Margaret Woolley Busse: Does Utah value the unpaid work of women?

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) The "Sisters for Suffrage: How Utah Women Won the Vote" exhibit at The Church History Museum, Thursday, Nov. 21, 2019.

I appreciate the recent series of articles The Salt Lake Tribune has done on women’s status and attitudes, the gender wage gap, and women’s leadership in Utah.

As I was scrolling through an article about Utah women’s perception of gender status, I was surprised and dismayed to read what amounted to a lament that 37% of Utah women still do not believe their status to be lower than that of men.

According to an expert quoted in the article, “'There’s more education and awareness’ that needs to be done to get people engaged.”

I thought, “Is this saying women are so oppressed in this state that they don’t even know they are being oppressed?” Really? Are these 37% of women suffering from Stockholm Syndrome? Or is this simply another case of women being patronized?

It’s possible I’m inferring more than what was meant in those words. But the words reflect a bigger problem when discussing women’s status. Factors for determining women’s status typically include wage parity, political leadership and high-level corporate representation.

I suspect that while these 37% of women may acknowledge there are problems in these areas, they also believe their ability to meaningfully contribute to society’s betterment is at least on par with men’s. These women may be seeing what I see in Utah: women who are empowered and confident in their ability to make a positive difference in their communities, in their families and in the workplace.

One of these three pays and tends to garner the most recognition and prestige, but the others are no less important, and are greatly impactful to our society. Leaving out the importance of the unpaid work that women do — and the status that should come from it — is demeaning to those who do it.

Indeed, these 37% of women may believe their contributions to their families and communities, in addition to the workplace, are a significant factor in making Utah such a great place to live: 3rd lowest poverty rate, lowest inequality, some of the highest socioeconomic mobility, and the best “bang for our buck” in education (given spending and outcomes) in the country.

These statistics don’t just reflect top-down public policy. They reflect the hard work that parents do to ensure their kids have stable and supportive environments, as well as the work volunteers do to build communities of opportunity and support, all of which enable individuals here to flourish.

I believe that the ultimate goal of feminism is to first empower women to make choices that maximize their ability to lead fulfilling lives and make fruitful contributions to society — in whatever form those might take — and then to recognize the value of those choices.

In order to reach this ideal, is there more work to do to convince employers that women working the same jobs as their male counterparts should be paid equally? Of course.

Is there more work to do to create more substantive and flexible employment opportunities to enable more mothers to utilize their skills in the workplace? Absolutely.

Is there more work to do to encourage men to pick up their share of the household work and childcare? Definitely.

But as we work toward these goals, shouldn’t we also bestow more status to the valuable contributions women make in the form of unpaid work, such as conscientious parenting and community leadership? Yes, yes, yes.

I believe more fully recognizing the true value of this important unpaid work may be the very best way to increase the status of women in Utah.

It seems that these 37% of Utah women already recognize it. Perhaps they are the most enlightened of us all.

Margaret Woolley Busse

Margaret Woolley Busse recently moved to Utah with her family from Massachusetts, where she was the associate director of the Social Enterprise Initiative at Harvard Business School. She holds an MBA from Harvard Business School and degrees in economics and public policy from Brigham Young University.