When Brenda Hancock happened into a high-level meeting of Salt Lake City government administrators recently, she found a group of white men gathered around a conference table.

It bothered her enough to tell higher-ups something was amiss."It's very discouraging when you're a woman and you walk into a room where people are going to make a decision important to your organization and nobody looks like you; and nobody thinks like you; and they're all the same color; and they all look alike; and they all think alike," says Hancock, who serves as training, employment and compliance manager for the city.

Her tasks include enforcing equal opportunity in the workplace - a job she feels is given less support here than elsewhere in the country. "In other cities, other areas, this valuing diversity is one of the big programs," Hancock said.

In Utah, culture remains an obstacle to change, though critics of the deep-rooted patriarchal order concede progress is being made.

"The values of the society in which we live" decide who the power brokers are, says Mari Muldanado-Jacobs, equal employment opportunity manager for Salt Lake County government. Given Utah's conservative social mores, then, it's no surprise that when it comes to handing out executive positions in local government, women seem to get the short end of the stick.

"In this culture, women are primarily perceived as caregivers, particularly as it relates to the family structure," says Muldanado-Jacobs. "Accordingly, they're perceived as not being capable of handling or deserving of administrative or executorial responsibility in the workplace."

In the lexicon of sociology, this is the "glass ceiling" - the invisible and often unacknowledged barrier that keeps women from competing with men for executive spots in government, much as they are frozen out of similar jobs in the private sector.

There are important exceptions, to be sure.

When Mayor Deedee Corradini chose a director of Public Works last year, she did what would be nearly unheard of in any city by hiring a woman to take charge of a department dominated at every level by males. Catherine N. Hoffman, by all accounts, has done well despite some who doubted a woman could give orders to so many men.

Ask Sandy Mayor Larry Smith why all nine of the city's most powerful administrative positions belong to men and he retorts by naming five other important posts of lesser, but still substantial, authority held by women. They include Sandy's personnel director, city recorder, recreation-division director, municipal judge and assistant city attorney.

"There's every bit as much opportunity - perhaps more - for women to be named to responsible positions with the city of Sandy," insists Smith.

Why then, are there no women in cabinet posts in the state's third-biggest city?

"Low turnover. When somebody gets a job like that they usually hang onto it for a long time," the mayor said.

In South Jordan, where none of City Hall's six highest-level administrative jobs are held by women, City Manager Anthony Murphy says qualified women have failed to surface in the labor pool: "We try to get women to apply, but it's not easy. When we were advertising for a new police chief, we didn't have even one woman apply."

Karen Leftwich, assistant city manager of West Valley City and one of the highest-ranking government administrators in the Salt Lake Valley, says there's plenty of room for improvement. Only six of 43 executive posts in Utah's second-largest city belong to women.

Leftwich, one of the exceptions to the general rule, said she has no complaints about the way she's been treated, but adds, "We have a ways to go."

Leftwich cautions that the evolution of women in the workplace is hardly a given. She said two current trends need special care and attention if they are to survive.

"Men have to be continually reminded and made more self-aware of possible discrimination and women have to continue to be more assertive in the business world and in their professions."

That's good advice to the rank-and-file, says Susan Biesele, the newly appointed personnel director at the Salt Lake County sheriff's office. Biesele, who has been on the job only since mid-January, carries captain's rank - a distinction she believes suggests Sheriff Aaron Kennard is more serious than his predecessors have been about equal opportunity.

"This is a paramilitary organization and they're not used to having a woman at this level and I'm also from the outside, which is unusual," says Biesele. "Men are becoming more sensitive about women, and women in management."

Biesele, who will spearhead a recruitment drive targeted at women and minorities later this year, has an increased awareness of the glass ceiling and its effect. Last year she surveyed women in Salt Lake County government on their perception of the presence of discrimination for a thesis she wrote on the subject as part of earning a master's degree in public administration.

"My sense from reading through the comments (of the women interviewed) was that most implied that this is our culture here, and until our culture changes, we'll have to learn to work within it."

But progress, she argues, begets progress.

"That'll be a natural occurrence as women get advanced. . . . As women are advanced they will influence the culture. Those things that are uncommon now will become more common and it won't be as discomforting to men.

"What the glass ceiling means is that there's a discomfort either knowingly or unknowingly on the part of those in control in terms of opening it up to diversity," Biesele explains. "And so once women and minorities get into those kinds of positions, then the comfort level of working with diverse people in management is higher.

"People will say, `Hey, it's OK, we can do this, it's not so scary,' and it's true not just with women but with people of color and the disabled."

If that day lies in the distant future, women in the present feel they face disheartening hurdles, according to Biesele's 1992 survey of 119 women in county government.

Eight in 10 said there were growth opportunities in their jobs. But 63 percent said there were also barriers in the way. Fifty-nine percent doubted they would ever be promoted to higher management.

Writing in her thesis, Biesele said, "Many of the participants believe they have to work anywhere from twice to 10 times as hard as male co-workers to get equivalent recognition."

The sense that women felt they were treated unfairly was unmistakable.

A full 67 percent said their upbringing - the culture in which they were raised - had prepared them for management roles, a belief Hancock says is rooted in fact.

The Utah Department of Employment Security reports about one-fourth of Utah's executive-administrative work force is made up of women. Though some local governments award nearly a quarter of top-level jobs to women, on average only 17 percent of top managers in Utah state and local government are female. That gives Utah the distinction of being last in the nation, according to Lecia Langston, chief labor economist for the department.

A pervasive mythology about women's abilities may be at the root of what sets Utah apart.

"The difference I've noticed in Utah is that people tend to romanticize the situation," says Hancock. "I still run into people who are shocked to hear that women in Utah are slightly more likely to work than the national average, or that women with young children are more likely to work than women without children.

"That's what's so surprising. People choose not to deal with the reality but with the cultural wish that women should all be home taking care of family."

The truth, says Hancock, is that Utah's conservative fabric can be turned to the advantage of women.

"There are a lot of women around with a lot of leadership skills they've gotten with religious organizations, and those ought to be transferable."

Muldonado-Jacobs says the county, much like the city, has several programs in place to give women the break they need to overcome entrenched odds.

"Everyone has an affirmative action program, it goes without saying," she said, noting Salt Lake County has made arrange-ments to allow women more mobility in lateral moves by giving them better strategic positioning for management jobs opening up. Tuition reimbursements and numerous training programs are also supposed to help.

It all may well be a harbinger of things to come, says Muldanado-Jacobs, who notes that U.S. Department of Labor projections suggest that by the year 2000 three out of five new workers will be either female or minority. With increasing numbers will come increasing clout.

Hancock says today's women in government waiting for the creaky wheels of progress to turn can make wise choices to advance their careers.

"It's tough, but I always think people need to get as many kinds of skills and experience as they can. Certainly they need an education because you need every little bonus point you can get, and some kind of advanced degree is good.

"I think you need to really work hard on communication skills and I would say you have to have some lucky breaks and some mentors - probably male - along the way. But it's going to take a while."

Hancock warns that the longer it takes for change to come, the more local government and its constituents will suffer from the lack of top-level diversity.

"If 23 percent of managers in the work force are female, I'll bet you anything many of those are small-business women. That's part of the glass-ceiling phenomenon. They hit it and see they're not getting farther, so in Utah - and elsewhere - they start their own businesses."

It is, she says, an immeasurable loss of public service.

"From the perspective of government, this is talent going to waste."

CHART: The Glass ceiling -- Women's views in Salt Lake County Government

Women employed by government

Wasatch Front

City and Total fulltime Men in executive Women in executive

Population employees positions positions

Bluffdale

2,200 5 1 1

Draper

7,300 27 4 0

Midvale

12,000 38 10 1

Murray

32,000 300 18 2

Riverton

11,000 12 1 1

Salt Lake City

160,000 2,155 59 14

Salt Lake County

275,000 3,100 24 7

Sandy

75,000 300 9 1

South Jordan

12,000 39 6 0

South Salt Lake

10,000 150 8 2

West Jordan

43,000 249 20 7

West Valley City

90,000 280 43 6

Does your job provide growth opportunities?

Yes 71%

No 16%

Has your upbringing prepared you for leadership roles?

Yes 67%

No 26%

Do you think you'll be promoted to a higher management level?

Yes 27%

No 59%

Are there barriers to advancement by women?

Yes 63%

No 25%

WOMEN'S ADVICE TO OTHER WOMEN

"Pursue education and training." Fourty-four percent said women should go out of their way to take classes or pursue a college degree. Thirty-three percent specifically recommended obtaining a college degree. Others said advanced degrees make it harder for women's abilities to be discounted or ignored.

"Work hard and do good work." About one-third said there is no substitute for working extra hard to gain visibility. "Many of the participants believe they have to work anywhere from twice to 10 times as hard as male co-workers to get equivalent recognition."

"Assertively promote yourself to others." Respondents said women should insist on equal treatment but also become familiar with available management posts and work toward specific ones in mind. Becoming politically active with the promotion system was considered valuable.

"Adopt successful behaviors." Honesty, patience and assertiveness were the most frequently mentioned attributes of success. Others were to be "agressive, a risk-taker, creative, dependable, non-emotional, competitive, self-confident, determined, poised, creditable, reliable and tough."

*Source: University of Utah master's thesis in public administration by Susan Clegg Bieeele. Survey, taken in 1992, included 191 women merit employees of Salt Lake County government.