More Utah women in government leadership positions now than 4 years ago, study says

A new study from the Utah Women and Leadership Project finds 41.4% of leadership positions in the state government are held by women, up from 39.3% in 2020.

A new study from the Utah Women and Leadership Project finds 41.4% of leadership positions in the state government are held by women, up from 39.3% in 2020. (Alliance, Shutterstock)

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LOGAN — Things are trending in a good direction for women in the workplace, as a new study from the Utah Women and Leadership Project finds 41.4% of leadership positions in the state government are held by women, up from 39.3% in 2020.

This sliver of improvement is "not just magic," said Susan Madsen, director of the project. "It actually comes from intentional, strategic work."

Madsen and her study co-author, April Townsend, show where intentional hiring and promoting practices are paying off — and where there is still room for improvement.

The first step to hire and promote more women is simply to recognize women have something to contribute, Madsen said. Research shows teams with equal numbers of men and women make different — and better — decisions than all-male teams. States with more women in decision-making roles allocate funding differently.

Having women in leadership is a win-win, Madsen said, especially when you're talking about government positions. Representative government should be just that — representative. Upping the number of women in leadership usually makes governments more representative of their constituents, not less.

Hiring or promoting women makes sense on paper, but it can be challenging in practice thanks to unconscious bias, Madsen said. Some practical ways to combat this bias include hiding names on applicant resumes and updating job descriptions to be more gender neutral.

It's especially important to prioritize equal hiring practices in conservative, religious areas like Utah, Madsen said.

"In more conservative, religious environments … you just know it's going to be worse," she said. "That tends to be because there's more sexism — it just comes with the territory when you say, 'Men should be doing this, and women should be doing that.'"

What's going well

Women who hold leadership positions within the state of Utah are bucking national trends, leading large agencies and handling bigger budgets than their out-of-state counterparts.

Just over 60% of agencies with 500-999 employees are led by women. Typically, women lead smaller organizations and have fewer people to supervise. Not in Utah — the smallest agencies are also the least likely to be led by women.

And Utahns are trusting women with their tax dollars — agencies with the biggest budgets ($900 million to $9 billion dollars) are more likely to be led by women than men.

What could be better

While women are in more leadership positions now than they were four years ago, most of these are frontline positions (supervisors, managers, administrators, coordinators and analysts) — not senior, cabinet or executive positions.

Just over 42% of frontline leadership positions are held by women, as opposed to only 30% of cabinet and executive positions.

"Comparable numbers of men and women start as frontline employees, yet fewer and fewer women, particularly women of color, progress through the leadership ranks," the study says.

The areas with the most women in leadership also tend to be the most stereotypically "feminine" industries: public education, cultural and community engagement, health and human services and workforce services.

What makes an industry considered "feminine" or "masculine?" Masculine industries are typically administrative, distributive or regulatory. In other words, they tackle sweeping issues, have a bigger say in public policy and control agencies that impact the general population. Feminine industries are redistributive, reallocating money and services to areas like education, social services and the arts.

The statistics say 61.4% of leadership in redistributive agencies are women; in distributive agencies, women only hold 15.8% of leadership positions.

Women likely gravitate toward redistributive agencies because they've seen other women succeed in those areas. There's a precedent of female leadership, more opportunities for mentoring and a better chance of scoring a promotion.

"Growing up and college majors really influence women's career paths," Madsen said. Women grow up hearing about "suitable" career paths from peers, parents and even high school counselors.

Women are socialized for certain majors and careers long before they set foot on a college campus. One key indicator of future success is math — Utah has the biggest gap between boys' and girls' eighth grade math scores, Madsen said.

Doing poorly in middle school math impacts women's desire or ability to study in STEM or business areas in college. However, Madsen said she sees this trend shifting.

"We still have more work to do, but I would say that this is more of a celebration," Madsen said.

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Emma Everett Johnson covers Utah as a general news reporter. She is a graduate of Brigham Young University.


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