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Why are Utah women underrepresented in high-paying industries?

By Liesl Nielsen  |  Posted Jun 13th, 2017 @ 8:01pm


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SALT LAKE CITY — While the percentage of Utah women in the workplace is only slightly below the national average, women in the Beehive State are exceptionally underrepresented in high-paying industries, according to Neylan McBaine, CEO of The Seneca Council.

Though Utah is known for its rugged, outdoor beauty and booming economic growth, it’s no secret the state is also home to religious, cultural, political and societal anomalies that have created a unique atmosphere in Utah, which may contribute to the underrepresentation.

On Friday, Silicon Slopes, The Seneca Council and the Women’s Leadership Institute hosted a workshop for newcomers unfamiliar with Utah’s quirks. The “corporate culture boot camp” covered everything from politics in the workplace to Mormonism 101.

“We got really good questions that delved into the tensions that people sometimes feel when they’re moving here and also the things people think are great about living and working here in Utah,” said McBaine, who founded The Seneca Council to aid organizations via gender workplace consultancy.

While a lack of qualified workers is a challenge many Utah corporations face, leaders in high-paying industries, especially tech, report difficulty finding and hiring women that are looking for jobs in those fields.

“A lot of companies that I work with, they bemoan the fact that they literally get single digit percentages of female applications, even for marketing and HR,” McBaine said.

Seventy-two percent of Utah women qualified to work are part of the job market (just 2 percent below the national average), but the majority work in lower-paying professions like reception, retail and administration, according to McBaine.

“The highest paying jobs in Utah — management, construction, things like that — actually have the lowest representation of women in the industry. So it’s a very bottom-heavy representation of women, which I think has lots of implications,” McBaine said.

While McBaine knows there are many different explanations for this discrepancy, she believes one of the main reasons women are often underrepresented in certain industries is in part due to the culture that surrounds the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

As a Mormon herself, McBaine understands well the way Utah’s dominant religion affects women in the state.

Many Mormon women feel it's their responsibility to be with children in the home, which often means abandoning career options these mothers might have pursued otherwise, McBaine said. Jobs in high-paying industries are often viewed as too time-consuming or not family-friendly enough for a busy mother who wants to stay home with her children.

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“There are just not as many women interested in pursuing those high-paying, high position jobs, and that’s not even a bad thing that our women are home with children. They’re raising great families. It’s wonderful. It has so many great strengths on its own,” McBaine said. “But it’s something that companies here have to acknowledge and deal with and they have to work really hard. They shouldn’t just accept that.”

McBaine believes high-paying industries can help mothers become more integrated in the workforce by arranging flexible schedules that still allow them to be involved in their family’s lives. While technology has made working from home increasingly feasible, some companies still struggle to implement and integrate this technology into the workplace.

McBaine lauded Instructure, a learning software company based in Salt Lake City, as an example of what companies can achieve when they fully utilize technology to allow employees to create their own schedules and work from home.

“No matter what we find, women and men both want the same thing shockingly enough, and flexible work schedules are a huge part of our offering as a company,” said Heather Erickson, vice president of marketing at Instructure. “One thing we’ve learned is that a flexible return schedule as a parent that’s coming back into the office is something they value more than anything.”

While young women in Utah are often encouraged to find jobs that are family-friendly, many women are unaware of how flexible some high-paying jobs can be.

“I think one of the things we could do here in Utah is actually sort of turn that conversation and say, guess what, coding and computer science, those are really family-friendly careers. They can be done remotely, on your own time, they can be done at your own skill level. ... There’s an opportunity to tell our young girls to fold in those two narratives," McBaine said.

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