Gov. Olene Walker says the encouragement of others led her to run for the House in 1980 and put her on the path to become the state's first female governor.

Walker probably wouldn't have run without that encouragement, she said Monday at an International Women's Day program at the University of Utah. But, she added, women should take the initiative to seek leadership roles on their own.

"More and more, the general public is accepting the idea of women policymakers," she said. "It is up to women to step forward. Take the risk to be part of the political system."

Monday's program, dubbed "Women, Making a Difference," focused on issues such as women in leadership and reproductive rights — globally and locally. The day was organized by groups such as People for Peace and Justice of Utah, Code Pink and the Utah National Organization for Women.

Dani Eyer, Utah ACLU director, said Utah's women face the constant threat of losing their reproductive rights.

Two bills passed during the recent legislative session limited access to abortion procedures. One makes Utah law more closely match the recently passed federal law, which does not allow for medical exemption. The other prohibits state money from being used to pay for abortions.

Both bills are currently awaiting Walker's signature.

"Women spend 68 percent more on health care than men," Eyre said, saying birth control is a large part of that expense.

Annette Rose, 61, who helped organize the event, agreed that "women need to start running."

She said it's a global goal to have women comprise a 30 to 35 percent minority in policymaking roles. That's the number they believe is needed to make a difference.

Walker said women are making progress in Utah. When she was first elected to the House in 1980, there were only six women among the 106 state legislators. Now she said, there are 27.

When she became lieutenant governor in 1992, she was one of six women in the United States to hold the post. Now there are 21.

She is one of eight female governors nationwide.

Walker said women still aren't always viewed as top policymakers. She related a time when she visited an elementary school with her husband, and a child asked, "Is he the governor?"

Of Gov. Walker, the child said, "She doesn't look like a governor, she looks like a mother."

Walker, who became governor in November when former Gov. Mike Leavitt stepped down to head the Environmental Protection Agency, recently announced her candidacy to become the state's first woman elected governor.

"Everybody's got to do something to make their neighborhood, their city, their state, a better place to live," she said.