Fact-checking Utah’s reputation as the worst state for women’s equality

Data shows women in Beehive State have seen improvements, but they lag the nation in key ways.

Editor’s note: This article is part of a series examining the status of Utah women. Read the editorial explaining the project.

Utah is routinely labeled as the worst state for women’s equality, and that ranking is often due to these factors in the lives of women who live here:

  • They earn less, due to the gender wage gap.

  • They have less education, based on how many women earn a bachelor’s degree or higher.

  • They are less represented, considering the number of women serving in the state legislature.

  • They lead less often, based on how many women are in managerial and professional occupations.

Whenever state-by-state comparisons of the nation’s women are released, those four categories are generally key in the rankings, according to Susan Madsen, founder and director of Utah State University’s Utah Women and Leadership Project.

The Salt Lake Tribune now has dug into these numbers going back as many years as data were available, to see how persistent these trends have been — and whether they are changing over time.

Fact check: Utah’s gender wage gap

The Beehive State has had one of the largest gender wage gaps in the country for more than three decades.

Utah’s gap has shrunk over the years, but it’s remained one of the biggest since at least 1989, according to data from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

“Everybody struggles with the wage gap, but in Utah, we struggle more,” Madsen said.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

There are different ways to measure the gap, but you want to “get as close as you can to apples to apples” when comparing men’s and women’s wages, according to Lecia Langston, a senior economist with the Utah Department of Workforce Services who’s studied Utah women in the economy for decades.

The way to do that, Langston said, is by looking at median annual earnings for year-round, full-time workers.

“The closer women have a labor force experience like men, the same occupations, same education, the same time in the labor force ... the wage gap gets closer and closer,” Langston said. However, “nobody’s ever really seen it completely disappear,” which points “to some kind of discrimination in the workforce,” she said.

It’s hard to trace the gender wage gap beyond the past few decades because the data isn’t as reliable, and it wasn’t studied like it is today, Langston said.

Still, it’s been a concern in Utah for a long time. A 1964 report from the Governor’s Committee on the Status of Women in Utah pointed out that women here were earning less than men compared to women in the U.S. or any other western state.

Fact check: Women serving in the Utah Legislature

Except for a brief period in the early 2000s, Utah has ranked in the bottom half of U.S. states since 1977 for its female representation in the state legislature, according to Rutgers’ Center for American Women and Politics.

From the late 1950s through the mid-1970s, no women served in the state Senate.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Despite occasional dips, this is a trend that is improving over time. In recent years, more women have served in the Utah Legislature than ever before. Still, even at their highest levels, they account for a fourth of all state lawmakers.

Currently, 25 women serve in the state Legislature, making up 24% of the 104-member body. In 2020, there were 27 female state lawmakers — a record high.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Fact check: Utah women earning degrees

Women in the Beehive State used to have an educational edge, but they’ve lost that in recent decades.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

From 1940 to 1980, a higher percentage of Utah women were earning at least a bachelor’s degree than U.S. women, according to a 2006 Utah Foundation report.

Although Utah women continued to earn more degrees, they fell behind U.S. women in 1990 and 2000, the report shows.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

More recently, the percentage of women and men who are earning bachelor’s degrees is about the same in Utah, “holding steady at about 20% for each since 2010,” according to a 2018 report from the Women in the Economy Commission.

In 2016, male and female Utahns fared better in earning bachelor’s degrees than U.S. men and women. But “a greater percentage of Utah women fall into the ‘some college but no degree’ and ‘associate degree’ categories, while Utah men lead all groups in graduate degree possession,” the report states.

When looking at adults 18 and older who have at least a bachelor’s degree, Utah women have lagged behind Utah men, U.S. women and U.S. men from 2001 to 2015, the report shows, “even though these differences are decreasing over time.”

“This metric, and the association between higher degree levels and higher wages, greater job flexibility, and greater job satisfaction, likely contribute to Utah’s poor outcomes in national comparisons of women’s equality and opportunity,” according to the report.

Fact check: Utah women in top jobs

More Utah women are in managerial and professional positions than in previous years, but they have lagged behind U.S. women since at least 1995.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

In the three decades from 1950 to 1980, there was just a 2% increase in Utah women employed in managerial positions, according to a 1982 report from the Governor’s Commission on the Status of Women.

That small increase meant “17.4% of those employed as managers are women,” according to the metrics used in compiling the report.

So although Utah women had “not made great strides in filling managerial positions,” the report observed, it added that percentage did put Utah 0.6% above the national rate.

“But when one considers that more than 50% of the women are employed, it is disappointing that the percentage is so low,” the authors wrote.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

By 1994, though, Utah women were doing well compared to the rest of the country, with 31.1% of employed women in the state in managerial positions. That year, Institute for Women’s Policy Research ranked the Beehive State 13th in the nation.

In 2019, that percentage had continued to climb — but not as fast as it had in other states. With 42% of Utah women ages 16 and older in managerial and professional occupations, the Institute placed Utah 35th among the 50 states and D.C. Nevada had the lowest, at 33.6%, while D.C. earned the top spot with 69.8%. Women nationally were 44%.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

So, what’s next for Utah women?

Utah women have improved in all these categories. There are more female lawmakers. The gender wage gap is shrinking. The number of women in managerial and professional roles is increasing. And they are earning more degrees.

Yet, while there have been times when women in Utah outpaced their peers in other states, women in the Beehive State have again lagged behind in recent years.

This is true even with close neighbors. In one example of Utah’s slower pace, the most women that have ever served in the state’s Legislature at one time is 27, and that was in 2020.

Idaho hit that number more than 30 years ago, in 1987, according to the Center for American Women in Politics. Last year, 33 women served in the Idaho Legislature.

All of these rankings and data show where Utah women are, said Liz Owens, CEO of YWCA Utah. What comes next, she said, is asking ourselves why are we consistently in this place? And are we satisfied to be there, or de we want to see change?

“What are the nuances and the context and underlying issues?” Owens said.

Utahns have to “start to unpack” all this information “and figure out what it means to us and for us as a state,” she said.

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.