming number of Utah women think there should be more female leaders in government and business, and they want their leaders to work to close the state’s gender wage gap.

There are no female lawmakers representing Utah in Congress. A record number of women, 27, are serving in the state Legislature, but they make up only about a quarter of the 104 members. And there are no women leading Utah’s five statewide executive offices.

This year, Utah voters will elect their second female lieutenant governor, though, as Sen. Deidre Henderson and Karina Brown run in the gubernatorial race on the Republican and Democratic tickets, respectively. Olene Walker was the first when she was elected in 1993, serving with Gov. Mike Leavitt. When Leavitt left Utah for a federal post, Walker became Utah’s only female governor.

Utah regularly has one of the worst gender wage gaps in the country. Utah women earn 70 cents for every 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.

There are ways leaders in the Beehive State could work to close that gap, though, according to a report released last month. Utah’s advisory committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights provided six ideas that the state Legislature should “strongly consider.” Utahns probably won’t see any of those changes anytime soon, though, according to Erin Jemison, former director of public policy at the YWCA Utah.

“Those recommendations are probably about 10 years ahead of where we are when it comes to the Utah Legislature, unfortunately,” Jemison said.

The report recommends that state lawmakers prohibit employers from relying on an applicants’ salary history during the hiring process. Women tend to work in lower-paying fields and start out at a lower pay than their male counterparts. Relying on a previous salary to set a woman’s pay at a new job can “perpetuate wage gaps,” the report states.

For Madsen, this change is “a no-brainer.”

In 2019, Rep. Mark Wheatley, D-Murray, proposed a bill that would have prevented employers from asking about salary history, but it didn’t make it out of committee.

“Utah’s legislators are very hesitant to put any kind of mandate or requirement on businesses,” Jemison said. They may see something as a “best practice” for a human resources department to handle, rather than something that it’s their role to legislate.

The recommendation that’s the “most likely to gain some traction,” however, according to Jemison, is for state leaders to conduct an “examination of the gender wage gap that includes disaggregation of earnings data by race.” Both gubernatorial candidates, Republican Spencer Cox and Democrat Chris Peterson, have said they support a state employee survey to identify wage gaps.

Sen. Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, has previously tried to secure funding for a study looking at whether women working in some state government offices are paid less than men. But lawmakers shut down her most recent request in 2018.

State legislators should also raise the minimum wage, provide mandatory paid parental leave, and pass legislation eliminating pay secrecy, which is when employers bar workers from discussing their wages, according to the report.

“Women are particularly affected because if they are underpaid and want to engage in salary negotiations, they are starting from a lower negotiating point,” the report states.

Even if Utah’s lawmakers don’t make any of these changes in the near future, there are still ways companies can “chip away” at the state’s gender wage gap, Jemison said. The Salt Lake Chamber and Women’s Leadership Institute released a guide last year with steps companies can take.

According to WalletHub’s report, Utah had the largest gap between men and women in educational attainment and work hours.

Women in the state work part time at the highest rate in the country. And while “the percent of the population holding only a bachelor’s degree has been nearly equal for Utah men and women for the past several years,” females in the state lag in graduate degrees, according to a 2018 report.

Utah ranked 49th in political representation gap (ahead of Louisiana), 46th in executive positions gap, and tied for 48th with Rhode Island in largest income gap (ahead of Wyoming).

To compile the rankings, WalletHub evaluated the states using 17 metrics and a 100-point scale, “with a score of 100 representing the most favorable conditions for women’s equality.” The metrics compared men and women on issues such as entrepreneurship rate, poverty rate, doctor-visit affordability and disparity in math test scores.

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.