Twenty-two years ago, JoAnn Seghini awaited the results of a historic election at Midvale City Hall. The then-86-year-old city had never before elected a female mayor, and Seghini was going up against an incumbent. She’d already made history 10 years earlier as the first woman to run for and win a council seat in the city.
A reporter approached her as election-night results came in.
“How did you win?” he asked incredulously — a statement she said was “definitely” in reference to her gender.
“I got more votes,” she responded. The four-term mayor, who is retiring in January, has been using the same tactic since, having never failed to win with less than 60 percent of the vote.
Seghini and other women have made significant inroads in the past few decades as they’ve become more involved in politics. But gender inequity in city office is hardly a relic of the past. Women are underrepresented in city halls across the state and, in the population center encompassing Salt Lake, Utah, Davis and Weber counties, fill only 21 percent of city council and mayoral seats, according to data collected by The Salt Lake Tribune.
ALL-MALE CITY COUNCILS
Fourteen (of 65) Wasatch Front cities have no councilwomen
North Salt Lake
Women members make up a majority in only two of the 65 councils reviewed: Millcreek and West Haven.
In interviews with more than a half-dozen of these women, those in male-majority councils described more awareness of their gender, even if they haven’t experienced discrimination, than their counterparts on majority-female councils.
A 1979 study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology theorized that people become more conscious of their gender identity when they’re in a social situation in which they’re in the minority.
That holds true for South Jordan Councilwoman Tamara Zander, who has an acute awareness every other Tuesday at the city’s council meetings that she is the only woman on the dais.
“The entire staff — all the chiefs of staff that are up on the dais with me and the mayor and all the council — every person up there is a male except for me,” she said. “I recognize that, but it doesn’t bother me. I’m not intimidated.”
But women in Millcreek and West Haven, the two majority-female councils on the Wasatch Front, said they rarely consider gender — let alone feel discriminated against because of it.
“It’s not something that I think about,” said Sharon Bolos, who serves as the first female leader of 26-year-old West Haven and the only woman mayor in Weber County. “It wasn’t even something I thought about when I ran for mayor. I never really thought of myself as a woman running for mayor; I just was running for mayor.”
Millcreek Councilwoman Cherie Jackson said she felt being a woman actually gave her an advantage in her campaign to join the government of the newly-created city.
“I had a lot of community connections through my kids, through sports, through schools and through different things that I think gave me an outreach that maybe some of the men hadn’t had the opportunity to develop,” she said.
In contrast, Draper Councilwoman Michele Weeks, who is one of two women representing the city, said being a woman can be a disadvantage, making it difficult to ensure her perspectives are considered.
“Sometimes I do feel like my ideas are not taken seriously because I am a woman,” she said. “And whether that is the animosity they feel for me or whether it’s just being a woman that has a strong personality, I’m not sure. But I do find that as a woman with strong ideas, I have to be very careful how I present them.”
Though members of the majority-female councils said they don’t consider gender often, that doesn’t mean they don’t see the importance of balanced government.
“As a father of two daughters, I definitely think that we need to encourage more women to run and to be involved,” said Millcreek Mayor Jeff Silvestrini. “I definitely believe that people should be encouraged — especially if they have the talent — to get out and do it.”
Utah and the nation
Women make up half of Utah’s population but hold a smaller percentage of council seats than the national average, according to Utah Valley University’s 2016 Status of Women in Utah Politics brief. Women make up 24 percent of representatives on councils overall in the Beehive State, compared to about 30 percent nationwide.
The higher the office in Utah, the fewer the women. In the Legislature, women hold 19.2 percent of all seats compared to 24.4 percent in statehouses nationwide, earning Utah its ranking as 43rd in the nation, according to the UVU research.
Only one member of Utah’s six-member congressional delegation — Republican Rep. Mia Love — is a woman, which puts the state at 16.7 percent for female representation, below the national average of 19.6 percent (105 women among 535 members), according to data from the Center for American Women and Politics.
“When you look at how Utah is placed among the amount of women representatives compared to other states, you will see that we are seriously lacking,” Weeks said. “That does make you think that some of it is cultural.”
Cultural barriers that could keep women from running for office may include lack of encouragement for young women and girls to get involved in politics, said Erin Jemison, of the YWCA program Real Women Run. She noted also that many women fill roles as the primary caregivers for their families, which could make it difficult for them to juggle a campaign, too.
On the rise
Jemison, the staff lead for the YWCA on Real Women Run programming, said the organization has seen an increase recently in the number of women running for elected offices across the state. She said there are more than 400 women campaigning for positions in this year’s elections, double the number in 2016, although that was not a municipal election year. (She said the organization did not have data for 2015.)
“We’re definitely seeing an uptick in numbers,” Jemison said. “In general, people’s engagement in politics is so up right now and we’re seeing that with running for office, as well.”
Salt Lake City
South Salt Lake
Jemison’s organization looks to engage more women in public office on the local, state and national levels, but she said it’s particularly important for more women to engage in city politics.
“Decisions made in city councils and in mayor’s offices are so impactful to our everyday lives and are great places for women to start to get involved,” she said. “They’re often more accessible places for them to get involved and where their experiences and voices are really needed.”
Involvement in city politics also helps funnel more women into higher offices, Jemison said.
“That’s how politics works,” she noted. “You often start in one role and kind of work your way up or start to connect with people and your network grows and the next thing you know you’re in this different position. So I think getting women in [office] at any level is really the key to making sure we’re more and more represented at all levels.”
Jemison said research shows that public bodies make different decisions when there are more women in the room.
“[Women] tend to reach across the aisle more; they tend to find more compromises and come up with solutions that more people can agree with,” she said. “They bring a different set of experiences just by virtue of the fact that a lot of times they are new to the table and to the conversation. The experience of having been excluded for so long can really inform the process.”
Zander, South Jordan’s councilwoman, encouraged women running for office to view their femininity as an asset and to expect respect.
“It’s pretty daunting because [city council is] very much dominated by white males — but who cares?” she said. “Let people know, ’Yes, I’m a woman. Yep, I’m a mother. I have a different experience and skill set than my opponents.‘ ”
Jemison noted the importance not only of gender diversity in governance but also of racial and sexual identities — another area where Utah falls short.
“Our country and communities are founded on this belief that we’re better when we’re run by the people — by those in our community,” she said. “When the leadership doesn’t reflect those people, we’re missing out. We’re missing out on better decisions and we’re missing out on life experiences that matter. And that’s absolutely true for women of color, LGBTQ women and anyone who kind of doesn’t fit what we think of as the mold.”
Editor’s note: This article has been revised to reflect that Real Women Run is affiliated with the nonprofit YWCA, not a stand-alone nonprofit.