UTAH (ABC4) – Utah has one of the largest gender wage gaps in the nation, with women making on average 70% of what their male counterparts make. Some research has also shown that women in Utah are less likely to earn Master’s or PhD than men.

Taking into account these statistics — in addition to other indicators like political empowerment and health —  a report placed Utah dead last in a ranking of women’s equality in all 50 states. After the report was released in August 2021, the Utah Women & Leadership Project (UWLP) at Utah State University (USU) set out to learn why, and to provide some recommendations for ways to improve women’s experiences in Utah. In December 2021, they released a whitepaper detailing their findings. This whitepaper discussed not only a variety of factors that contributed to this ranking, it also covered the way that women belonging to racial minorities were uniquely affected.

The whitepaper — in addition to the aforementioned wage gap and education data — did not, however, involve much discussion of the LGBTQ+ community. A new study from UWLP, which was helmed by University of Utah professor Claudia Geist, seeks to shed light on the way that LGBTQ+ women are uniquely affected by these harrowing statistics.

“Sexual minority women face all the challenges that heterosexual women face, and then, on top of that, they face marginalization and possibly discrimination,” Geist explains. “I think of it as an added layer that inhibits advancement or holds people back because of stereotyping.”

And indeed, the study — through analyzing data from the Utah Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance Survey — found that not only are LGTBQ+ women four times less likely to graduate high school, they are almost twice as likely to be in the lowest household income bracket — making $0 – $24,999 per year — than their heterosexual counterparts. Despite these disparities, however, the employment rates between LGBTQ+ women and straight women were shown to be pretty similar, although sexual minorities were reported to have lower income jobs.

There are a few possible reasons for behind these statistics, researchers say.

“The research shows that women who live with other women lack the income of men in the household,” Geist explains, referencing Utah’s gender wage gap. “It’s a sign that if sexual minority women live in poor households, that’s probably a combination of lack of education, discrimination, and lack of male income.”

In addition, Geist and the other researchers who worked on the study believe that some of this disparity can be linked to unsafe school environments that may discourage LGBTQ+ women from pursuing education. This then creates a ripple effect that leads to lower income.

Lack of support from families after coming out might also factor in, Geist says.

“Universities may be spaces that are more inclusive, but we all know that in order to attend university, you have to finish high school and people need support from all sorts of networks to get their applications together,” she explains. “Given what we know about queer youth in Utah — that they are often alienated from their families — families play a big role in making sure young folks get into college.”

So, what are some ways that Utahns can address this issue and work towards filling the gap for LGBTQ+ women?

The report outlines several recommendations, one of which is the incorporation of unconscious bias training in schools and workplaces. Such training outlines elements of social interaction that may be helpful to making LGBTQ+ people feel more included, like not using assumptive words like “husband” or “boyfriend.”

“Remember that LGBTQ people exist in all spaces and just make sure language is inclusive,” Geist says. “[Let’s] not have a one-size-fits all language and the bigger framework is to remember that people come in all sorts of identities.”

Geist says that more robust education surrounding biases and language will help LGBTQ+ youth especially to feel more comfortable at school.

The report also recommends “strengthening anti-discrimination policies and reexamining probationary (“at will”) employment periods — during which termination can occur without the employer stating a cause.”

“It can be difficult, especially for sexual minority employees, to be who they are because they fear they will get fired if they admit they have a same-gender partner, or say that they are queer.”

And — to rely on an old truism — Geist says people are much more set up to thrive when they can be themselves.

“In general, I feel that people do their best when they can just be who they want to be and live up to their full potential. As long as there’s stigma associated with being gay, lesbian, bisexual, and having a non-heterosexual identity, that just really limits people’s human potential.”