SALT LAKE CITY — They make up half the people on the planet and gave birth to the other half. Yet for the last four decades, information about the well-being of women in the United States has been left to individual agencies and dedicated interest groups.
However, a new comprehensive report was recently released by the White House Council on Women and Girls — the first of its kind since a 1963 report by John F. Kennedy's Presidential Commission on the Status of Women.
That commission, chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt, was charged with recommending ways to overcome "discriminations in government and private employment on the basis of sex" and point out services that would "enable women to continue their role as wives and mothers while making a maximum contribution to the world around them."
The report found significant discrimination against women and spurred change, including the Equal Pay Act and changes to paid maternity leave, affordable childcare and non-discriminating hiring practices.
Nearly 50 years later, the new report found that women have continued to make significant strides in education and the workforce yet still lag behind men in pay and financial stability.
The information could help researchers, educators, companies, government leaders and parents as they make goals for the next 50 years.
BYU political science professor Valerie Hudson said she'd like to see a report of this magnitude every two years, because "unless you keep things continually on the table, the issue just falls off the map. ... Once you have the first one, then you can benchmark it and ask, 'Are things worse, are they better?' That kind of commentary would be really helpful to have."
The Deseret News spoke with women in Utah about the findings and how their experiences mirror or meander from the national trends.
WOMEN AND EDUCATION
Women ages 25-34 are more likely than men of that age group to have attained a college degree, reversing the norm of 40 years ago
In 2008, women accounted for 59 percent of graduate school enrollment
Women earn less than half of all bachelor's degrees in mathematics and physical sciences. In engineering and computer sciences, women earn less than 20 percent of the degrees
Ever since she was a little girl, Jessie Wirkus was fascinated by the idea that she could be a doctor of something other than medicine. Education was strongly emphasized at home, even though her mother didn't finish college and her father didn't get an advanced degree.
Wirkus eventually settled on English. She didn't want to teach in high school, so she got a bachelor's and master's degree from BYU. This semester she's teaching English at her alma mater, but in the fall, she and her husband will head out to California to begin Ph.D. programs.
"I think there's definitely been a shift in attitudes toward women in education," said Wirkus, almost 25. "We've taken baby steps from 'O h, maybe you should have an education as a back-up plan if your husband can't support you,' to more of an understanding that a woman might want an education to make her life more well-rounded, that she might be interested in those kinds of things."
Across the nation, women constitute about 57 percent of undergraduate enrollment, yet in Utah, the number drops to 51.9 percent, according to research from Utah Valley University's Women and Education Project.
"More females are attending college after high school, but they do not stay — enrollment percentages decrease slightly after the first year," according to the report.
And even though female students across the country are outpacing males in enrollment, they're still lagging behind in the STEM fields — science, technology, engineering, math.
"Why? It's the million-dollar question," said Cynthia Furse, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Utah. "From the point of view of being a woman in engineering, it's the most fantastic thing you can do if you want to be able to support your family (and) contribute effectively ...(by working) a few hours at a high-paying job. Why on earth would a woman in Utah not want a degree like this?"
Sometimes the answer is one word: math.
Furse bristles when she hears women and mothers talk about how they're "not good at math."
"We'd never accept (them saying) 'I'm not good at reading,' " she said. "That would be embarrassing. Let's take that same kind of responsibility for the math and science. It's something that everybody needs to know."
She encourages parents to help their children understand math and its applications. She also wants to expose children, especially girls, to careers like engineering or computer science — areas that girls aren't often invited to consider.
"We've missed out on the opportunity of having the women's voice," she said. "And at the same time, they've missed out on the opportunity of changing the world."
WOMEN AND EMPLOYMENT
In 1948, 32 percent of the labor force was women. In 2009 it was 61 percent
In 2009, nearly one-fifth of all women were employed in just five occupations: secretaries, registered nurses, elementary school teachers, cashiers and nursing aides
At all levels of education, women earned about 75 percent as much as their male counterparts in 2009
The labor force participation of mothers with kids from 6 to 17 years old is now 77 percent; for mothers of children under 5 it is 64 percent
Twenty-eight years ago Lindy Fisher began working for Young Electric Sign Co., now YESCO, as a welder. She was the only woman.
Now, 47, she has moved her way up to become a lead estimator, but no one has taken her place in the welding area, which is still dominated by men.
"I always said I had to do everything twice as good to be half as respected," she said. "You had to stand up for yourself. You couldn't let them give you any grief. I think more of them respect you after that."
Several female Walmart employees are aiming for that same respect.
The Supreme Court is currently weighing arguments on an employment discrimination lawsuit filed against Walmart for allegations of pay discrepancies between male and female employees, as well as discriminatory practices. If the Court accepts the claim as a class action suit, it would include 1.5 million current and former female Walmart employees and be the largest such claim in history.
Thirty years ago, YESCO also had zero women in the sales force, said Paul Bradley, vice president of human resources for YESCO. But now, 15 percent to 20 percent of the sales team is women.
The company still struggles to attract women to the more male-dominated aspects of their work, like manufacturing or welding, but Bradley points to Fisher as an employee who has excelled no matter where she worked.
"I think women sometimes tend to underestimate their capabilities, for example, in these manufacturing-type roles," he said. "They really can do the jobs that men have traditionally done, but they don't often put themselves out there to give it a try."
Fisher has enjoyed her various roles at YESCO and plans to stick with the company for the foreseeable future.
It's a good job, which in today's economy is essential, because, like most of her friends, Fisher works full time to pay the bills.
"It's the way our lifestyles are," she said. "I can't think of any stay-at-home moms. I know some who would like to be, but all of my friends are employed."
They work for reasons both economic and intrinsic, she said. Not only does she feel some homes need two salaries to survive in today's economy, but having a job gives you "that pride of having accomplished something at the end of the day."
And whether that job is teaching third graders, drawing blood or welding electric signs, women have proved that they can do any job they choose, Fisher said.
"Women in general, I think we can handle a lot more," she said. "We've stepped up. We've proved that we can do anything that they put out there."
In the recent LDS General Conference, Elder Quentin L. Cook praised the "incredible" LDS women and reminded them that "no woman should ever feel the need to apologize or to feel that her contribution is less significant because she is devoting her primary efforts to raising and nurturing children," he said.
He also added that "we should all be careful not to be judgmental or assume that sisters are less valiant if the decision is made to work outside the home. We rarely understand or fully appreciate people's circumstances. Husband and wives should prayerfully counsel together, understanding they are accountable to God for their decisions."
WOMEN AND FAMILIES
In 1970, 72 percent of women were married. By 2009, the number had dropped to 62 percent
In 1970, women were 21 years old when they gave birth to their first child. By 2007, they were, on average, 25 years old
Women have fewer children now than they did in 1976
Growing up LDS, Lori Horne, 32, imagined getting a college education, working for a few years, and then finding Mr. Right and settling down to raise a family.
Yet, after several years in the work force, her Prince Charming still hadn't appeared.
"I never really worried about it," she said. "I was OK with my situation. Of course, I wanted to be married, and I was dating, but I didn't feel like I was bitter. I thought whatever happens, happens."
So, she worked hard at her job in human resources and did what she could to make herself a better employee and a more educated woman. She also traveled the world and learned about different people and cultures.
"I feel like that has helped me in my perspective for being married, having a family," she said. "I feel more committed to being married, not having to wonder what my life would be like if I had gotten married at a young age."
Yet even though she was at peace with her situation, it was still tough, and she'd get comments like, "I can't believe you haven't found anybody yet," and "Don't worry, it will happen some day."
Her "someday" finally came in November 2009, when, at a month shy of 31, she married Sam Horne.
"You're always taught that (marriage) is the way it should be, but on the other hand, my church leaders (didn't say) 'Shame on you for pursuing a career' when I didn't have any opportunities to be married and start a family," she said.
However, some women push aside opportunities to marry and start a family, which Horne said can lead to problems.
"(By delaying a family,) a woman is often too ingrained in a career and that takes priority," Horne said. "It might be too hard to say, 'Well, I'm going to sacrifice and have children and raise children and make that my job.' "
Clyde Robinson, associate director of curriculum for the BYU School of Family Life said there's been a shift in the past several decades where women have decided to focus on careers, not just jobs.
"There's a difference between working for a career, and working for work," he said. "If you work for a career, if you're career-oriented, you make sacrifices for the work. But working for a job means eight hours a day, and you don't really make the sacrifices for the job."
He pointed out that women who focus on careers may "sacrifice" having children, or delay childbearing until they're settled, thus lowering the number of children per family and increasing the risk of birth defects and complications.
In Utah, the average age of mothers giving birth for the first time mirrors the national numbers fairly closely, with an average age of 21.7 in 1970 and 24 in 2005, according to the Utah Department of Health. The highest age was 26.3 in 1990.
WOMEN AND CRIME
In 1993, 43 of 1,000 women were victims of non-fatal, violent actions. In 2008, that number dropped to 18 women for every 1,000
The imprisonment rate for females quadrupled between 1985 and 2008, going from 0.17 to 0.68 per 1,000 females
In 1990, 43,940 women were convicted of a felony drug offense in state courts. In 2006, that number increased to 68,020
While most people picture prisons filled with men, women are a growing inmate population, even though they're not committing as many violent crimes as men.
"We know that women's imprisonment rates have been going up a lot quicker than men's have over the last decade, but this doesn't really address what is causing the increase of more crimes," said Matthew Duffin, an assistant professor in UVU's criminal justice department.
His hypothesis, backed by various studies and personal interactions, is the increasing drug use among women.
"It seems to be a pathway for a lot of women to get into situations where they're committing criminal offenses," he said.
Stephen Bahr, a sociologist at BYU who studies prison populations, echoed Duffin's theory.
"Even violent and property crimes have a drug base to them," Bahr said. "We need more resources (for) drug treatment and prevention."
Though the federal report doesn't delve into state specifics, Utahns have struggled and continue to struggle with methamphetamine, heroin and prescription drugs — a category that hits women especially hard because it begins with something legal and prescribed.
Those addictions then drive women to commit crimes — especially property crimes. National data show that 40 percent of female convictions are for property crimes versus only 26 percent for males. For men, 20 percent of convictions are for violent crime, while it's only 11 percent of female convictions.
And while it's inherently problematic that prisons are becoming overcrowded, there's a deeper problem when a woman and mother is incarcerated, Duffin said.
"The thing that worries me the most (is) when you have women going to prison, they are often the sole caregiver of the children," Duffin said. "So children get thrown into social services, foster homes and in many instances, women are having their parental rights terminated. My biggest concern looking forward is the way that that is just destroying children's lives and really tearing up the family and society."
WOMEN AND HEALTH
35 percent of U.S. women are obese, up from 25 percent between 1988-1994
The C-section rate in 2008 was 32 percent, the highest ever in U.S. history
In 2009, 18 percent of women ages 18-64 lacked health insurance
Utahns may pride themselves on low smoking rates and low incidences of lung cancer, but that doesn't make up for the areas where they lag.
Utah women are some of the worst in the country at getting necessary screening checks — they rank 50th in getting mammograms within the past two years, 53rd for pap smears within the past three years and 51st in cholesterol screenings in the past five years, said Catherine Wheeler, a gynecologist at the University Hospital, director of the Women's Life Center and co-chair of the Utah Women's Health Coalition.
Yet Utah women shouldn't be using the excuse that they can't afford it, because according to data from the national Office of Women's Health, Utah ranks 27th for having health insurance for women ages 18 to 64. Thus it's more of an attitudinal problem than a financial one, said Kathleen Digre, director for the Center of Excellence in Women's Health at the University of Utah.
"I think that's an important message for the women of Utah," she said. "We're at the bottom of the barrel, and it's because we're good care-givers. We give good care to everyone but ourselves. Every mom, and we've got a lot of mothers in Utah, is always taking care of the kids first, her husband second and herself third."
To really make a difference, overall health must also become a way of life, Wheeler said, with increased emphasis placed on good dietary and activity habits.
"We (need to) start training our people, our girls and boys, at a younger age about what's healthy eating, what's physical activity," she said.
Wheeler pointed out that in health as well as other areas, women are faring better because they're getting married later — in their 20s rather than their mid-teens — which often means they're going on to college rather than dropping out of high school to become mothers.1 comment on this story
Women and girls who are more educated tend to make more money, experience less domestic violence, weigh less and experience fewer health challenges, she said.
The study pointed out that only 24 percent of women who had less than a high-school education met the physical activity guidelines, whereas 51 percent of women who had some college education met the guidelines.
"The more we can get our young women to finish high school...and get an education," she said, "it gives them more power, and that improves the world."
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