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Nicole Boliaux, Deseret News
Lynette Schiess, who recently moved to a position with the Utah State Board of Education , pictured her while she was counselor at JR Smith Elementary School, teaches Karen Edward's fourth-grade class about testing techniques as a part pf her Crayons to College program in Heber on Thursday, April 13, 2017.
If you really want to make a difference, raise your kids well, more education is going to help you with everything. —Susan Madsen, a professor of organizational leadership at Utah Valley University

Editor's note: This article is part of an ongoing series about the gender wage gap in Utah.

HEBER — Throwing both hands into the air, 8-year-old Abby triumphantly shouts, “I’m SMART!”

“OK, let’s see what you got,” school counselor Lynette Schiess responds with a smile.

Abby’s blonde pig tails sway as she looks back and forth from her bingo card to Schiess: “Go to school on time, have a positive attitude, go back and check your answers,” she pauses to move a candy Smarties off the words underneath, “no one gets all the answers correct, and make sure you understand what the question is asking.”

And with that accurate bingo win, Abby gets her own “Crayons to College pencil” and the game continues.

Schiess spent years rotating through classes at J.R. Smith Elementary in Heber teaching college prep — and on a recent spring day it was Mrs. Janet Hopkins’ 3rd grade class where they played “Smarty Pants Bingo," part of the “ABCs of Crayons to College and Career” program, which Schiess helped create.

The program is not unique in teaching soft skills, but the daily focus on college-readiness at the elementary school level is novel — talking about "when" kids go to college, a trade or technical school, not "if."

“It’s the culture of (a) school,” says Schiess, who recently moved to a position with the Utah State Board of Education. “Kids who start planning early are more likely to go.”

Currently, Abby is leaning toward Brigham Young University, despite a heated and good-natured rivalry with her University-of-Utah-loving friends, and says she wants to be an animal control person some day.

If Abby follows a statistically common Utah trajectory, she'll start college within a year of finishing high school — like roughly 60 percent of young women do — but she may never finish.

Utah educational attainment at the bachelor's degree level by sex | Aaron Thorup, Mary Archbold

In fact, nearly 1 in 3 Utah women age 25 and older has some college education but no degree, compared with slightly more than 1 in 5 women nationally, according to the Institute for Women's Policy Research.

Nationally, women are graduating with bachelor's degrees at statistically similar rates as men, and in Utah, more women were enrolled in college than men in 2016, but Utah women still lag 4.6 percentage points behind men in finishing college with a bachelor's degree.

This number alone is a driving factor in Utah's wage gap, the second largest in the nation — although the gap requires a bit of unpacking — because without higher education, women often can't compete for the higher paying jobs or pursue jobs they would prefer, say economic experts and researchers.

Utah college enrollment | Mary Archbold

One of the major problems is that many Utah women don't see education as something of inherent value, but rather consider it just an insurance plan, or "something to fall back on," says Susan Madsen, a professor of organizational leadership at Utah Valley University and founder and director of Utah Women & Education Initiative as well as the Utah Women & Leadership Project.

Madsen wants Utah women to recognize that getting an education is about more than just preparing for a career or weaving a financial safety net. It's also about broadening their minds, expanding their opportunities to serve and even fulfilling their divine destinies.

"Whether you work outside the home or not," Madsen said, "if you really want to make a difference, raise your kids well, more education is going to help you with everything."

Follow through

When Madsen and a team of researchers at UVU's Women and Education Project talked with women ages 18-32 from across the state about why Utah women weren't graduating from college, they discovered it wasn't primarily academic struggles or even finances.

Instead, it was a problem of perception: "Many young women in Utah do not understand the broad value of a college education," they wrote.

When asked in a series of open-ended questions about the value of college, most women (96 percent) mentioned financial preparedness and the ability to get a good job. However, because many planned to get married, stay home with their children and not work outside the home, they didn't see education as necessary. Some even declared it "a waste of time and money" if they didn't know "exactly" what they wanted to study, according to their findings.

Graduation rates at public 4-year institutions | Aaron Thorup, Mary Archbold

Only 54 percent of the 254 women interviewed mentioned that "college would help them increase their knowledge, intellect and lifelong learning skills," and only 20 percent wrote that they could "use their degrees to teach their children and/or be positive examples to them."

A mere 8 percent noted that "college could help them develop competencies like critical thinking, problem solving, decision-making skills, and tolerance for the differences of others."

For many of these women, college isn't a negative or unimportant thing, Madsen says, but perhaps it's not as important as other things.

Researchers and women themselves say it's somewhat a timing issue, the result of Mormon women getting married younger than the national average, having families sooner and dropping out of college to put their husbands through school.

When Madsen and her team asked women if they wanted to obtain a college degree sometime in their life, nearly 90 percent said yes. Yet, when asked to answer open-ended questions about "future expectations, life goals, and perceived future opportunities, only 50 percent discussed or even mentioned obtaining an associate’s degree or higher in their plans," according to the research snapshot from the Utah Women and Education Project.

Lynette Schiess, counselor at JR Smith Elementary School, teaches Karen Edward's fourth-grade class about testing techniques as a part pf her Crayons to College program in Heber on Thursday, April 13, 2017. | Nicole Boliaux, Deseret News

In Utah, only 53.3 percent of high school graduates (men and women) go on to college, the seventh-lowest rate in the nation.

Abundant research shows that education increases positive outcomes in a variety of areas, from staying out of poverty and away from the criminal justice system to living a healthy life and forming strong communities. Educated people also enjoy benefits like increased ability to integrate ideas and concepts, stronger social skills, better mental health and more time spent reading to their children.

Helping young women increase their aspiration for college is crucial, says Madsen, who found that women who believed in the value of college were more likely to make sure it happened, no matter the roadblocks.

Which is exactly what Schiess and her co-creator Holly Todd discovered with their ABCs program at the elementary-school level.

"When (kids) realized, 'You know what, it's 'when' I go to college, not 'if' I go to college,' there became a shift in some of the things they did, they saw a purpose behind them," said Todd, school counseling specialist for the Utah State Board of Education. "They became more invested ... in what they were doing today because they saw a purpose behind it, for years down the road. Sometimes we don't give credit to elementary kids for having that type of vision, but they (do)."

Elias Hugo of Karen Edward's fourth-grade class plays Smarty Pants Bingo with Lynette Schiess, counselor at JR Smith Elementary School, as a part pf her Crayons to College program in Heber on Thursday, April 13, 2017. | Nicole Boliaux, Deseret News

And helping to instill that vision is a group responsibility held by parents, grandparents, school counselors, community leaders and religious leaders — especially male leaders, says Valerie Ross, a school counselor at Lone Peak High School.

"I really think one of the biggest things in the (LDS) church communities is if the men in the church ... not just their Young Women leaders ... say to the girls, 'You need to be educated, you need to be prepared if you need to support your family' and talk about how education makes you a better mom."

To illustrate her point, Ross tells her students the story of her own life.

She was a young Mormon woman who got married right out of high school and had five children within 10 years.

At age 28, Ross realized she needed to go to college. It took her seven years, including a few summers of part-time classes and a few years of full-time school, plus a year off for child no. 6, but she finally got her bachelor's degree in psychology and English teaching.

"Getting my education was one of the best decisions I have made in my life," Ross said. "It was hard at times, but the benefits continue to bless me and my family all these years later."

Karen Edward's fourth-grade class plays Smarty Pants Bingo with Lynette Schiess, counselor at JR Smith Elementary School, as a part pf her Crayons to College program in Heber on Thursday, April 13, 2017.. | Nicole Boliaux, Deseret News

She taught English for four years, then got a master's degree in counseling and guidance and a license in mental health counseling.

"You need to finish college," emphasizes Ross, who was also the Utah School Counselor Association's president from 2013-2014. "Not just go to college, finish college, and there are ways to do that even if you have children."

When Ross talks with her students, she knows she's speaking to teens from an affluent area of the state, many from highly religious families with legacies of education. But she also knows that many of the girls may be getting "mixed messages" from the predominant Mormon culture.

"(They hear) 'Yes, you should go to school, but you should stay at home and be a stay-at-home mom.' In our communities, in our religious groups, in our schools, we need to teach the girls over and over again that being educated is a good thing, that it's a positive thing, that it's not taking away from them living the way (they feel) they're supposed to."

She tries to emphasize that these young women can have both an education and be a mom, and that they "don't have to choose one or the other," she says. She wants them to see that going to college will make them a better mother.

Such a view is supported by LDS doctrine, as verses in LDS scripture proclaim that the "glory of God is intelligence," and "to another is given the word of knowledge, that all may be taught to be wise and to have knowledge."

During his tenure, LDS President Gordon B. Hinckley was famous for encouraging women to get an education, through comments like:

"Resolve now, while you are young, that you will get all of the education you can," he said. And "You may plan on marriage, and hope for it, but you are not certain that it will come. And even though you marry, education will be of great benefit to you."

In a recent, hugely popular devotional, BYU professor Eva Witesman of the Marriott School of Business encouraged women to broaden their views of education, saying “our pursuit of knowledge has its own spiritual value regardless of whether we ever enter the paid labor force," and, citing President Dieter F. Uchtdorf, that "for members of the Church, education is not merely a good idea — it’s a commandment."

Prepare to provide

Amber Zaugg, 43, always wanted to get a degree, but she never really wanted to work outside her home. So when the feeling to go back to school and pursue a master's in social work popped up nearly a decade ago, the then-young mother fought it.

She remembers bargaining with God, telling Him, "I'll do anything else."

What about more English? She had loved her undergraduate work. No. The impression was unmistakable. She needed to study social work. So she got a master's in social work. And still stayed home, continuing to home school her two children and deal with a crumbling marriage, sitting on her degree for nearly a decade.

Then her marriage of 22 years ended, and she became the primary provider. Her advanced degree allowed her to get a job as a social worker at LDS Hospital, where she's been able to go between part- and full-time based on her family's needs, yet keep her benefits.

Zaugg is incredibly grateful for where she is now and how she got there, but it was a difficult transition. She still becomes emotional as she talks about it.

“I always felt I’d be able to stay home with my kids,” she says, her voice breaking. “I had to be forced to go to work — I was so happy at home. I loved just being a mom. I’m still not super happy, but I know I have to, and it’s OK.”

Zaugg's story is not uncommon in Utah, though she was more prepared than many women.

"A lot of (Utah) women don't think they're going to work," says Lecia Parks Langston, a senior economist with Utah's Department of Workforce Services. "So they don't really prepare adequately to take care of themselves and their families if need be."

In Utah, nearly 61 percent of women over the age of 16 work. Some 73 percent of Utah's mothers who have only school-age children work and 59 percent of mothers who have children under six work — so it's very likely that at some point in their life, women in Utah will be in the labor force, Langston said.

Yet for women who haven't laid the necessary groundwork, the penalty is steep. Individuals without a college degree face higher rates of unemployment and a possible life of poverty.

Pew found that among millennials ages 25-32, 21.8 percent of people with just a high school diploma live in poverty, compared to 14.7 percent of those with a two-year degree or some college. Of those with a bachelor's degree or higher, only 5.8 percent live in poverty.

Breaking the mold

Experts say that encouraging young women to attend college is important, but it's just as important that they pick a field that complements their skill set and offers strong job prospects and financial security when they graduate.

Women in Utah are already heavily represented in traditionally female-dominated fields, like health care, nursing, elementary education and vocational training like cosmetology or dental hygiene — which remain some of the lowest paying jobs in the state and in the nation.

Those are necessary roles, Madsen emphasized, and she salutes students who are passionate about those fields.

But Momi Tu'ua noticed a trend among the female students she counseled when she worked for Provo City School District. More than once, a student would tell Tu'ua she wanted to be a teacher, yet her interest inventory and grades would reflect strong abilities in math and science.

"As a counselor, you want to acknowledge what they want to go into," says Tu'ua, who now works in Student Advocacy Services with the Utah State Board of Education, "but make them aware of their abilities and other opportunities as well. We want to give the right resources so that they can have a sure stepping stone (to) where they'd like to go."

Madsen, Tu'ua and other counselors say it's crucial that young women have information about and access to mentors and job shadowing experiences in a broad range of fields, particularly non-traditional and STEM fields.

Currently, Utah's young women lag in studying STEM-based areas (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), which has immediate ramifications for the gender-based wage gap, as STEM jobs are in high demand and some of the highest paying.

A report from Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce found that even "those with an associate’s degree who work in engineering and engineering technician or computer occupations earn $63,000, on average — which is $21,000 more than the average earnings for non-STEM associate’s degree-holders."

Yet, in Utah, only 13.3 percent of 2017's female graduating high school seniors declared their interest in a STEM career, compared with 42.8 percent of men.

Utah ranks 51st in the nation (all states and Washington, D.C.) for the percent of women who are STEM workers, at 23.5 percent, compared to the national rate of 28.8 percent.

Experts are still trying to figure out whether that gap is because of a lagging interest in the STEM fields among females or social conditioning that pushes girls away from math and science.

For Emily Parr, pursuing a STEM career was definitely not something she thought of as a young girl. In fact, she already had a bachelor's degree before she stumbled onto the idea of computer programming.

Her family moved to Delta, Utah, a small town of around 3,400 in Millard County, when she was 11 or 12 and she grew up surrounded by farms yet loving music, art and space. She graduated early from high school with a full-ride scholarship to the University of Utah, where she studied business management, because she figured "everything's a business," and it would come in handy.

Neumont University student Samantha Waugh looks over her project at the school in Salt Lake City on March 10, 2017. Students were competing for prizes in gaming, non-gaming, Capstone, and Enterprise project categories. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

But after graduating and working in human resources for a few years, she realized she was bored and began looking for a way to express the creative side she'd always had.

Curious about why it was so popular, she began looking into computer science and "fell in love," she says. Her only regret was that she didn't find it sooner.

"I'm passionate about it," says Parr, 24. "I'm excited to go to class, I'm excited to do my homework. I didn't know what I was looking for (before)."

Maybe she didn't find out about it because no one in her small town really knew about it. Or even if they had, people might have assumed that as a girl, she wouldn't be interested in a traditionally male dominated field.

Google drew a lot of heat in August after an engineer circulated a 10-page memo expressing concerns about the company's diversity practices and citing "biological differences" rather than sexism and bias as the reason there aren't as many women in tech.

The reaction was swift and severe, and engineer James Damore was vilified in the media and fired for violating Google's company code of conduct.

While many disagreed with him and his "wrongheaded" views, the Atlantic wrote that labeling his memo as "anti-diversity" was incorrect, because he wanted diversity, but objected to some of the ways it was being achieved at Google. Others disagreed with his points, but supported his right to raise questions.

Lynette Schiess, counselor at JR Smith Elementary School, teaches Karen Edward's fourth-grade class about testing techniques as a part pf her Crayons to College program in Heber on Thursday, April 13, 2017. | Nicole Boliaux, Deseret News

"I am a Woman in Tech, and conversations like the one you tried to have are exactly the conversations I want," wrote Margot Page for Time.com's 'Money.' "The ones in which we don’t spout orthodoxy, but instead create an atmosphere where people like you (because tech is chock full of you) and people like me (because you need to hear why I am often uncomfortable) can ask our questions safely."

Addressing the gender gap in tech, math and science is crucial, even if the conversations are tough, because studies have found that when children hear phrases like "oh, girls aren't good at math," or "boys are better at science," they begin to internalize that, and then actually perform accordingly in those areas.

"It could be a self-fulfilling prophecy," says Elise Gould, a senior economist with the Economic Policy Institute. "Certainly the social context matters. What you're told that you're good at ... has ramifications for the labor market. When we think about choice, women's views of themselves, how they're viewed by others, that has all been shaped for years and years of an upbringing, cultural stereotypes. It can change their choice set."

And it does.

At Emery High School, roughly 175 miles southeast of Salt Lake City, school guidance counselor Dayna Terry says she has several girls looking into engineering, a large group interested in agricultural and range management and even a few girls looking toward the military.

Neumont College of Computer Science in Salt Lake City on March 10, 2017. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

It's a bit tough, given the rural nature of the community and the fact that there's not an applied technical college in their backyard, but they do have the support of Utah State University Eastern's Price campus and Snow College's Richfield campus to expose girls to STEM opportunities in computers and robotics, so they "know that they can do those career fields," Terry says.

Terry hasn't done as much recruiting for the 400-student high school's machining and welding classes, but said the girls who do take the classes are "actually better welders than the boys." They're a bit more "detail oriented."

"We're pushing them toward those STEM careers," Terry says, "and one day they might bring those back and do something with that in our area."

For Parr, her dream is to work for an "awesome company," like NASA or Google, yet maintain a healthy work/life balance. However, that's still a few years down the road. Right now, she's studying hard at Neumont University in downtown Salt Lake City.

It doesn't matter if she's only one of 44 girls on campus (out of a student body of 400), or that she may have to work longer and harder to make up for the fact that she had zero programming experience coming into school.

"Do what makes you happy," Parr says, a grin spreading across her face. "Women need to go and get educated. I want people to stop doing things based on your gender."

Neumont University students Emily Parr and Maddy Richard look over their project at the school in Salt Lake City on March 10, 2017. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News