Susan R. Madsen: Utah women making economic progress

We are not at the head of the class, but some areas show improvement.

Susan R. Madsen

Across the country, schools have come to a close and, for better or worse, students’ grades have been posted. Similarly the Institute for Women’s Policy Research in Washington, D.C., has just issued its annual “Status of Women in the States,” which grades and ranks all 50 states and the District of Columbia, based on the most recent Employment and Earnings Index (2019).

And like a parent who has come to dread report cards due to a kid’s poor performance, I open these reports with a mix of hope and apprehension, wondering if Utah will once again be at the bottom when evaluating the status of women. But the research from 2019 is encouraging. While we are not at the head of the class, we are making progress in some areas.

We know that since the pandemic, women have been especially hard hit in the workforce, sometimes referred to as the “pink recession” or the “she-cession.” To understand the full impact on women’s employment and earning, we need to know women’s status before COVID, and get a baseline with which to compare. Nationally, in 2019 more women were in the workforce than ever before, they were entering managerial and professional positions at growing rates, and the gender wage gap was narrowing. But what about Utah?

Let’s look at Utah’s report card in the four areas examined in the recent report and see where we have reason to celebrate, and where we need to improve:

First, “Median Annual Earnings for Women Employed Full-Time, Year Round”: Utah women now earn an average of $40,000 per year, ranking us at 24th in the nation along with other states like Arizona, Texas and Ohio. In the previous report, we ranked at 38 with $35,000. That’s a substantial increase. Not bad!

Second, “Earnings Ratio Between Women and Men Employed Full-Time, Year-Round”: Sadly, this is not an area where we shine, with women only making 70% of what men make, once again ranking us at 50 (Wyoming ranked last at 51). No excuses. We need changes in this area now!

Third, “Percentage of Women in the Labor Force”: We climbed from 19th to 12th with just over 62% of Utah women participating in the labor force in some way — part-time or full-time.

Finally, “Percent of All Employed Women in Managerial and Professional Occupations”: Utah went from 37% in 2018 to 42% in 2019, ranking us at 35th compared to 46th the year prior. This is real progress and provides others with examples of women taking on greater leadership who can use their positions to mentor other women in the pipeline. This is how lasting change is made.

When you factor all four areas, we end up with a ranking of 34 nationally, giving us a C-. That might not sound great but, as any parent knows, steady improvement is a sign of growth. And given that we jumped 10 spots from our previous 44, that’s something to celebrate, but let’s not stop there though. We still have a lot of work to do.

Yes, women have suffered in the workforce because of the pandemic, and there is much work to be done, but knowing we are on an upward trend encourages me. If our state begins making it a priority to support policies that eliminate the wage gap, encourage gender equality, address childcare, and improve job quality for all employees — we can and will make the grade moving forward.

Susan R. Madsen

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