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SALT LAKE CITY — When Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson was elected to the Utah State Senate in 2012, she doubled the number of Republican women.
"At the time we went from one to two," she said laughing. With three Democratic female senators, there were a total of five women in the Utah Senate. But the number of women in the room isn't what Henderson placed importance on, at first.
"Traditionally, I had this idea that it didn't matter if women or men were in those rooms making those decisions; that wasn't what mattered. What mattered was principles that they had," Henderson said. "It did not take me very long to realize that perspective is incredibly important, too, and that is where we are really lacking."
The makeup of Utah's Legislature has changed over the years, diversifying in both gender and race. The shift was notable in the recent legislative session, Henderson said, pointing to the Legislature's unanimous vote in favor of a bill requiring period products to be freely available in every girl's, women's, and all-gender bathrooms at public and charter schools across the state.
"A couple of years ago, maybe even one year ago, such an idea would have been absurd," Henderson said. "But as we've had more and more women getting involved in public policy — on both sides of the aisle, more and more women are speaking up. Having that perspective is a game changer when it comes to public policy."
It was that shared perspective between two women in a room that led to the creation of the Return Utah program. The program is the first state-level program of its kind in the nation.
When Jen Robison approached the then-state senator for an internship during the 2017 legislative session, she had gone through a divorce and said, "I need to get back into the workforce. I've got to have some experience to put on my resume. I've got to sharpen my skills," Henderson recalled.
As a previous stay-at-home mom of 13 years, Henderson recognized the difficulty of reentering the workforce. She recalled starting at the bottom and doing the "grunt work" of a candidate's campaign to build her skills. When Robison explained the return program it struck Henderson as a way to "have a door opened a crack."
The program is designed for adults trying to re-enter the workforce after an extended absence, giving them a state-level position. Returnees are provided with experience, training and mentoring. Mentorship can range from advice explaining gaps on resumes or easing anxieties about reentering the workforce.
"From my own experience, and I know that I am not alone, there are a lot of women who have similar experiences to me. Being home with my children when they were young was something that I valued and wanted to do, but when it came time for me to get back into the workforce, I felt lost," Henderson said.
As the youngest state in the nation — with the highest birth rate — Utah's return-to-work program is a way the state can "put our money where our mouth is" when it comes to being family friendly, she added.
"I think it's important for us to put a high value on the experience and the expertise that stay-at-home parents and other people who've had to be out of the workforce for various reasons — that they gain, that they build. They bring value with them even though that experience doesn't translate very easily onto a resume," Henderson said.
Utah has been ranked as the "worst state for women's equality" four years in a row by WalletHub. The ranking takes into consideration workplace environment, political advancement, education and health.
A variety of factors influence women's participation in the workforce but the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted a burden that women seem to mostly shoulder, Robison said.
"Utah has one of the lowest, this incredibly low unemployment rate right now. What that doesn't account for is the workforce participation rate and we talk about unemployment rates all the time, but not labor force participation. Particularly after COVID, with the school shut down and day care shut down, there was just this huge exit," Robison said.
The exit disproportionately impacted women, with the National Women's Law Center reporting that women dropped out at a rate four times that of men. The same phenomenon was observed by the University of Utah's Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute, which found that from 2019 to 2020, jobs held by women declined at a rate more than double of men.
Researchers said one reason for the large gap is likely that the burden of child care and homeschooling that women often carry was amplified when the pandemic shut down schools and day cares. Robison said the shutdown had a "very chilling effect across women in the workforce," and while it became highlighted during the pandemic, child care has always been a barrier for women in the workforce.
A study by the nonprofit Center for American Progress found that 77% of all residents in Utah live in a "child care desert." The center defines child care desert as "any census tract with more than 50 children under age 5 that contains either no child care providers or so few options that there are more than three times as many children as licensed child care slots."
The data show that child care deserts are associated with fewer mothers in the workforce. In an attempt to address some of those gaps the Utah Legislature passed a child care reform bill in its 2022 session.
"These are big barriers that have existed for decades," said Shay Baker, Return Utah program manager.
But the pandemic has also inspired a reckoning in the traditional workplace and shaped the Return Utah program.
"There are so many exit ramps out of the workforce and there are very, very few on-ramps and this is an opportunity to provide one of those on-ramps and to get back in the door," Robison said. "The Return Utah program is one of the ways that we're looking to address those and make that possible. Many people do choose to stay home and for others, there's just it's not an option and we need to look at ways that we can provide meaningful work."
Heidi Niitsuma, another former state-at-home mom, reinforced Robison's sentiment with her experience with the program.
"There's a lot of stigmas that we get attached to Utah or things of that nature and different cultural or societal ideas of what Utah is about," Niitsuma said. "Utah is family-centered and so the fact that Utah is one of the first to have a program like this says a lot about Utah's desire and ability to balance a work and home life."
The Return Utah program, while having a large demographic of stay-at-home mothers, has also served individuals outside of that. People returning to work following a long-term illness, being a caregiver, after entrepreneurial pursuits or completing an education track are all served by the program.
And although the program is a start, Henderson recognizes there is more to be done.
"First, comes the conversation and having women talk about this and express continually expressing the challenges that they face is really important to steering the ship," Henderson said. "We of course have a long way to go. But these opportunity gaps are definitely areas that Gov. Cox and I are focused on."