UTAH (ABC4) – An annual women’s equality report released in August ranked Utah last in the nation – for the fourth year in a row. Each year, the report has circulated, generating shock and dismay among Utahns. But this year, a team at Utah State University plans to do something about it.
Last week, USU’s Utah Women & Leadership Project released a whitepaper taking a deep dive into the results of the report, how the conclusions were reached, and what can be done to improve women’s equality in Utah.
Susan Madsen, founding director of the UWLP and co-author of the whitepaper, first conducted her own analysis of the national report, and while her findings placed Utah at a slightly higher ranking in some of the categories, overall, the Beehive state was still last.
“We don’t like, in Utah, to be given this recognition as the worst state for women’s equality,” Madsen says.
The original report, which was compiled and distributed by WalletHub, bases rankings on three main categories: workplace environment, political empowerment, and education and health. Much of the report doesn’t actually compare states to one another directly, but rather analyzes disparity between men and women to determine scores. WalletHub also puts out another report, called “Best and Worst States for Women,” where Utah ranks much higher, at 28th overall.
But even though it’s been this way for the last four years, according to Katherine Kitterman, Executive Director of Better Days, a nonprofit organization dedicated to sharing Utah women’s history, it hasn’t always been this way. Historically, Utah has actually been at the forefront of women’s equality, especially during the suffrage movement. Utah was the second state to grant women the right to vote, granting suffrage just two months after Wyoming. Because Utah elections were held first, women in the Beehive State were actually the first to hit the polls.
And since then, Utah women have consistently advocated for their rights, Kitterman says.
“There’s a great story from Provo, somewhere around 1900, the Ladies Democratic Club protests because the local party has nominated only men for political office in the county and they’re like: ‘Hey, we’re part of this too. We are half the voters and we deserve half the responsibility.’”
During this same protest, the women discovered that the female country clerk was making more than her male counterpart, and they set to work on changing that, too.
“Even though maybe on paper they’re saying women have the same rights as men in Utah’s constitution, there are lots of ways when that didn’t play out in practice,” Kitterman says.
And if anything can be gleaned from the results of the WalletHub report, this is still true today.
So what can be done? One big step, Madsen says, is electing women to political office.
“Electing more women to the Utah House of Representatives, getting another woman to the state executive offices, that chunk in general, because we’re so far behind in women’s political empowerment, that could really move us substantially forward,” Madsen says.
Another actionable step is to encourage women to value and pursue education. According to Madsen, Utah has the greatest disparity between men and women earning graduate degrees. In addition, Utah ranked 43rd for math score disparity between male and female students. According to Madsen, this metric can have a ripple effect on other measurable elements of women’s equality, too.
“When you don’t feel like you’re good at math, you won’t go into high paying fields like business, technology, or STEM,” Madsen says.
Utah always ranks highly in terms of wage gap disparity, too. According to a 2021 USU report, women in Utah make an average of 30% less than their male counterparts.
While some of these changes might take longer as we wait for societal values to change, some of them could improve, soon, Madsen says. Electing women to office could happen as soon as next year, and having a female perspective could help push societal values in a direction that is more positive for women’s equality.
“There are probably lots of factors now that are different than we faced 100 years ago, even though some of the issues are the same,” Kitterman says. “But I think that one of the pieces of Utah’s cultural legacy that we could go back to is that support for women’s equality and women’s freedom to develop their talents and to use their skills to make our communities better.”