Opinion: Call it what it is, Utah. We live in a patriarchy.

Patriarchy is not inherently evil — but patriarchy is inherently unequal.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Henry B. Eyring, second counselor in the First Presidency, conducts a session General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City, Saturday, Sept. 30, 2023.

While chatting with men and women who had come together to solve Utah’s gender equality problem, I only heard talk about the women.

“Well, women just don’t understand that they can pursue STEM careers.”

“Well, she’s just not confident enough to ask for a higher salary.”

“Well, she’d rather be a cosmetologist than a physicist.”

I’m a big believer in focusing on things within our control — in this case, our own behavior as women — but I couldn’t help but feel that we were missing a massive part of the discussion.

Yes, women can choose to pursue careers in higher paying industries.

Yes, women can learn to better negotiate their salaries.

Yes, women can create their own work-life balance to accommodate childcare.

But women are only half of the equation. We also need to talk about the men — about the patriarchal culture that trains women into these ways of thinking.

Utah’s culture is defined by our majority religion — around 55% of Utah adults belong to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. This religion is patriarchal, with exclusively male prophets and priesthood leaders and specific guidance around the roles of men and women. In Utah society — and particularly in circles of Mormonism — we hesitate to name “patriarchy” as a problem because of its ties to Christian beliefs and American values.

However, patriarchy is not a dirty word. It is simply a description of the way some societies are organized.

In social justice circles, it is commonly agreed that, in order to solve a problem, we must start by naming it. Only after we’ve named the problem can we start doing the work. When we describe patriarchal systems as they are, then we’re able to get curious about how those systems affect the individuals within them.

My hope is that in Utah we can start using the term “patriarchy” to describe the systems we see. As we use the term more frequently, we will remove the emotional baggage from the word. We will be able to move past any notion that the word “patriarchy” is inherently a condemnation and can start finding creative solutions instead.

Based on facts and curiosity, instead of defensiveness, we can take action that is rooted in empathy not fear.

So, now that we’ve named the problem, here are three micro-actions you can take today to acknowledge and subvert the patriarchal systems around you:

Count the number of women in every room.

Whether it’s a boardroom, a book club, or a church leadership meeting, start noticing who is represented in Utah communities — especially in the “rooms where it happens.” If women are underrepresented in the spaces of power and influence, that’s patriarchy. Get curious about these dynamics and consider how you could sponsor more diversity.

Amplify women’s voices in meetings.

Women are twice as likely as men to get interrupted in meetings. And when women do speak up, someone else may take credit for her idea. You can prevent this from happening by using “amplification.” For example, say, “I liked NAME’s idea to do THIS because…” This isn’t groupthink or amplifying bad ideas; it’s celebrating women’s contributions and making sure they’re not spoken over.

Ask a woman for her story.

Next time you’re sitting at lunch or in a one-on-one meeting with a female colleague, ask her how being a woman has impacted her career. (Note: this question applies to stay-at-home moms, as well). When she shares with you how her womanhood and participation in the patriarchy has impacted her career decisions, don’t justify or superimpose your own beliefs on what she shares. Listen and believe her.

A call to name the patriarchy is not a call to demean men, but to notice the dynamics around us. Patriarchy is not inherently evil — but patriarchy is inherently unequal. If we want to see greater gender equity in our communities, we can’t be precious about using the word. We must have the courage to acknowledge both the intrinsic work women can do and the systemic work that will make a real difference.

You’re swimming in the water of patriarchy, whether you know it or not. Let’s call it what it is.

Rachel Cottam

Rachel Cottam is a gender allyship speaker and marketing director who believes we need men and women working together to create gender equity. Rachel is currently collaborating with the Utah Women and Leadership Project’s “A Bolder Way Forward” to close the gender pay gap in our state.

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