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Utah women still struggle in business

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Being a woman in Utah's business arena can be both a blessing and a curse.

That was the consensus of panelists at a "Women in Leadership" panel discussion sponsored by First Security Women's Financial Services. The discussion, held Tuesday evening at Westminster College, featured six Utah businesswomen and a spirited debate on how women can overcome gender, cultural and personal boundaries in the workplace.

All six participants agreed those barriers are many and real. Utah's business atmosphere is in many ways typical of national trends, they said. It is also unique in its challenges — and opportunities.

"I went outside the state of Utah to get some work experience, and I think maybe it has been a little easier for me in Utah," said panelist Lillian Taylor, an independent management consultant and Salt Lake Organizing Committee trustee. "Outside the state, there is more competition, because there are more people. Utah has been good to me."

Discussion moderator Lois Baar, a partner at the law firm of Janove Baar and Associates, said being a woman has helped her in her work life.

"I feel like I've benefited, being a woman in a male-dominated profession," she said. "Here, it's a little more of a respectful atmosphere. It's just not as hard as it is in other areas."

Still, panelists agreed the business climate in Utah isn't all sunshine and puffy clouds.

Though her work experiences in Utah have been mostly positive, Taylor said her greatest obstacle has been "bullying" by men with whom she has worked.

"Bullying has been the biggest challenge for me, by those who were at the top," Taylor said. "Males working with females, and males not wanting to listen to what women had to say. Especially as a female, a young female, and a young female of color."

The barriers women face become higher and thornier for female minorities and women with disabilities, panelists said.

Jennifer Morrill, a vocational rehabilitation counselor who works primarily with youth in the state's correctional facilities, said she had to face her obstacles head-on from the very beginning.

"Growing up with a disability impacts you in a way other people are not impacted," she said. "I had to come to understand and accept who I am. I learned to relax and laugh at myself, feel comfortable with myself and know I had something to offer."

Salt Lake City School District Superintendent Darline Robles said Utahns must not let up or stop pushing for progress.

More Utah women are working now than ever before, she said. Whether that is because Utah families are typically larger and require a second income, or due to the state's emphasis on education or some other factor, Robles said women must be prepared to jump into the workplace and fight for equity.

"We have choices, and we have to take ownership of them," Robles said. "Young people today don't have the struggles. They don't know that you have to keep pushing and fighting to succeed. They let their guards down, and then they wonder what happened. I think we need to always keep working toward equality, and equity in the workplace."

Though change may be slow in coming, Utah State University electrical and computer engineering professor Linda S. Powers said she is "cautiously optimistic" women will make their mark in Utah's business environment.

"Academia is probably one of the leading bastions of male dominance and intolerance," Powers said. "But I am cautiously optimistic. When I was in graduate school (at Harvard University), I was the only female in my courses, for all five years. There have never been women in anything I've done. But I see more women coming up in the sciences and engineering, who are not only saying 'I can do that,' but 'I can do that, and I can compete with you.' It's happening often enough so that it can't be completely swept under the rug."

E-mail: jnii@desnews.com