Susan R. Madsen: Utah still takes steps on the path to equality

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) The design of the new Martha Hughes Cannon statue was unveiled to the public at a celebration of Utah’s ratification of the 19th amendment, in Salt Lake City on Friday Sept. 20, 2019.

2020 is the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, with Aug. 18 marking its passage and Aug. 26, Women’s Equality Day, marking its ratification. And while there is much to celebrate, it’s important to remember this is a landmark of women’s progress, but not the finish line.

Suffragist Susan B. Anthony wisely stated, “There will never be complete equality until women themselves help to make laws and elect law makers,” and I would add, become law makers.

As the director of the Utah Women & Leadership Project, I often get asked why it matters if women take leadership roles in government. One reason is that women and men prioritize different issues. States with more women legislators increase funding to education, health care and social programs like support for victims of sexual assault. Men spend more money on things like transportation, economic development and technology. When you don’t have women in those key discussions, the funding is allotted in different ways.

The ideal situation is to have both women and men in leadership so that everyone can bring his or her gifts to the table. Research shows the benefits of diverse leadership teams include improved strategic decision making, increased capacity for problem solving, enhanced resilience, increased innovation, and expanded capacity to adapt to change.

Additionally, having women at top levels can inspire other women to pursue their own advancement, which creates a positive cycle.

So where does Utah rank in terms of female representation? Let’s start at the top and review women in Utah’s highest political offices. Thus far, only two women have served in Utah’s five statewide executive offices: Jan Graham, a Democrat, as attorney general from 1993–2000; and Olene Walker, a Republican, as lieutenant governor from 1993–2003, then as the appointed governor from 2003-2005. Utah has had four women serve as representatives in the U.S. Congress. No women have been elected to the Senate from Utah.

We fair better at the state level, with 30 women having served in the Utah Senate, most famously Martha Hugh Cannon. In the House, 165 women have served. We rank 35th nationally in numbers of women in the Legislature. That’s not terrible, but I believe we can do better.

Earlier this month UWLP released a research brief that sheds light on the status of women leaders in Utah’s government, showing us where we excel and where we need improvement. Women make up almost half of all employees, but only 39% of supervisory, managerial and leadership positions.

Digging deeper, we found that departments tend to adopt “masculine” and “feminine” divisions of labor, with women concentrated in areas, such as education, social services, health care, the arts and veterans’ affairs. “Masculine” agencies are primarily administrative and regulatory, such as economic development, labor, defense, transportation, taxes, budget, criminal justice and environmental quality.

Government, like all organizations, can address and work towards eliminating barriers and enhancing opportunities for women’s equal representation. Some strategies that promote gender (and all) diversity include making diversity part of the organizational culture; developing plans to recruit more women, especially women of color; reevaluating hiring processes as many are outdated and exclusionary; and providing gender bias training, especially to managers, and train all employees to respond appropriately when they encounter bias in language, behavior, or policy.

As the nation celebrates the 19th Amendment, we do well to remember that most American women of color had to keep fighting for suffrage. The race was not over. Likewise I celebrate the advances women have made as leaders in Utah’s government, and believe as we work to further promote women, all Utahns will win.

Susan R. Madsen

Susan R. Madsen, Ed.D., is the Karen Haight Huntsman Endowed Professor of Leadership in the Jon M. Huntsman School of Business at Utah State University and the founding director of the Utah Women & Leadership Project.