I dug into Utah’s reputation as the worst state for women. Here’s what I found.

Over the next few weeks, The Salt Lake Tribune will explore why women in Utah lag behind their peers — and how that can change.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Becky Jacobs.

Here’s what editors at The Salt Lake Tribune told me when I was hired in 2019:

Utah is routinely labeled as the worst state for women because it has the nation’s widest wage gap, a low college graduation rate for women and fewer women leaders in politics and business. My job, they said, would be to analyze data like this, tie it to personal stories to give more context to women’s lives in Utah, and explore solutions.

At first, I wondered: Is Utah’s reputation fair? As someone who moved to the Beehive State from the Midwest, I was one of those people who had the impression that Utah was a poor place for women.

As I reported, I later began to wonder: How long have Utah women lived with this reputation, and what are the circumstances that led to it? And can both change?

More than 130 stories and 350 interviews later, as well as hours spent in recent months sorting through boxes of documents at the Utah State Archives, here’s the bottom line of what I’ve learned:

Some perceptions of Utah women are exaggerated and overgeneralized, but there are undeniable underlying issues and statistics that give credibility to this reputation. And this is not a new phenomenon for Utah women — they’ve struggled with their national image since before statehood.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be sharing context from history and insights from Utah women today in new ways — including fact checks, data visualizations and even a quiz.

During my interviews, one trailblazing female Utahn told me that she thinks women “are still second class in Utah.” Another person said, “there’s very much a stereotype that women in Utah are oppressed,” and “they don’t even know it.”

A few people told me that it will be difficult to change outsiders’ perceptions of women in the Beehive State.

But what’s always struck me in this reporting is how, in the same breath as telling me about the list of problems that women in this state face, many women also tell me how much they love living here. And I’ve seen up close the many women working every day to improve the lives of other women in the state.

Utah provides a unique opportunity to cover women’s issues and, looking back now, I don’t think my editors could have known how this reporting would become even more relevant during the COVID-19 pandemic.

More than two million women across the country have left the workforce, as women faced a disproportionate share of job losses and struggled with child care responsibilities when kids transitioned to learning virtually.

Experts worry that this “shecession” may set women back decades.

Utah’s trends for women during the pandemic have been no better. Women’s jobs declined at twice the rate as men in the state from 2019 to 2020, according to a brief from the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute.

And women here are feeling “burned out,” a report from the Utah Women and Leadership Project at Utah State University said.

Whenever we fully emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s clear that Utah can’t go back to the status quo when it comes to the state’s women.

I’m looking forward to sharing this reporting with you in new ways in the next couple of weeks. As I begin my third year of covering the status of women in Utah, I want to hear from you about where to go next. What stories do you want to read? Who should we interview? How do you think the lives of Utah women — and the state’s reputation — can change?

Share your thoughts in our form.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Becky Jacobs.

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.