Susan R. Madsen: Can snow plowing be sexist? Yes it can.

Snow plows clear Interstate 29 on Thursday, April 11, in Sioux Falls, S.D. Heavy snow and strong winds hammered parts of the central U.S. on Thursday, knocking out power to tens of thousands of people and creating hazardous travel conditions a day after pummeling Colorado. (Briana Sanchez/The Argus Leader via AP)

As a professor in the Woodbury School of Business, my research is focused on women and leadership, which includes things like unconscious bias, benevolent sexism and gender stereotypes. But every once in a while, something takes me by surprise.

Recently I encountered a public works study entitled “Can Snow-Clearing be Sexist?” from the book “Invisible Women.” I thought, “Is this for real?” Not only is it real, it’s probably happening in Utah, too. Hear me out.

It started as a joke at a town meeting in Karlskoga, Sweden. The local officials were trying to implement gender-equality initiatives and someone remarked that at least snow removal was safe from “the gender people.” But as the data were analyzed, they discovered that the transportation patterns of men and women were different, and that only men were considered in snow plowing decisions.

The first roads cleared were the major traffic arteries, used by cars to get to and from work, and ended with pedestrian walkways and bike paths. The same could be true in towns and cities in Utah (we don’t have the data so we don’t know).

In Europe at least, this disadvantages women, who are more likely to walk or take public transportation than are men. And even if mode of transportation is the same, women tend to have more complicated travel patterns. Typical men go from home to work and back. Because most of the unpaid care work falls to women, their travel may take them from home to the daycare, to work, to take an elder relative to the doctor, then the store, then home. This “trip chaining” makes traveling in snowy conditions less direct and more dangerous as they rely on smaller roads and sidewalks, often balancing bags and children.

In Karlskoga they experimented by flipping the snow clearing order, clearing first for pedestrians and public transport and finally the major arteries. It didn’t cost more, and in fact, over time they realized that the cost of pedestrian accidents in bad weather was twice the price of snow maintenance.

The root of the problem was an assumption (without data to support it) that all residents in communities have the same needs. When one gender makes most or all of the decisions, the norms and standards are based on that gender’s patterns and needs. This results in a gap in perspective.

For example, when mostly male doctors outlined the typical symptoms of heart attacks in medical textbooks, it went unnoticed that women present very differently. As a result, women suffering heart attacks today are still treated half as often as men because their symptoms aren’t “typical.”

And recent studies show that because crash test dummies are based on male specifications, accidents result in more injuries for women. The point of the book is that when data are not collected on all genders, decisions are not benefiting all residents.

Research is clear that when there is more diversity at the table (e.g., boardrooms, state boards and commissions, city councils, governor’s cabinets, state legislatures), better decisions are made for our communities, businesses, states and countries.

As we see from the snowplow story, it’s not a zero-sum game. Rearranging clearing routes to benefit all community members reduced accidents and saved money for families and the town at a relatively low cost to drivers going to and from work on major arteries.

You may discount my examples because you may think they don’t apply to Utah, but I expect they all apply to Utah. But we just don’t know, as Utah (along with other states) rarely collects data by gender (and other demographic categories). Doing this could, if we are willing to examine our assumptions, make our state better for women, families and men.

Susan R. Madsen

Susan R. Madsen, Ed.D. is the Orin R. Woodbury Professor of Leadership & Ethics in the Woodbury School of Business at Utah Valley University and the Founding Director of the Utah Women & Leadership Project.