Women’s leadership in Utah’s county governments varies widely

A first-of-its kind report shows the number of women in leadership positions in Utah’s county governments ranges widely — from a low of 12.5% in Piute County to a high of 73.6% in Emery County.

Overall, women make up 42.5% of all supervisory, managerial and executive leadership positions in the state’s counties, according to a new data analysis by the Utah Women and Leadership Project at Utah State University.

The report, released Wednesday, notes that the “status of women in Utah county government has been unclear until now,” without solid data to show which counties have been successful at including women’s voices and which are struggling.

The goal was to “document a baseline of the number and percentage of women in leadership roles” within the state’s 29 counties that could be used as a benchmark for future progress. Research released last month showed women held 39.3% of leadership positions on the state level. And the Utah Women and Leadership Project plans to release a third report next month, on the status of women in city governments.

As UWLP research fellow April Townsend worked on these briefs, she said, she thought about a quote she read from Theresa May, former prime minister of the United Kingdom: “Whenever data reveals a disparity outcome between two groups, the challenge to those in power should be — explain it or change it.”

“If there isn’t a good reason” why there aren’t more women leaders, “then it needs to change,” said Townsend.

Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune

Increasing representation through awareness

The higher a position is in county government, “the less likely it is that women will be in leadership,” the report said. Women are most often found in front-line leadership positions, making up 49.8% of those roles, and they’re least likely to serve as elected officials, filling 29.2% of those positions.

When Salt Lake County Councilwoman Aimee Winder Newton took office in 2014, she was the only woman serving on the council; now, she’s one of three, and the county is run by a woman, Mayor Jenny Wilson.

Women currently hold 49.4% of all authority roles in Salt Lake County. But while she’s seen progress within her own county over the years, Winder Newton said in an interview that she still often finds herself the only woman in a room at meetings of the Utah Association of Counties.

“A lot of the executives in the counties are men and some [counties] don’t have a lot of females” in leadership roles, she said. Part of the challenge is external: While men may decide on their own to run for office, women often wait to be asked to step up. And efforts to encourage more women to run for public office may take time to get to the more rural counties, she said.

But Winder Newton said she thinks the Utah State University research could provide an opportunity for counties that may not have given gender equity much thought in the past to look toward increasing the role of women in their organizations.

“We truly know that women and men think differently and it’s just really healthy and good to have both at the table because you get better outcomes,” she said. “You get different ideas; you get different kinds of questions being asked.”

[Watch ‘Trib Talk’: Utah ranks as the worst state for women’s equality — again]

Utah County Clerk Amelia Powers Gardner, who serves in the second-worst county for women’s leadership in the state, said she thinks the problem in increasing representation there isn’t resistance but a lack of awareness.

“This data could absolutely shine light on it and allow us to recognize it as an issue and encourage more women to run for office, encourage more women to apply for positions and encourage us to recognize that diversity brings diversity of thought and richer outcomes,” she said.

Utah County has historically lacked women’s voices in county leadership, Gardner said. Her own research indicates that she’s only the second woman to ever serve in a countywide office and that Utah County has never elected a female commissioner.

Today, women hold 13.8% of county leadership roles, but Gardner said she thinks the county is at a tipping point.

“We’re on the cusp of really changing that almost white male patriarchal attitude that we had before,” she said.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Davis County Health Department Director of Health Brian Hatch, says a few words about the “preparation to open” plan for Davis, Weber and Morgan counties, during a news conference at the Davis County Commission Chambers in Farmington, Wednesday April 22, 2020

‘Where a woman works makes a difference’

Around the state, the report found, there are slightly more women in executive leadership positions (such as department directors or chief deputies to executive officials), at 38.8%, than in senior leadership positions (like division directors and managers), at 36.9%. That’s an “unexpected” finding that researchers said could use deeper analysis.

And while most women leaders in Utah’s counties serve in merit positions — which are gained through a competitive hiring practice based more on job qualifications than political connections — the report found that counties also have “a considerable number of women in appointed positions,” at 40.4%.

“These are considered to be positions of trust and authority; thus, they provide women an opportunity to influence public policy,” the report notes.

Townsend, who conducted the research, worked in Salt Lake County government for nearly 30 years. She started as a part-time receptionist in the Administrative Services Department, and in 2005, Mayor Peter Corroon appointed her director of the department, which was created to tighten fiscal controls and improve efficiency.

Leaders in county and city government have the opportunity to create lasting, immediate effects on how their communities operate, according to Townsend. To make sure they’re running as best as they can, “we need more than just a single set of experiences informing our policies,” she said.

As with the report examining the number of women in state government, the county report found that women in Utah’s counties are more likely to serve in redistributive divisions — ones that reallocate money or services, such as education, social services and the arts — than in more “masculine” administrative, regulatory and distributive agencies.

“Where a woman works makes such a difference,” said Townsend.

Overall, women working in leadership positions in Utah counties hold 61.2% of redistributive roles, 37.5% of regulatory positions, 32.7% of administrative spots and 13.2% of distributive jobs. Those numbers mean women in county government are less likely to inform public policy, the report finds.

“Considering the significant and far-reaching decisions made by top-level government leaders, the fact that women hold comparatively few influential leadership positions outside of redistributive agencies is a concern, considering the overall impact of Utah women,” the researchers note.

Getting to gender equity

While national data indicates that women are more likely to be leaders over smaller organizations, that doesn’t appear to play out in Utah’s counties.

Salt Lake County, which has the largest number of county employees of all 29 counties, had the highest percentage of women based on this metric than others. Counties with 100-199 employees — Beaver, Emery, Kane, Millard, Morgan and Sanpete — followed at 48.5%, while the governments with the lowest number of women, at 32.5%, were those with 200-249 employees. Governments included in the latter category were Box Elder, Carbon, Duschene, Grand, Iron, San Juan and Sevier.

And the five counties with the highest percentage of women leaders — Emery (73.6), Garfield (58.1), Daggett (51.9), Carbon (50) and Rich (50) — are all in rural parts of the state.

LouJean Argyle, who’s served as Rich County’s treasurer since 2013, said she isn’t sure why Rich has a high number. One possible reason could be that while men are focused on ranching and farming in rural areas, women tend to fill the office jobs, she said.

The report concludes with 10 recommendations for how counties could improve the representation of women in their leadership roles. Among them is making a visible commitment, such as signing the Parity Pledge (a vow to consider at least one woman for all senior leadership positions) and providing training to staff on how to support gender equity in the workplace.

The report also encourages counties to “pay attention to who is mentioned during discussions of projects” and to acknowledge contributors, particularly from underrepresented groups. Counties should also “recognize and verbally acknowledge the leadership that women provide” in an effort to “interrupt gender bias and shift social expectations regarding women as leaders,” it said.

After Rashelle Hobbs was elected Salt Lake County recorder in 2018, she reviewed her department to see if men and women were being paid equally for their work. One female employee, who started her career 25 years ago in an entry-level position, had gone back to school and worked her way up. The review found, though, that she was being paid “significantly less” than her male counterparts in other departments, said Leslie Reberg, chief deputy recorder. She’s now making $20,000 more than she previously did.

Now, the recorder’s office is at 99.7% gender pay equity, which Reberg said they are “super proud of.” And they are working to resolve one last situation to get to 100%, according to Hobbs.

Other departments can do this too, Hobbs said, but “it has to be a priority” and an “ongoing commitment.”

“You can’t do anything unless you know where your numbers are,” she said.

Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune Rashelle Hobbs appears to be the only candidate in county level positions up for election this year to unseat her incumbent opponent. She has 15 years of experience working for the Salt Lake County Clerk's Office, starting as a temporary employee and working her way up through numerous positions within the office.

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.