Women hold ‘considerably fewer’ positions in Utah’s cities than in state and county governments

(Leia Larsen | The Salt Lake Tribune file photo) Helper Mayor Lenise Peterman, at City Hall in June, was elected in 2018 and serves with four female city council members. A new analysis from the Utah Women and Leadership Project found that Helper had the highest percentage of women elected to office (83.3%) and the second highest percentage of women serving in leadership positions (66.7%) among Utah's 247 cities and towns.

The percentage of women who hold leadership positions in Utah’s cities and towns ranges widely — from a high of 83.3% in the town of Marysvale in Piute County to a low of 6.7% in Naples in Uintah County.

That’s according to a new analysis released Tuesday by the Utah Women and Leadership Project at Utah State University, which also found that female leaders are more likely to hold clout in less-populated counties than those with larger populations, and make up a higher percentage of overall positions in towns than in larger cities.

“It’s hard to say exactly [why rural areas have higher numbers] because we don’t have that data,” said Susan Madsen, founder and director of the Utah Women and Leadership Project. But if one woman gets into a leadership position, she added, it can help more to follow.

The cities with the lowest percentage of women in leadership included Roosevelt at 9.5%, Cedar City at 10.6%, Woodruff at 12.5% and St. George at 13%.

The analysis also looked for trends across counties, finding that Grand County had the highest number of female leaders at 63.3%, followed by Daggett at 57.1% and Piute at 45.8%. The counties with the lowest percentages of women in leadership were Uintah at 11.6%, Morgan at 16.7% and Washington at 21.1%.

Overall, the researchers found that women hold 29.1% of leadership roles across Utah’s 247 cities and towns — a number that’s “considerably lower” than their representation in county governments, at 42.5%, and state government, at 39.3%.

The number of women in city and town governments is particularly important, researchers argue, because many of the decisions “that have the greatest impact on the everyday lives of Utah residents" don’t happen in Washington, D.C., or the state Capitol. Instead, they happen in the “chambers of city councils and town meeting halls where community members have much more access to their local elected government leaders than those at the state and national levels.”

“The choices cities make will shape the community for decades to come, and women need a seat at the table and a voice in those decisions,” noted Brooke Smith, who’s worked in the public sector for 15 years.

Smith is the deputy city recorder and purchasing agent for Murray, and she also worked as a research assistant on this new report as part of her studies as a master’s student at Southern Utah University. She said she was motivated on her career path “from seeing women in city government.”

“I had a great-aunt that really was my mentor, and she was a city recorder,” she said. “... That’s what really drew my interest, is having that exposure when I was a child, basically, and seeing the success of her at a younger age, especially when women weren’t really working outside of the home in Idaho,” where Smith grew up.

Though researchers expect that the Beehive State’s numbers “are lower than the national average,” they note that it’s difficult to compare the percentage of women in leadership roles in Utah’s cities and towns to other states.

The only comparable data comes from a 2009 study that found women were represented in 30% of township administrations and 28% of city administrations, though it did not look at supervisory and managerial positions.

“This is one of the first statewide studies of its kind and therefore groundbreaking,” the study notes.

Taking on new responsibilities

Marysvale Mayor Janet Fautin said she was surprised to learn that her town had the highest representation of women across the state, thinking that would be a distinction held by some bigger city. But she said it makes sense, since the government there is so small and has few staff.

Of the four council members in Marysvale, two are women, and so is the county clerk, she noted.

“I see a lot more women taking the responsibility of being mayors and being involved in politics, it seems like,” Fautin said in an interview — and that’s something she sees as a positive. “...The women have a good perspective of how the world works."

(James Cowlin) A photo of Marysvale Canyon. According to a new analysis from the Utah Women and Leadership Project, the town of Marysvale had the highest percentage of women in leadership positions (83.3%) among Utah's 247 cities and towns.

The Utah analysis found that, within the state’s cities and towns, women make up 40.6% of executive-level positions (directors), 31.8% of senior level leadership roles (middle management), 23.3% of top jobs (including elected officials and police and fire chiefs) and 23.8% of front-line leadership positions (such as coordinators or analysts).

“Interestingly, outside of the top level of leadership, there are more women leaders the higher one goes in the organization, at least in the way we categorized them by title,” the report notes.

That’s a finding that goes against national research that has found similar numbers of men and women start as front-line employees but fewer women progress through the leadership ranks.

When examining the percentage of women who fill the highest appointed administrative positions in city government, however, the report found that the state is likely “well below the national average.” In the approximately 96 cities that have a city manager, only five women serve in that role.

The city manager is particularly important because he or she has the ability to “set the tone” for initiatives and strategies around diversity, equity and inclusion. That position is also responsible for administrative operations and other important duties, such as “developing, recommending, and implementing policies; program planning; fiscal management; administration and operations,” the report notes.

In the early 1970s, national research showed women accounted for just 1% of city manager positions, a number that by 2012 had increased to more than 19.8%, according to the Women and Leadership Project. And that number has likely grown since then, the researchers presume.

There are many requirements to become a city manager but two stand out, according to Smith, whose ultimate goal is to serve in that role. Candidates need a master of public administration degree, which women earn at a higher rate than men. But they also need about eight to 10 years of management experience, which is where women face a challenge, according to Smith.

“The biggest barrier for women to move up the ladder is a broken rung, because they can’t make it to the manager position,” said Smith, citing McKinsey & Co.’s 2020 Women in the Workplace study.

A need for ‘real representation’

As with the county and state reports, the city data shows that a high number of female leaders fill appointed positions, which “are roles of authority and trust and give women opportunities to provide executive-level assistance to city managers and elected officials.” In Utah’s cities and towns, women hold 40.2% of those roles, which could include jobs like city manager or attorney, finance director, police chief, city recorder and other positions.

The report also analyzed the number of women in elected office in municipalities and found that they hold 26.6% of those seats. The cities with the highest number of elected women are Helper and Santa Clara, at 83.3%, followed by Marysvale at 80%, and then Sandy and South Salt Lake at 75%. Some 43 cities and towns reported, however, that none of their elected offices was held by women.

It was important to include this detail in the report, Smith said, because those elected officials, who are chosen by their communities, generally hire the top-tier administrative positions, who then select the leaders below them. If the people elected are all men, there’s less of a chance that women will have an influence in the decisions being made, she said.

Helper Mayor Lenise Peterman, who was elected in 2018, serves with four female City Council members.

“It was a lot of new people, new blood wanting to come in and serve the community," Peterman said. “So, I think the community responded to that and elected an overwhelming number of women into office.”

Peterman had never worked in city government before running for mayor, but she served as chair of the Helper Revitalization Project steering committee. After the city received a sustainability design grant from the American Institute of Architects, Peterman thought someone needed to put the plan into action, so she decided to run.

There’s “a variety of people” serving in Helper, Peterman said, and they all have the same goal of “making sure our community is there today and for the future.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Kids play on historic Main Street in Helper, Utah, in 2019. A new analysis from the Utah Women and Leadership Project found that Helper had the highest percentage of women elected to office (83.3%) and the second highest percentage of women serving in leadership positions (66.7%) among Utah's 247 cities and towns.

Overall, the report concludes that more “deliberate strategies” are needed to achieve gender diversity in Utah’s municipal governments.

The researchers recommend that cities and towns partner with colleges and universities to encourage women to pursue careers in local government; strategically recruit more women, particularly women of color; ensure a diverse pool of applicants before interviewing begins; and implement family-friendly policies like paid parental leave and day care assistance.

The report also suggests support and encouragement for female candidates to run for mayor, city council and other elected offices “and donate to their campaigns early and often.”

When discussing why there needs to be more women leaders in government, “It’s not just about, ‘Oh, everything has to be equal,’” Madsen said.

“Girls can’t see themselves as leaders and doing these things unless they see women do them," she said. “But even more important is that it will benefit the people who live in our state” by having “real representation.”

Becky Jacobs is a Report for America corps member and writes about the status of women in Utah for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.