SALT LAKE CITY — Utah leads when rankings appear comparing the nation's most robust economies. But the state takes a hit when gender is at play, citing the wage gap, higher education graduation rates and representation in leadership as reasons to label Utah among the "worst states for women."
Is such a negative distinction true, and if so, what does it mean?
Many Utah women don't finish school or pull themselves out of the workforce because it's part of the "Utah culture" for them to stay home and take care of their families, said Pam Perlich, director of demographic research at the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute at the University of Utah.
Utah has the highest fertility rate, youngest age at first marriage and largest household size, and many people believe there is a link between these and our wage gap, Perlich said. Occupational choices also affect the state wage gap, she said.
“What is it that leads to there being more male engineers than female engineers? There’s a whole set of reasons why that can go all the way back to how little girls are treated in math classes in third grade," Perlich said. "The whole culture around women and math and science and engineering — there’s been changes, but Utah is just trending behind the nation in the speed of changes in gender equity in pay and employment."
The United States ranks No. 20 on the Global Gender Gap Report by the World Economic Forum, which quantifies the magnitude of gender-based disparities and track their progress over time. The U.S. fell behind Iceland, Rwanda, Latvia, France, Nicaragua and Canada, among others.
24/7 Wall St., a news and opinion outlet published over the Internet, based its state rankings on differences in wages and representation in managerial and government positions. Wallethub, which analyzes state and financial data to provide rankings for consumers, factored in health and education, as well.
The wage gap
Utah's wage gap was a major contributing factor to its low rating in both studies.
With men's annual salaries in Utah above the national average and women's below, Utah had the second-largest gender wage gap in the country in 2014, according to 24/7 Wall St. The average woman made $16,500 less annually — 67 cents for every dollar made by a man.
Voices for Utah Children, which advocates for children, evaluated Utah's wage gap in October using 2013 U.S. Census Bureau data, finding the state's wage gap higher than national and regional averages.
Utah men made 26.3 percent more money than the state's women, compared to 20 percent more in the region and 17.6 percent more in the nation, the research states.
The study divided Utah's wage gap into two parts:
Curtis Miller, writer of the Voices for Utah Children's study, attributes 27 percent of the wage gap to measurable qualifications that reflect men's qualifications outpacing women's for higher-paying jobs, such as occupational choice and education.
The remaining 73 percent accounts for nonmeasurable factors, which would include "discrimination," intended or not.
"Our finding was that the discrimination piece was no worse in Utah than it is nationally," Matthew Weinstein of Voices for Utah Children, said. "The reason Utah has fallen behind the nation is because of the way that women have fallen behind in their educational achievement and their ability to break in to the higher-paying, traditionally male-dominated occupations and industries."
At least 95 percent of all the occupational therapy assistants, preschool and kindergarten teachers, medical transcriptionists, dental hygienists, hairdressers and cosmetologists, and secretaries in Utah are female. By contrast, at least 97 percent of carpenters, construction laborers, automotive service technicians and mechanics, supervisors of construction trades, electricians, construction equipment operators and construction managers are male, Carrie Mayne, chief economist of the Utah Department of Workforce Services, said.
"A construction laborer, which may just need a high school diploma, pays more than the secretaries and administrative assistants which need similar education," Mayne said. "The occupation of the average female worker is very different than the average occupation of the male worker, and that explains a great deal in the amount of earnings in Utah."
Mayne said women may base the degrees they attain on their interests instead of on future career potential.
Utahns with associates, bachelor's or master's degrees in the male-dominated field of engineering made more money in their early and mid-career than any other major, according to data released by PayScale, an online salary comparison company based in Washington.
Those with associates, bachelor's or masters degrees in the female-dominated field of early childhood education made less money than any other major, according to the same data, but those workers said that their job made a difference in people's lives, more than most other majors.
Susan Madsen, founder of the Utah Women and Leadership Project, said Utah women choose teaching, nursing and other female-dominated careers because parents, teachers and leaders primarily encourage girls to consider these jobs.
As a professor of management at Utah Valley University, Madsen said she doesn't see anything wrong with women choosing these female-dominated careers but believes it shouldn't be presented as the only option for Utah's women.
Seeing the low number of women in UVU's school of business and the large number of female students who leave college before finishing their degrees, Madsen continues to encourage women to try business-related fields and stay in school.
Utah had the largest gap between men's and women's educational attainment in Wallethub's study, which helped Utah land the dubious "Worst State" title.
In the 2009-10 school year, women earned the majority of degrees at all levels, according to the center, receiving 62 percent of associates, 57.4 percent of bachelor's, 62.6 percent master's and 53.3 percent of doctorate degrees.
Utah records indicate a contrary pattern.
While Utah women enter school at higher rates than the national average, their graduation rate is 10 percent lower than the national average, according to Institute for Women's Policy Research.
Utah women are also less likely than men in the state to attain a bachelor's degree or higher, the research states. But this may be changing.
In the 2013-14 school year, 16,688 women graduated from college in Utah, compared to 15,861 men, and between 2009 and 2011, a higher percentage of female students graduated within six years of starting college.
Although there is a higher percentage of men on Utah campuses than women, female presence has steadily increased. In 2006 women made up 48.8 percent of Utah's public higher education head count. That percentage increased in 2008 to 49.1 percent and in 2010 to 49.6 percent.
If Utah continues in this direction, Weinstein said, Utah women's graduation rates could reconcile with national statistics.
'Duty' to home and family
Madsen said keeping young women in school is more difficult in Utah than other states because Utah women are often taught that it's their duty to continually sacrifice for home and family.
"We need to talk to girls, especially in my religion, about the importance of family, but also about the importance of education and the importance of being engaged in our communities," Madsen, a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints said. "There's space in life to really focus on your kids but to do other things as well."
Liana Sorenson, a stay-at-home mom from Heber who teaches piano lessons from home, said sometimes she feels guilty that she's not contributing to her family's income more. Her husband works full time and is the primary breadwinner.
Sorenson has a 1-year-old and a 3-year-old and said it wouldn't be worth it for her to go back to work because the price of day care would counteract the amount she would make working at any job she could get without a degree. Sorenson said she quit college when finances got tight at the beginning of her marriage.
"That's just the way it is for now," she said. "I guess in the end we both love that I am home with the children and that I can take care of them and raise them with the morals and standards that we want."
Sorenson said she "absolutely plans" to go back to work when her children attend school full time.
Women in management
Utah has the nation's greatest gender gap in executive positions, according to Wallethub's analysis, and less than 1 in every 3 management positions is held by a woman, according to 24/7 Wall St. This may be because women take time off for maternity leave or to raise children and then re-enter the workforce, Mayne said.
"Oftentimes management positions are opened up to people who have experience in the company or field, and it tends to be the case that women will have less tenure and experience than men do," Mayne said.
Another reason fewer women are in management positions is that fewer of them are in the labor force, Mayne said.
About 57 percent of women in Utah are either employed or looking for a job, compared to about 78 percent of men, according to the Department of Workforce services. This means 831,000 men are in the workforce compared to 619,000 women, Mayne said.
But Utah programs, such as the Women's Leadership Institute's ElevateHer challenge is pushing to help women succeed.
So far 66 Utah companies have accepted the challenge and have pledged to increase senior leadership position of women, look for retention rates of women, increase the number of women on community boards, monitor gender wage gaps, start or enhance mentorship programs and recruit women to run for political office, in coordination with the institute's ElevateHer challenge, Jones said.
Women in government
Women have a good track record of making it into office, but many often don't try because they are afraid that they don't meet all the qualifications needed for the position, they want to avoid combative environments and they don't understand the personal benefits that come from political service, Jones said.
Women's lack of political representation in the state of Utah is also cited as a problem, noting that 15.4 percent of the Utah State Legislature is female in a state with a population that is 49.7 percent female.
The average female representation in state legislatures is 24.3 percent, and the average female representation in the U.S. Congress is 19.4 percent, according to the Center for American Women and Politics.
Republican Utah State Sen. Margaret Dayton, the female with the longest legislative service in state history, said she feels like gender neither qualifies nor disqualifies a person from political service.
"I think it is disappointing that so much attention is given to the ratio of men to women serving; it seems to be demeaning to the men who ran with a message and were elected," Dayton said in an email to the Deseret News. "I think there needs to be caution in focusing on women in highly visible settings only, lest we discount the benefits the women generate in other areas."
Madsen said one reason more women aren't in political office is because it's easy for girls to "look at politics and just see men, men, men, and not see it as an option."
Pat Jones, CEO of the Leadership Institute and a former state senator, said she was often the only female on a committee and there were many committees with no women. She said it is essential for women to be on committees because they bring a different perspective.
On one occasion a female senator presented a bill on the HPV vaccination to an all-male Utah Senate committee, Jones said. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States and can cause sterility and cancer, primarily in women.
"It started off as a health conversation and ended as these senators saying, 'Well women will be more promiscuous if you do this,'" Jones said. "If there had been some female members of the committee, I can guarantee the conversation would have been different."
In an effort to encourage more women to run for office and help those who have decided to run succeed, The Women's Leadership Institute is holding a six-month political development series. Jones said she was pleasantly surprised when 25 women signed up for the series.
"We keep getting these reports that Utah is one of the worst places for women, but that's something I really argue with," Jones said. "The statistics might say that, but the opportunities for women are here."