Utah women discuss what’s helpful, challenging in getting more female leaders in government

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Cheryl Brown, program manager of the Utah Community Development Block Grant Program, on Nov. 6, 2020.

Utah women have ideas for how to get more female leaders in top government positions in the state, and their solutions are outlined in a new report.

In the Beehive State, women hold 29.1% of leadership roles across Utah’s 247 cities and towns, 42.5% in county governments and 39.3% in state government, according to research released over the past few months from the Utah Women and Leadership Project at Utah State University.

Those three reports provided numbers for Utahns to see how they fared, but a new brief released earlier this month “gives us more insights on actual women’s deeper experiences,” and what works to support them and what doesn’t, said Susan Madsen, founder and director of the leadership project.

Researchers surveyed 435 women currently leading in municipal, county, state and special district government roles, asking them about pivotal experiences, challenges they’ve faced and their advice about how to help more women advance. (Not all respondents answered every question.)

There weren’t any “huge surprises,” Madsen said, as many of the comments mirrored what is already known from national research and literature. What this report does, though, Madsen said, is say, “This is exactly the experiences of women in the state of Utah.”

What helps

There are personal strategies women can use, such as taking risks and seeking a higher education, according to the report. But organizations can help, offering opportunities to work on projects or providing professional development trainings.

“If you demonstrate that you’re a person who wants to excel and learn and contribute, I think if you’re in the right organization, those opportunities will come,” said Cheryl Brown, program manager for Utah’s Community Development Block Grant Program.

When Brown started working for the state roughly 30 years ago, she was an accounting technician. As she rose through the ranks, she learned, “if you can’t be replaced, then you can’t be promoted.” She used to be reluctant to give up some of her duties and let other people take over, but she said she realized that was necessary so she could take on new roles.

Brown said she also was lucky to have mentors who were honest with her even if sometimes it was hard to accept their constructive criticism at first. Once, a mentor taught her to “dress the job you want, not the job you have.”

“I stopped wearing casual pants ... even though that was allowed,” Brown said. “I dressed more professionally so that I would be taken more seriously.”

Brown said she also had a supervisor take her aside to tell her their boss thought she was “goofing off” and not taking her job seriously. While Brown knew that leader’s impression wasn’t true, her supervisor helped her see the effects that perception can have.

“It doesn’t mean I stopped being who I was,” said Brown, who described herself as someone with a “big voice” who likes to laugh. “But I was more intentional in how I was carrying myself there.”

Brown benefited from the Utah Certified Public Manager Program, which her department’s leaders encouraged her to do. She said she still has the binders in her office from the course, which she took in 2008.

“It just really gave you all of the tools to learn how to be a manager,” Brown said.

Lindsie Smith, who is the director of Clark Planetarium, said Salt Lake County’s Women’s Leadership Forum helped her connect with mentors and other women in government.

“It was really great,” Smith said, “to be in a supportive environment to talk with other women about how do we learn to have that seat at the table.”

She added, “I probably wouldn’t have applied (to become director) if it hadn’t been this strong group of mentors and connections that said, ‘You can do this.’”

(Rick Bowmer | AP file photo) Lindsie Smith, pictured here in 2018 holding moon rocks, is the director of Clark Planetarium in Salt Lake City.

What’s challenging

When asked about challenges in leadership advancement, more than half of the women in the report cited “navigating the biased attitudes of others.”

“Unfortunately,” the report said, “several women mentioned elected officials as the main source of bias.”

One woman said, “I was told to step back and quit meeting/mentoring with this group of women, even on my own time, because it was causing concern for a group of men who felt the women were getting an extra advantage.”

Another said she was frustrated about “being shut out of discussions and/or advancement because my peer (a man) had a family to provide for.”

Twenty-seven women “specifically called out religious or Utah cultural bias against women being leaders,” according to the report.

“Utah is a patriarchal society,” one person responded. “Men make most of the decisions. The good ol’ boys club is alive and real.”

Another woman said, “I swear there is still a stigma between a male co-worker and a female co-worker being behind a closed door, riding in a car together, going out to lunch together, etc. There are a lot of opportunities missed because no one wants the appearance to look like something unprofessional could be going on between a man and a woman working together.”

“No one ever asks me to golf,” she added.

Women also discussed having their voices stifled, a lack of pay equity with colleagues, the unpaid care work and difficulty navigating the interviewing process.

How to change

The women surveyed provided a handful of recommendations for how government organizations and leaders can help advance women.

“Offering intentional support to women was the most frequently mentioned suggestion,” the brief states.

The respondents emphasized that they didn’t want or need “preferential treatment, just to be treated equally.” One person said, “Women do not need nor deserve anything ‘extra.’ Just give us an absolute fair chance. And also hold us accountable.”

Organizations should embrace diversity and inclusion, and they need to have “open communication,” with supervisors talking to female employees about their career, the report states. Women also need to be proactive and advocate for themselves, according to the brief.

“We need to take courage and do the things that make a difference,” one person said. “We need to promote ourselves better because often we are the only ones doing that for ourselves.”

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.