Where are the women? Men still hold most seats on Utah’s boards on natural resources, housing and more.

Despite increases in 2019 and 2023, women still hold less than 40% of the filled seats, researchers found.

This story is part of The Salt Lake Tribune’s ongoing commitment to identify solutions to Utah’s biggest challenges through the work of the Innovation Lab.

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Women have more representation on Utah’s boards and commissions than in previous years, but there’s still room for improvement, according to a new report.

The report, released Thursday by Utah State University’s Utah Women and Leadership Project, finds increases in women’s seats on state boards and commissions in 2019 and 2023.

Researchers found that despite those increases, women still hold less than 40% of the filled seats.

Susan Madsen, the founding director of the project and a co-author of the report, said she had hoped the report would show progress past 40%, but the state has made some headway.

“We’re going in the right direction,” she said.

The report makes five recommendations for increasing the number of women holding seats on boards and commissions, which previous research has found helps improve financial performance, strengthens organizational climate and enhances innovation and collective intelligence.

It’s important that leaders understand why it matters, Madsen said, and that means consistently getting out the message that having women on public boards and commissions helps society, citizens and the decision-making process.

“We’ve been saying that for so many years, but it’s like we need to continue to say that,” she said.

More women hold seats than in previous years

Women held less than 30% of the seats on state boards and commissions in 2016, according to data researchers gathered for an initial report on the topic that year.

By 2019, that had improved to 32.7% — a 4.6% increase.

The number of seats held by women climbed another 6.1% this year to more than 1,200 seats, or nearly 40% of the filled seats.

These proportions do not include hundreds of open seats each year.

Of 416 board and commissions analyzed, researchers found:

  • 50, or 12%, have no female appointees. That’s down from 22.6% in 2019.

  • 26, or 6.3%, have equal numbers of men and women.

  • 99, or 23.8%, have mostly women. Twelve of those have no male members.

  • 189, or 45.4%, have mostly men.

  • 52, or 12.5%, had only empty seats at the time of reporting or had no data available.

There are detailed percentages by year in the report.

Madsen said whenever there’s a big jump in percentage that’s intentional and “means somebody was listening.” Somewhere between 40% and 60% representation by women (or men) means there are good insights from both genders, she said.

Women have a strong presence on stereotypically “female-focused” boards like the Board of Nursing and the Certified Nurse Midwife Board, researchers write. They’re also increasingly a majority on child- and youth-centric boards, including the Utah Board of Juvenile Justice and Interagency Coordinating Council for Infants and Toddlers, the report reads.

Researchers add men in Utah continue to have a predominant presence on boards in the fields of business, finance, natural resources, housing and technology.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) John Valentine, chair of the Utah State Tax Commission, speaks as the Senate Health and Human Services committee debates SB96, a bill replacing Proposition 3, at the Utah Capitol in Salt Lake City on Tuesday Jan. 29, 2019. At left are Rep. Jim Dunnigan, R-Taylorsville and Sen. Allen Christensen, R-North Ogden. The current composition of the tax commission is two females and two males.

Recommendations include potential legislation, training

Though women have better representation on boards and commissions, there’s work to go, researchers say.

“Meaningful, lasting change will only come in Utah as we move toward conscious inclusiveness,” the report reads. “And we still have much more work to do.”

They recommend that:

  1. State agencies and divisions remain integral to supporting gender diversity. This can include implementing recruiting solutions so “greater numbers of qualified women will become aware of opportunities.”

  2. Legislators consider passing laws encouraging female appointments. States with this type of legislation have a 10% higher rate of women on boards and commissions than those without, researchers write.

  3. Utah and its agencies and divisions incorporate quality training on unconscious bias for individuals and committees overseeing board appointments.

  4. More women apply for board and commission openings and more Utahns nominate women for open seats to increase the number of qualified women in applicant pools.

  5. State government agencies and divisions collect, analyze and publish data on board diversity.

Those recommendations are different from previous reports on the subject because the state has made progress, Madsen said, but they still come back to making sure leaders understand bodies aren’t really representative if not everyone is actually represented.

Boards and commissions make complex decisions, she said, and that means members need to have different experiences. Missing “a whole chunk of society” when making decisions is scary for the future, she added.

Madsen authored a report in 2015 about why Utah needs more women leaders. That report cites several reasons why it’s important, including improving critical thinking and increasing innovation and creativity.

Research since then has continued to prove the case she made in the report, she said, by showing more equal gender representation has benefits.

Megan Banta is The Salt Lake Tribune’s data enterprise reporter, a philanthropically supported position. The Tribune retains control over all editorial decisions.