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Is it fair to label Utah the worst state for women’s equality? Female leaders weigh in.

Stereotypes of women in the Beehive State date back centuries, but ‘upheaval’ during coronavirus pandemic offers opportunity for change, they said.

(The Salt Lake Tribune) Clockwise from top left: Christine Durham, Liz Owens, Christine Watkins and Rebecca Chavez-Houck.

Editor’s note: This article is part of a series examining the status of Utah women. Read the editorial explaining the project and fact checks on issues that typically drive the state’s ranking as the nation’s worst place for women. Take the quiz to see if you can tell whether a statement was said about Utah women in 1964 or 2019.

With Utah routinely ranked as the worst state for women’s equality, what will it take for that reputation — and reality of the data behind it — to change?

The Salt Lake Tribune has asked women who are experts, leaders and advocates in the Beehive State for their thoughts on that and related questions. [Read more: Here’s what Tribune readers said would improve the lives of Utah women]

Looking back on a career that includes serving as the first woman on Utah’s Supreme Court and its first female chief justice, Christine Durham said her answer to creating a level playing field has changed over the years.

As a young lawyer, Durham said, she and others of the era thought, “If we can just change the laws and get rid of overt discrimination in the laws things would get better.” She added: “We did. We changed our laws. And it did do better.”

Years later, “along comes the concept of implicit bias,” Durham said. “And we thought, ‘Oh, well that’s why. People don’t know that they’re discriminating.” Training to educate employers and others about unconscious bias was the next step, she said.

Now, Durham thinks creating change may require a more direct approach. If an institution wants to improve how it addresses gender and race issues, it has to “start setting hard goals,” she said.

“They’ve got to say to managers, ‘I want your department to be half female, X percent racially integrated by X date, and your bonus will depend on it,’” Durham said.

Further answers from Durham and others have been edited and condensed for clarity and space.

Is Utah’s reputation accurate?

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune)

National rankings use specific criteria — such as Utah’s wage gap and lack of political representation — in order to easily compare states, but they only show “part of the story,” Owens said. The individual lives of Utah women are more complicated and nuanced, she said, with some women in the state thriving, while others are not.

In November 2019, The Salt Lake Tribune surveyed 400 women across the state about their own experiences living in the Beehive State. More than half of poll respondents said they definitely or probably believe women in Utah have an overall lower status than men. And they cited low wages and cultural expectations about gender roles as their biggest challenges.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune)

There is a national perception and bias about Utah women, Durham said.

“Women ... are still second class in Utah,” she said. “They’re second class in terms of leadership, in terms of partner of political power, in terms of wealth, in terms of professional success. They just lag behind on all the markers.”

It’s easy to find examples of high-achieving women here who are doing well and working toward progress for other women, she said, “but it’s very hard to find any place in Utah where you see a strong trend of women succeeding at the same rate as their male counterparts.”

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune)

“There’s very much a stereotype that women in Utah are oppressed and that they don’t have the same choices as other women,” Jemison said. “And I think there’s even the stereotype that they don’t even know it, that they don’t even know that life can be different or more equal.”

No stereotype is accurate, though, she said, and the ways people view their individual experiences doesn’t always line up with “a big picture view.”

Take the gender wage gap as an example, Jemison said. Not every person who’s experiencing that gap “knows it or feels particularly impacted by it.”

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune)

“We think of people from the South in some ways, and the coastal base and the Midwest,” Chavez-Houck said. “Utah women are by no means immune from the perspective of biases that people have about our state and our community.”

While there’s “plenty of work that needs to be done,” Chavez-Houck said, " ... that doesn’t mean that there aren’t amazing women,” including from Utah’s “predominant faith,” The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who “are trying so hard to shift the tide and to change that paradigm to own the power that they have.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune)

“When they put this information” — such as the state rankings for women’s equality — “out about Utah, it’s almost like it’s a tale of two parts of the state,” Watkins said. “We have rural, which is the majority of the counties, but the majority of the people live in urban.”

Having lived most of her adult life in Emery and Carbon counties, Watkins said, “I think rural life leads to much more sharing of responsibilities. ... The husband has farming and ranching and a job on the side. A lot of times the woman has a job on the side because they’re supporting that wonderful habit of farming and ranching.”

More women serve in leadership roles in Utah’s rural cities and towns than in the urban parts of the state, according to an October report from the Utah Women and Leadership Project at Utah State University.

What roles do culture and religion play?

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune)

“There’s a history of Mormon women always wanting to be seen as ... equal to her counterparts throughout the United States, and not be seen as other or less than,” said Jones Brown.

In the late 1800s, the debate over women’s suffrage was intertwined with polygamy in Utah. At the time, Latter-day Saint women were portrayed as “downtrodden, weak and uneducated” in political cartoons in newspapers and anti-Mormon literature, and enfranchisement was one way to “rebrand their image,” according to historians.

“Mormon women want to get over that and be seen ... as agents unto themselves to make their own decisions for themselves,” Jones Brown said.

(University of Utah)

To people outside the state, there’s a perception of Utah as “a 1950s traditional family, very white, very bland, not a very diverse place,” said McDannell. “Which, of course, isn’t true. I mean, it’s not the way the state is evolving,” she said.

While the state is currently 78% white, Utah was the fastest-growing state in the last decade, and minorities have accounted for two of every five people added to Utah’s population.

With roughly 60% of the state’s population members of the LDS Church, the strong influence religion has on day-to-day life in the Beehive State can help explain Utah’s large gender wage gap, according to a study published last year. That’s because of the way religions promote differentiated gender roles for men and women, which then shape social norms, researchers said.

“Up until the 1920s, there were some LDS women” who “presented themselves to the public because they were working against polygamy,” saying “Look, we’re ladies. We’re respectable even though we’re in polygamous marriages,” McDannell said.

After that, though, “there was a move in the general culture to push women back into the home,” she said. In the wake of World War II, “the LDS Church really stresses the importance of staying home and having children and being that kind of 1950s housewife,” according to McDannell. And that portrayal lingers today, she said.

Durham, who’s a member of the LDS Church, said she thinks “the national reputation of Utah women — and I’m being very candid here — but I think it is colored by the very large population of Latter-day Saints in Utah.”

“The LDS Church is perceived as a patriarchal organization,” she said, “... and that casts a shadow through which a lot of people see Utah.”

Durham said she has “really close friends who are just appalled” that she stays in the church.

“And I say, ‘Look, it’s my family. It’s my heritage. It’s my history. And it’s, for me, faith, and faith is a very personal matter. On the other hand, I’m as critical as any of them about the way in which the church has interpreted patriarchy for the modern age.”

Durham said she thinks that “the LDS Church’s campaign against the Equal Rights Amendment in the ’70s ... left a huge and indelible recollection ... with the community of feminists throughout the country.”

During the push to ratify the ERA in the 1970s and ’80s, the church steadfastly and publicly opposed the act, arguing it could damage families, among other issues. In more recent years, some ERA advocates speculated that the church may have become neutral on the topic after a church spokesman declined to comment on the church’s current position in February 2019. Later that year, though, as Utahns pushed for legislators to ratify the amendment, a church spokesman said, “The church’s position on this issue has been consistent for more than 40 years.”

Just like in previous years, a resolution for Utah to ratify the ERA never made it out of committee during the 2021 general session.

“Part of the atmosphere in this state that concerns me is the fact that there was relatively little outcry over that,” Durham said. It would have largely been a “symbolic vote,” but Durham said it left her “depressed” that lawmakers “would feel comfortable symbolically saying, ‘No, we don’t want to put women in the federal constitution.’”

Chavez-Houck is not a Latter-day Saint, but based on her experience of living in Utah her entire life, she said, the “predominant faith colors all aspects of the community life.”

A few years ago, Chavez-Houck said, she spoke at Utah Valley University about women in the workplace. She asked the crowd of 50 or so women if they’d ever not received a promotion, job or pay raise, and the reason they were given was “because someone else with whom you were working was a male and that person ‘had a family to support.’”

“I would say that at least two-thirds of the hands in that audience went up,” she said.

It was “very telling” for Chavez-Houck because she’s heard that experience “time and time again” in her decades working in women’s leadership and elevating women. “That is cultural. That is pervasive,” she said.

Watkins, who is a member of the LDS Church, said that while people outside of the state may believe differently, it is not true that everyone in Utah feels “all dominated by a patriarchal church.”

“I have never felt like I didn’t have responsibility and a say in my ward,” Watkins said. She added, “I’m not one of those who says, ‘Oh, I need the priesthood. I need to be a bishop. I need to be this.’”

“I’m glad the men are willing to take on that because I was raising five kids and getting them to where they needed to be and to grow up to be good human beings on this Earth. ... I was real active in everything that I could be and wanted to be and did not feel bad for anything that somebody thinks I’m missing out on,” she said.

Can Utah’s reputation change?

It will be difficult to shift the state’s reputation, several of the women agreed.

“There could be lots of women working down at Lehi in the computer industry, but the state Legislature is still predominantly male and predominantly Mormon. So, even though the state is really changing … it’s not becoming like California or Colorado,” McDannell said.

“There are ways in which ... we deserve our rankings,” Durham said, “but I’m not sure we deserve our reputation, in the sense that I can’t tell you on how many levels Utah does things that are progressive and successful, and nobody pays any attention nationally, on the national scene.”

But she also pointed to how the coronavirus pandemic is “stripping bare the kind of structural problems in our society generally, on all kinds of levels.” That includes the disproportionate economic effect women are experiencing, as they take on the majority of child care responsibilities.

“I hope that these difficult times of upheaval and change in our economy and our society and our civil life as a people, will give rise to more energy, advocacy and leadership on the status of women,” she said.

Where have Utah women made gains, and how can the state improve?

Jemison said she’s seen more “recognition and awareness of violence against women” in recent years.

“It’s not always recognized as being worse for queer women or women of color,” she said. “But I think in a very broad sense, that issue has gained a lot of ground in terms of people understanding that it happens everywhere, all the time. … Utah is not some utopia that isn’t impacted by domestic violence.”

Jemison said there’s also been “a ton of momentum around maternal mental health.”

Watkins noted that the state “had a couple of generations where [Utah women] did really well as far as ... higher education, and then we kind of started slipping.”

Sometimes, it’s hard to convince young women to pursue a higher education, she said. Even if a woman wants to be a stay-at-home mom, though, it’s helpful to “have that education in their pocket,” according to Watkins.

“There’s car accidents. There’s accidents at work. There’s illnesses that we lose moms and dads,” Watkins said. “And so we need to be prepared to step up and take care of ourselves.”

Many Utah women work, McDannell noted, but they tend to be in lower paying positions, which offer the flexibility they need. “They’ll sell Amway … or they’ll teach piano lessons or something, where they have control over their schedules” and be home when their kids aren’t in school, she said.

When there isn’t major support for child care and child rearing, “then women feel responsible for limiting their professional activities,” according to McDannell.

Owens sees the same challenge. “I think we consider ourselves as really a family-centered community,” she said. “And women bear the brunt of caregiving, even when they’re working … whether that is for older family members or for young children.”

“That, we know, has a very real impact on women’s ability to not only hold public office, but in their careers, their ability to work,” she said. “And so the role that women play as caregivers in some ways can be a barrier to advancement in these specific dimensions. And [it] also is what is the foundation of what keeps our community together, that allows for us to be a healthy community.”

Owens said, “So, if we really want to invest in women’s ability to hold public office, to hold other positions, then we have to think about what it looks like to attend to that.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Madsen doesn’t expect a substantial change in Utah’s gender wage gap data for at least few more years, she said. But “in the next couple of elections,” Madsen said, she believes Utah will continue to see the number of women running for public office increase.

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.

Finally, Chavez-Houck said she’s seeing Utah woman making gains as entrepreneurs.

“It’s kind of an interesting thought,” she said. “If you’re not going to elevate me within these more structured spaces, I’m just going to do it on my own. And that is a manifestation of the resiliency of Utah women, the innovation of Utah women.”

What energizes and gives her hope, Chavez-Houck said, is women “taking the initiative and doing things in spite of the barriers that continue to exist, and the biases that exist in our state and our country.”

Young women are emerging as leaders and “discussing this notion of what it means to be a woman in our community,” she said. " ... I’m seeing more of the manifestation of that. And it’s great.”

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.

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