There’s likely a “major wage gap” between women and the men they work alongside at all levels of state government, says Utah Valley University professor Susan Madsen, director of the Utah Women & Leadership Project.

“We just don’t know how that looks exactly,” she said.

That’s because efforts in the Legislature to study the issue have fallen flat — most recently in 2018, when lawmakers shut down Democratic state Sen. Luz Escamilla’s proposal for the state to spend $125,000 to examine the issue.

A 2019 proposal from Rep. Mark Wheatley, D-Murray, that would have prohibited employers from asking about previous salaries (a practice experts say perpetuates the wage gap by tying new salaries to past low ones) also didn’t make it out of committee.

While efforts to address the wage gap have failed to gain steam in the legislative body, all of Utah’s five male candidates for governor — including the four Republicans on the June 30 primary election ballot — say they would back a state salary survey to investigate the scope of the issue among public employees.

Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox even says he would use his own executive power to mandate such a move, if elected.

“I did this very thing with the Lieutenant Governor’s Office,” he told The Salt Lake Tribune as part of a recent survey of gubernatorial candidates. “Ultimately, we did realize there was a discrepancy in one case and rectified it immediately. I would require the same action for each state government agency during my first year as governor.”

Other candidates were less specific but still expressed support for efforts to remedy any wage disparities.

Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman said public employees deserve to be treated fairly and that there is “no place for a wage gap in state government.”

Former Utah GOP Chairman Thomas Wright said a statewide survey could provide policymakers with more information to address the “many factors” that contribute to the gap.

Former House Speaker Greg Hughes said salaries should “be commensurate with qualifications, experience and performance. Gender, race, religion or anything else not described above would be unacceptable and remedied.”

(Rick Bowmer | AP file photo) In this Jan. 31, 2020, file photo, former Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes speaks during a debate for Utah's 2020 gubernatorial race, in Salt Lake City.

Their responses reflect the support for government action on the wage gap among Utah women across the political spectrum. A strong majority who took part in a recent poll conducted by The Salt Lake Tribune and Suffolk University said they want state and local government leaders, as well as business leaders, to work to close the state’s gender gap.

While conservatives were less likely than liberals and moderates to say they “definitely” wanted government leaders to take on the issue, a plurality still wanted to see action — some 48% of those who identified as conservative. That’s compared to 73% of liberals who said the same.

Utah has had one of the worst gender wage gaps in the country for several years, and overall more than half the women who took the November survey said they believe they have been paid less than a man who was doing the same job.

Research shows that Utah women overall earn 70 cents per dollar earned by men, while women nationally earn 80 cents per dollar, according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. Women of color fare even worse, with Hispanic women in the state earning 47% of what white men make, according to the institute.

Even with that data, addressing the issue in the state Legislature has posed challenges because of a persistent belief among some lawmakers that the wage gap is a myth, Wheatley said.

“There’s a perception that people don’t discriminate. [They think] ‘it’s the culture; a lot of women stay at home,’” he said. “And I just don’t buy that.”

Experts say the reasons behind Utah’s wage gap are myriad: Women here work in part-time positions at a higher rate than the national level; those who take breaks from the workforce to have children may see effects on their pay when they return; and discrimination and unconscious bias often prevent them from entering higher-paying roles.

Wheatley said he was pleased to hear that Utah’s gubernatorial candidates would support a salary study of state employees. He hopes that strong leadership and recognition of the issue from the top levels of government could have a trickle-down effect that could prompt action in the Legislature.

“When it comes from the top, sometimes people will start to listen a little more intently,” he said. “That’s a big deal.”

Madsen, of the Women & Leadership Project, says working toward equal pay on the state level could also set the tone for private businesses and other levels of government.

“If someone comes out strong like, ‘Let’s plan and do some of these things,’ I think it will make a difference and could pass” through the Legislature, she said.

Escamilla said she continues working on a request for $280,000 for a multiyear, comprehensive compensation study for state employees, including those who work in higher education. The data gathered by the University of Utah could help drive policy going into the future, she said.

And having support from the next governor could be essential to getting the proposal — which she brought forward in the 2019 and 2020 legislative sessions — over the finish line, she said.

“The more open the next governor and his administration are about this issue, the better it’s going to be,” said Escamilla, who co-chairs the Utah Women in the Economy Commission. “It has to be a partnership between lawmakers and the legislative branch and executive branch.”

Elevating women and minorities

Utah has for years been called out in national rankings as one of the worst states for women based not only on wage gap statistics but also on the state’s lack of political representation among women and other leadership gaps. A 2018 index of sexist attitudes, for example, called Utah the second-most sexist state in the country, behind Arkansas.

To address some of the underlying causes behind these data points, several of Utah’s candidates for governor have espoused ideas they say would help break down barriers for women in the workplace.

The first thing the state can do, says Cox, is to “lead by example.”

The lieutenant governor said he wants to see Utah become the leading “flex-state” in the nation by promoting flexible work opportunities that could make it easier for women and minorities, who are more likely to also be caregivers in the home, to participate in leadership roles at work.

That’s also a focus for Wright, who believes that this kind of freedom in the workplace “can go a long way to breaking down barriers.”

“Thanks to technology, our work hours and offices can be more diverse. By making our jobs more adaptable based on the lifestyles and responsibilities of all our citizens, we also make them more accessible,” he said in The Tribune’s survey.

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox speaks at a news conference in Salt Lake City on Thursday, May 28, 2020.

Both Cox and Huntsman also lauded the benefits of professional development for women and minorities to help them advance their careers. Evidence suggests those opportunities can “help them develop leadership, increase their confidence and leverage their natural strengths,” Cox said.

During a historic forum with Equality Utah late last month, in which each candidate talked about issues impacting the state’s LGBTQ and other minority communities, Cox said that increasing diversity in hiring is often an intentional act.

The candidate said he had a hard time finding the right chief of staff until his wife suggested Kirsten Rappleye, who served then as a spokeswoman for Gov. Gary Herbert.

“Kirsten’s desk was about 15 feet from mine, one of the most talented people I’d ever met,” he said during the debate. “And I had just never thought of her in that role. And when I did, it immediately made sense, and it was the best choice I could have made. She’s been amazing.”

While he said people sometimes criticize being intentional about hiring women or minorities as just filling a quota, Cox said that’s not fair. Often the best people are women and minorities, he said, and leaders just aren’t looking hard enough for them.

The Republican Party, he added, has done a “very poor job” in particular of elevating these groups. “And it’s something I’m committed to and something we need to do better at."

Early on in his campaign, Cox created a group known as “Women for Utah,” dedicated to putting him in the governor’s mansion and helping gather input to shape his campaign platform.

And while he said he wouldn’t be in favor of a diversity quota in his own administration, Cox promised he’ll appoint “the best, most qualified, and most committed individuals who share my vision of a conservative, civil and compassionate Utah” and would, if elected, seek out diverse applicants to do that.

Cox and two of the other candidates for governor have picked women as their running mates. State Sen. Deidre Henderson of Spanish Fork is running alongside Cox, while Provo Mayor Michelle Kaufusi, the first woman elected in that city’s history, is Huntsman’s pick for lieutenant governor. Democrat Chris Peterson has chosen Karina Brown, a Cache County resident and Medicaid expansion advocate.

If elected as governor, Huntsman said he would strive to ensure his appointments reflect the increasing diversity of the state.

(Rick Bowmer | AP file photo) In this Jan. 31, 2020, file photo, Real-estate executive Thomas Wright speaks during a debate for Utah's 2020 gubernatorial race, in Salt Lake City.

The candidate, who is raising two adopted daughters of color — one from India and another from China — said at the Equality Utah debate that he wants to live in a state “that has representatives, that has leaders and role models who look like they look. Not just for look’s sake but for performance sake because these girls and people like them have so much to give.”

Wright noted during the debate that at the business he runs, Summit Sotheby’s International Realty, 10 of 11 senior staffers are women.

“I plan to treat my Cabinet and state boards and commissions the same way I treat my business,” he told The Tribune. “I will value diversity and recognize the benefit of having different voices, opinions and perspectives.”

Hughes, who has repeatedly stated he’s not interested in “identity politics,” said he plans to appoint “the most qualified candidates for all the positions” and, like his opponents, espoused no specific goals around diversity of those hires.

“As a small-business owner and public servant, I have always hired or appointed from a pool of qualified candidates,” he said in The Tribune’s survey. “No one was cut from the same cloth, and there was never a need to insert identity politics into the process. Diversity for diversity’s sake alone divides people, it doesn’t unite.”

Breaking down barriers for women and minorities will happen the same way, he said — “when we stop seeing each other as categories and see each other as people.”

Editor’s note • Paul Huntsman, a brother of Jon Huntsman, is chairman of The Salt Lake Tribune’s nonprofit board of directors.