‘A long ways to go.’ Where women are — and are not — making progress in Utah.

Things are getting better for Utah women in companies that are paying attention. Meanwhile, progress in politics is lagging.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, leads the Senate on the last night of the legislature, on Friday, March 1, 2024. About a quarter of the Utah Legislature's seats were held by women in 2023 — which is more than in past years, but still lagging behind most states.

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. [Subscribe to our newsletter here]

Business leaders are starting to “get” the value of promoting women, former Utah state lawmaker Pat Jones said.

“It’s a talent issue,” said Jones, who said she has seen progress in Utah’s business community as CEO of the Women’s Leadership Institute.

Jones cited two examples: Ken Garff Automotive added a parental leave program and promoted more women; while Alex Shootman, the CEO at Workfront, was awarded for effort to turn the Lehi company into a better place for women to work.

Yet while WLI, now in its 10th year, is making progress with the companies that have joined the ElevateHER challenge, there are a lot of other companies in the state of Utah, said Susan Madsen, founder of the Utah Women and Leadership Project.

There are about 30,000 companies in Utah with at least 10 employees, and Madsen said, “we can’t say that things have increased for all of these 30,000 companies.”

Celebrating what the Women’s Leadership Institute has done is a good thing, Madsen said, especially as more companies come on board.

But while the hope is that Utah is turning the corner, she said, it’s too early to say the progress is widespread.

A team at the Utah Women and Leadership Project is working to update a report on the state of women in business, Madsen said. The last update of that report showed the number of women serving as CEOs and on corporate boards had decreased between 2014 and 2018.

Jones and Madsen agreed there’s also a way to go for women in Utah politics. The state has never elected a woman as governor or to serve in the U.S. Senate, and only five Utah women have been elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. The only woman to be elected to statewide office on her own was Attorney General Jan Graham, who was first elected in 1992 and re-elected in 1996.

Individual businesses making progress

Several business leaders talked about the progress the Women’s Leadership Institute has made in the last decade at a news conference Wednesday.

The nonprofit works with businesses to get more women into executive leadership, on corporate boards and in politics and to address the gender pay gap.

That’s led to hundreds of companies doing better — such as Zions Bank, where former president Scott Anderson, who retired in March, sought to change the perception of Utah as a “strange place for women.”

About half of Zions employees and board members are now women, Anderson said, and the chain of banks has women in senior leadership roles. Zions also tests annually for pay gaps and closes any it finds, he said.

Shootman, at Workfront, instituted the saying “all brains are great” and made it a desirable place for women to work. When Adobe bought the company, Shootman said, they cited the company culture as a factor.

Kerry Norman, executive vice president of operations at Midvale-based CHG Healthcare, said the company has achieved gender pay parity, and has more than half of its leadership roles filled by women.

Joe Barnard, head of human resources at Ken Garff Automotive, said taking the ElevateHER challenge has led to better leadership and overall retention. After a handful of years, he said, turnover has decreased from 51% to 25%, and the company has promoted hundreds of people, including an increase in promoting women.

And Questar, former CEO Ron Jibson said, now has women leading in pipeline and gas work.

Those companies are showing “great progress,” Madsen said, as are other businesses that are paying attention.

But the data may not tell the story WLI is feeling, she said.

Lowest share of women executives, largest pay gap

Utah had the lowest share of female executives in companies with at least 100 employees in 2021, according to data from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

That data shows Utah companies reported 2,581 women in executive and senior leadership positions in 2021 — about 24% of 10,778 overall executive and senior roles. That’s well below the national rate of 33.1%.

It’s also the lowest rate of any individual state. The next lowest is Idaho, with 26.7% of executive and senior leadership roles filled by women at companies with 100 or more employees.

Meanwhile, research from the Utah Women and Leadership Project shows the share of women leaders of companies with at least 100 employees decreased from 4.8% to 4.7%, and women went from filling 14.2% to 12% of corporate board positions.

Nationwide rankings, including the Institute for Women’s Policy Research and WalletHub, also still put Utah among the worst or last for women’s equality.

A large factor in that is the pay gap, which has improved in Utah but was still wider than in any other state in 2022, when women in Utah made 73 cents to the dollar compared to men.

‘A long ways to go’

Politically, there’s been a “big jump” in women serving as mayors and city council members, Madsen said.

Utah also has more women serving as state lawmakers.

About 25% of the seats in the Utah Legislature were held by women in 2023, according to the Utah Women and Leadership project. That’s lower than all but 10 states, but is an increase from 15.4% in 2015, when WLI was founded.

There’s still lots of progress to make in business and politics, Anderson said.

“We still have a long ways to go to where we want to be, where we have to be, where we should be,” he said.

If Utah is to make that progress, the push “has to come from the top,” Jones said.

Men in leadership want to do better, she said, but they don’t know how. WLI has succeeded because it brings those men in as allies, Jones said.

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