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Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
Amber Bird holds her daughter, Lydia Jane Bird, while attending a Women in the Economy Commission meeting with her husband, Josh Bird, in the House Building on Utah’s Capitol Hill in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, April 3, 2018. The Birds are expecting their second child, and Amber will pursue a master's in English this year.

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah women have caught up to Utah men in bachelor college degree attainment in recent years, but far fewer Utah women earn graduate degrees compared to their male counterparts, a new report shows.

Utah is making progress, but "we don't look so great when different organizations make national rankings. We tend to be toward the bottom on those lists that have to do with women's education and economic opportunities and conditions," said Catherine Jeppsen, author of Utah Women in Higher Education 2018.

Jeppsen, a research fellow for the Utah Women and Leadership Project, reported her findings Tuesday to the Women in the Economy Commission, a group created by the Utah Legislature in 2014.

Heather Tuttle

The report, which analyzed data from the Utah System of Higher Education, American Community Survey and the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, explores changes between 2000 and 2017 and the "unique barriers" Utah women face that lead to "discrepancy between their enrollment and completion of a degree."

Researchers found that educational attainment for Utah men and women 25 and older matched or exceeded national postsecondary attainment up through a bachelor's degree, and more than 60 percent of this group completed at least some college.

Compared to women nationwide, women in Utah have lower cumulative attainment in the general population and lower enrollment in the student population.

"This gap is narrowing over time, but it is part of why Utah gets national attention for being ranked lower on measures of women's educational well-being," the report states.

Another area of concern is a smaller proportion of women in Utah pursue degrees in STEM-oriented fields compared to their peers nationwide.

"Concentration of women in lower-paying fields of study likely influences future wages, further influencing Utah women's economic well-being relative to the rest of the nation," the report states.

More Utah women complete associate degrees or certificate programs than Utah men and their peers nationally, but it takes them longer to do so, the report said.

The report notes that in recent years Utah women's completion of bachelor's degrees within 150 percent of normal time has lagged, "perhaps due in part to the change in the LDS mission age for women."

On average, women are at an older age in their first term of college compared to men, and a smaller proportion of women experience gaps of three or more terms as they progress toward a degree compared to men, the report states.

While commission members said the data reflects some progress, it also means Utah has more work to do to improve rates of degree completion for women, particularly at the graduate level.

The commission plans to send the report to the presidents of all public and private colleges and universities statewide, as well as lawmakers, the executive branch and business interests such as the Salt Lake Chamber.

Two women also addressed the commission sharing personal stories of barriers they have encountered in higher education.

Amber Bird, "a student, and a mom" of a 1-year-old daughter, told the commission she plans to enroll in a graduate program in September to continue working toward her goal of becoming an English professor. She and her husband are expecting their second child in August.

Bird said she has always loved school but when she was pregnant her senior year in college, "I felt for the first time in my life that I did not belong at school anymore. It was something that was really hard to admit to myself, but becoming a mom in some way made me feel I was disqualified for going to school."

As she has discussed her feelings with friends, they shared similar perceptions.

"For women, life and your pursuits and who you want to become almost end once you get married. If you have a desire to have children then education has to stop," she said.

But Bird pushed past the naysayers, she said. She and her husband struggled to find child care but eventually found an in-home provider who provides loving care for their daughter Lydia.

Still, "when I'd be in class or in a situation I was teaching or I was trying to pursue my degree, the question would always be, 'Well, who's watching your kid?'"

As her brothers pursued their degrees, "they've never had that question," she said.

Mostly, Bird said she wants people to know that "kids in tow doesn't make a woman any less able to accomplish something."

Kathy Bounous, a commission member and general counsel for the Department of Workforce Services, told her life story, which she said she had never before shared in public.

She grew up in Idaho in a very low-income household. Her father was disabled, addicted to pain pills and had only a disability income. Her mother worked two low-wage jobs to put food on the table and she was seldom home.

"We were hungry and we were dirty and we were poor," she said.

At 17, she got pregnant. She left her neighborhood high school to attend an alternative school because it offered child care. She somehow managed to juggle school, a job at McDonald's and caring for her infant daughter to graduate on time.

She attended one semester of college but left because "I couldn't handle all of that pressure," she said.

When her brother offered her a room in his home in Provo rent free, she jumped at the chance and got a job as a computer tech.

A while later, she married a young man who didn't have a high school diploma. By 22, she had three children. Shortly after her youngest child's first birthday she decided she would return to college because "it would be good for me and my children."

She applied to the University of Utah, which did not admit her, "which crushed my little spirits."

But Salt Lake Community College granted admission and "I can't say enough good things about that establishment," Bounous said.

There was on-campus child care and the class schedules were flexible because of its extensive offerings of day, night and online classes. After two years, she had a 4.0 GPA and "I said to the U. 'Will you take me now?'"

After earning her undergraduate degree, which was more difficult at the university because there were fewer class sections as she advanced in her majors and minors, Bounous decided to attend law school at Brigham Young University.

"I think it's the most inflexible institution of all," Bounous said.

She was in class from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., had no say about her class schedule and had 80 hours of homework each week. There was no child care, which further complicated matters.

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"I can't describe to you how hard that was," she said.

After enduring a stagnant job market after the last recession, Bounous is on a solid career track, now general counsel for a state government agency. Her eldest daughter is a junior at the U.

Rep. Rebecca Chavez-Houck, D-Salt Lake City and co-chairwoman of the commission, thanked Bounous for sharing her journey.

"There is light at the end of the tunnel. You can achieve what you want," she said.

Bounous added, "If my story helps, great because I hate sharing it. Go, women!"