Utah ranked worst state for women’s equality — again

The Beehive State slightly closed the gap with Idaho, ranked 49th, but continues to lag behind its northern neighbor, according to WalletHub.

(Illustration by Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

For the fourth year in a row, Utah has been named the worst state for women’s equality, as it still lags behind the state ranked 49th — Idaho.

WalletHub released its “2021′s Best & Worst States for Women’s Equality” on Monday, evaluating states on workplace environment, education, health and political empowerment. There was a nearly 50-point gap in the total scores between the top state — Nevada — at 77.55 and Utah’s score of 29.85.

“Being last again does not feel great,” said Kelly Whited Jones, president of the Utah Equal Rights Amendment Coalition. “It’s painful for me to read those numbers and understand what that translates to in people’s lives and families’ lives.”

“When women are unequal,” she said, “families are unequal.”

There is a “juxtaposition” between Utah’s strong economy during the coronavirus pandemic, and the fact that women in the state “are still faring the worst in the United States,” said Gabriella Archuleta, director of public policy at YWCA Utah.

“I think part of it is that we’re a state” that has “a lot of children,” she said, “but we don’t want to give any supports to women to have children and to be able to stay in the workforce.”

In addition to the culture in the state, Archuleta said there also seems to be a “lack of willingness to address and support women in an equitable way.”

The Salt Lake Tribune fact-checked Utah’s reputation as the worst state for women’s equality, as part of a series published in July, examining the status of women in the Beehive State.

[Take the quiz: See if you can tell whether this quote is about Utah women in 1964 or 2019.]

The data showed that while women in Utah had improved over the years across different metrics — gender wage gap, political representation, education and top jobs — they still lagged behind their peers in other states.

“Women ... are still second class in Utah,” Christine Durham, Utah’s Supreme Court and its first female chief justice, told The Tribune as part of the series. “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.”

[Read more: Here’s what local female leaders in Utah think about their state’s reputation as the worst state for women’s equality.]

More than 150 readers responded to an online survey in July from The Tribune about the ways they think that Utah could improve the lives of women in the state. Some of the common themes included eliminating the gender wage gap, increasing the number of women in business and politics, and supporting women in pursuing college degrees — all categories that factored into WalletHub’s rankings.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

How Utah fared in the WalletHub study

The biggest difference between Idaho’s score of 37.37 and Utah’s score, 29.85, is in the political empowerment category, which looks at the number of women elected to federal and state legislatures and state executive jobs.

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.

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

In Idaho, 33 women serve in the state Legislature, making up 31% of the 105 total lawmakers.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Neither Utah nor Idaho have female lawmakers in Congress. Two Republican women — former state Rep. Becky Edwards and Ally Isom, former deputy chief of staff for Gov. Gary Herbert and spokesperson for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — have jumped into the 2022 race to challenge Utah Senator Mike Lee.

In 2020, Utahns elected their second female lieutenant governor, Deidre Henderson. Before her, only two women have served in Utah’s five statewide executive offices, according to the Utah Women and Leadership Project: Jan Graham, as attorney general, and Olene Walker, as lieutenant governor and then governor.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson addresses those gathered for the 15th Annual Governor’s Native American Summit held on the Utah Valley University campus on Friday, Aug. 6, 2021.

The gap between Utah and Idaho has shrunk, though, in the workplace environment category. In the 2020 list, Idaho ranked 28th, while Utah placed 47th. In 2021, Idaho was 41st and Utah ranked 44th.

Income disparity plays the largest role in the workplace environment category, according to WalletHub’s explanation of its metrics, and is based on median weekly earnings. Using this metric, Utah tied with North Dakota at 45th on the list for the largest income gap.

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

In 2019, Utah women earned 70.2% of what men made in the Beehive State, according to a report released by the Institute in June. Nationally, U.S. women earned 81.1%, while women in Idaho made 76%. These figures are based on median annual earnings for year-round, full-time workers.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

In the workplace environment category, WalletHub also considered disparities in rates of higher income, executive positions, minimum-wage workers, unemployment, entrepreneurship, average number of work hours, job security, economic security and poverty.

According to WalletHub, Utah ranked 46th for the largest executive positions gap, 50th for the largest work hours gap, 50th for the largest educational attainment gap among advanced degree holders, and 49th for the largest political representation gap.

Utah also ranked 50th in the overall education and health category, the same place as it was last year. Idaho landed 49th.

To compile the rankings released Monday, WalletHub evaluated the states using 17 metrics and a 100-point scale, “with a score of 100 representing the most favorable conditions for women’s equality.” The metrics compared men and women on issues such as entrepreneurship rate, poverty rate, doctor-visit affordability and disparity in math test scores.

What’s notable to Archuleta in the WalletHub report, and other similar studies, she said, is that these rankings clump women into one broad category, and don’t break down experiences by race.

“It would be even more powerful to show what it would look like for women of color,” Archuleta said.

For instance, she said, women of color are paid far less than white women. While women overall earn 70.2% of men’s pay in Utah, Black women in the Beehive State earn 52.6% of white men’s pay in the state, according to a July report from the Institute.

Closing the gap

In order to get rid of Utah’s gender wage gap, there may need to be mandates or economic incentives for businesses to meet diversity ratios and examine employees’ pay and fix any inequalities, some respondents to The Tribune’s survey said. One person suggested penalties for those who don’t comply.

Utah is one of the last states, and the only state in the Rocky Mountain West, that does not have a standalone equal pay law.

“Instead, women workers must rely on the comparatively narrow recourse provided by the Utah Antidiscrimination Act, which, among other things, does not provide a private right of action” in state civil court, according to a report published in June from the Utah Women and Leadership Project at Utah State University.

Utah should enact an equal pay act that allows women to “challenge pay discrimination on their own without resorting to a state agency or protracted federal process with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission,” the report states.

The statute of limitations for claims should be between one and three years, and there should be an “anti-retaliation provision to protect workers pursuing their rights to equal pay for equal work,” L. Jenna Gould, the report’s author, wrote.

Women need to earn a living wage, Archuleta said, including the many women who work in caregiving fields.

“Child care wages are so low that most people who work in child care can’t afford to put their own child in the centers where they’re working,” she said.

Archuleta said she doesn’t think there will be movement in terms of women’s pay “unless pressure is put on our political leaders.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Kelly White Jones, left, and Jody England Hansen dress up as Silent Sentinels (women who protested outside the White House a century ago for suffrage), as they attend the legislative session on Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2020, to encourage Utah legislators to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment.

The COVID-19 pandemic has made inequalities “even more apparent,” Whited Jones said, as women in Utah, and across the country, left the workforce at higher rates than men.

There is a need for more affordable and accessible child care, according to Archuleta and Whited Jones. And until their partners “step up” and take on more of caregiving responsibilities, “women will not be equal,” Whited Jones.

On Thursday, Whited Jones and the Utah ERA Coalition and other partner organizations are holding a rally on the steps of the state Capitol on Women’s Equality Day, to celebrate the female heroes from Utah’s history and “outline needed steps toward the completion of permanent equality, including ratifying the Equal Rights Amendment.”

In order for Utah to become more equitable, “I think we have to make some bold moves,” Whited Jones said.

“Sometimes in our state we throw crumbs. We give a little bit here and a little bit there,” she said. “But I think we have to do even better.”

(Illustration by Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

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.