New study draws back the curtain on sexism in Utah

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FILE: Mural celebrates Utah women and commemorates the 150th anniversary of Utah women’s suffrage.

UTAH (ABC4) – For four years in a row, Utah has ranked dead last in a study evaluating women’s equality in all 50 states. When the report – which is conducted and distributed annually by WalletHub – was published again this year in August, it stirred up disappointment amongst the local community who were shocked by the Beehive State’s consistent low ranking.

“Generally, any of these issues like the wage gap or sexual assault, are problems all over the world,” says Susan Madsen, who is the director of Utah State University’s Utah Women & Leadership Project (UWLP). “However, what we know is, like the wage gap, in Utah, it’s even more.”

The UWLP released a whitepaper earlier this month that examined the WalletHub study and provided recommendations for how to move Utah forward. Now, a new study by the UWLP illuminates Utah’s gender-based inequity in a deeper and increasingly personal light.

In May and June of 2020, Madsen and her team gathered 1,115 responses in a survey pertaining to sexist comments and are releasing them as part of a five-part report aimed at shedding light on Utah women’s experiences. The survey, which Madsen says is the first of its kind, allowed women to include specific comments they received, ultimately adding up to 1,750 unique scenarios that were documented.

“Some of these just tell us about that often-invisible layer of things that are happening,” Madsen says of the survey responses.  

In order to glean the most information from the data, the research team kept track of comments, who said them, responses, and how the responses were received. The most recent installment of the study focuses specifically on inequity and bias, which Madsen says has strong implications and provides insights into Utah’s significant gender pay gap.

Utah women earn about 70% of what men earn, which is the second-worst in the nation, according to a 2021 study.

Even still, Madsen says she gets comments alleging that the gender pay gap doesn’t exist and that women make choices that ultimately lead them to lower-paying fields.

“What we do know is that the wage gap is really complex and that it is impacted by choices that women make, but when you weed out all of those things, there’s still discrimination,” she says.  

Category four of the study focuses specifically on gender pay, promotion, and hiring inequity. One woman recounts her experience: “I was told: ‘He got a raise even though you have the same qualifications because he has a family to support.’”

“That’s not choice, that’s not a myth, that’s pure discrimination,” Madsen responds.

Workplace discrimination can have other effects that lead to the perpetuity of the gender pay gap, too, Madsen says.

She references one quote under the unconscious bias section of the study that reads: “A man in my workplace said, ‘I mean this as a compliment, but you don’t look like an engineer.”

“What we know from that is if this man is on a hiring committee, he is going to have all this bias and he probably is going to hire someone that looks like an engineer, unless he has a lot of training on unconscious bias,” Madsen says.

When women feel discriminated against, it may also cause them to withdraw from their job and take less interest in work because they feel their skills, experience, and expertise is not being valued.

And women who face frequent sexism – which Madsen says occurs more often in male-dominated fields like STEM – are more likely to find other work with a new company, too. In fact, she said that many of the survey respondents opted to leave their job and find new opportunities in response to the gender-based discrimination they experienced in the workplace.

“It’s not just the comments, it’s the behavior that comes with them, it’s the culture that comes with them, that affect women’s choices to even join the company or to leave,” Madsen says.

Some other common responses to the sexist comments were to use humor- which Madsen says can be incredibly helpful to educate in a non-confrontational way – address the comment directly, or sometimes, to say nothing.

“Sometimes women don’t feel comfortable, for a number of reasons,” she says. “One is that it really isn’t safe, but a lot of times we as women are so shocked or we just don’t know the best thing to say or what options we have.”

Madsen hopes this report can give women some new options. Ideally, she says, the study can have an impact in workplaces and other community groups by spreading awareness, facilitating discussions, and perhaps in the future aiding in the development of a new tool.

“My dream would be actually to start an app when women can be in the middle of the meeting and get a comment and search for really good responses so they’ll feel empowered,” Madsen says.

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