How Utah women, men see gender bias at work

New research: Men in Utah “have slightly lower awareness of gender bias compared to global men.”

(Illustration by Todd Adams/The Salt Lake Tribune)New data shows men and women disagree about the prevalence of workplace bias that disadvantages women

This article is part of The Salt Lake Tribune’s New to Utah series. For more articles on Utah’s food, culture, history, outdoors and more, sign up for the newsletter at https://www.sltrib.com/new-to-utah/.

Camie Hodlmair remembers a superior citing his hatred of working around women taking leave for pregnancy when telling her why he didn’t hire her around two decades ago.

Hodlmair has countless other examples of gender bias, which match with what a Utah Women and Leadership Project study found: Women are more likely to recognize bias than men are in the workplace. Hodlmair’s examples span decades and stories from work and personal life.

Helen Knaggs, who conducted the study for the Utah State University-based program, described the difference between the genders as “striking.”

Women generally agreed or strongly agreed with statements about gender bias in the workplace, she said, while men generally disagreed or strongly disagreed.

That aligns with other published data about perceptions of gender bias, the study reads, but men in Utah “have slightly lower awareness of gender bias compared to global men.”

Knaggs said awareness is key — especially when it comes to helping men who occupy most of the leadership roles in the state understand others see things differently than they do — to addressing gender bias and helping women thrive in the workplace.

That means having conversations about gender bias, she writes, and working to better understand other people’s perspectives and experiences.

Women are more likely to agree with most gender bias statements

There’s a lot of awareness of the more overt forms of gender bias like harassment or the gender pay gap, Knaggs said.

But there also is more hidden or subtle gender bias, she said, like women being asked to take notes in meetings, plan parties or design shirts.

Knaggs, who is vice president of research and development at Nu Skin Enterprises and a research fellow at the Utah Women and Leadership Project, wanted to get a baseline understanding of gender bias in the state.

Her goal was to define the situation by understanding how women and men perceived gender bias in Utah workplaces and then use that to help create awareness and lead to solutions.

Knaggs found a survey done in Pennsylvania that served as a good starting point and one adjusted for men to answer. She then used them to survey both men and women, which she said hadn’t been done before.

No one had looked at subtle actions fueled by stereotypes of female roles and skills -- like women being asked to take notes in meetings -- to see how apparent they are and how men and women feel about them, Knaggs said.

She administered the questions through an online survey between October and November 2022, recruiting participants through various platforms.

Nearly 120 people participated in the survey, rating 47 items on the Likert scale, which ranges from one, standing for “strongly disagree” to five, standing for “strongly agree.”

Women were much more likely to agree with statements than men for all but a few indicators.

In particular, women were more likely to agree with statements about:

  • Being interrupted by men when talking.

  • Finding it hard to get support for their ideas.

  • People taking for granted that women would help male colleagues.

Those statements fell across 15 categories grouped into six sets of two or three terms.

The story continues below the graph.

Women were more likely to agree with all but three categories.

Knaggs said that was similar to trends in previous surveys but she “didn’t expect it to be that different.”

But the lack of awareness doesn’t surprise Hodlmair, who said the director should have known better than to say what he did — even though it was 25 years ago.

She was in her early 20s at the time and working for a major healthcare company while finishing up her graduate degree. She was positioning herself as a strong candidate so she could hopefully work there after graduation.

After graduating, she got married and went on her honeymoon. She returned to learn the company had filled an open position with a male candidate who hadn’t worked there at all.

She hadn’t been called in for an interview or even informed that the position was open. When she went to ask why, the director said it was because she had just gotten married.

Hodlmair remembers him saying he couldn’t build a program with women who would be leaving soon to have children.

“If he had an ounce of awareness, he should never had said that,” she said.

Hodlmair, who describes herself as “relaxed but engaged” in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, added she thinks a lot of women and men spend so much time in their church roles that they assume the same role when they walk into the boardroom.

She recalled being part of an LDS Church stake youth council and having a member of the stake presidency say she couldn’t lead -- even though a male adviser said she’d basically been doing it already.

“For some reason, this adult male stake president, his opinion was that a girl could not lead the stake youth council,” she said.

Women are ‘scared’ to talk about gender bias with difference makers

Knaggs said it comes down to just that: People who occupy leadership roles in Utah are mostly men, and they need to know “their perception isn’t representative of the entire workforce.”

Those men and others in power can close the gap in perception, she said, but they first need to be aware of the differences.

That means having a discussion in and outside the workplace about perceptions of gender bias and potential solutions, she said.

Yet many women may not be comfortable having those conversations, especially with people in power.

Hodlmair was one of a few women who responded to a Salt Lake Tribune survey and were willing to talk about their experiences. She still works in healthcare, but her story was about a previous employer.

Others cited fears of being shunned, their boss reading their comments and repercussions.

“We’re scared to talk about it with difference makers,” Hodlmair said. “We talk about it a lot. We talk about it in the break room. We talk about it when we go out for girls’ night.”

The conversations are important, though, Knaggs said. Employees at every level need to have a better understanding of each other’s perspectives and experiences, she said, and realize that others’ experiences are “probably different from what we think it is.”