Utah topped U.S. News & World Report’s 2023 “Best State” ranking, earning “best state overall.” The Beehive State has been recognized for its voluntarism and charity and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention touts its record-low level of excessive alcohol use compared to other states.
Those are among the plaudits noted in the most recent edition of “The Current Status of Utah Women and Girls,” produced by the Utah Women & Leadership Project at Utah State University. But the report’s point is that while Utah women and girls thrive on some fronts, they may lag the nation in others, said Susan R. Madsen, professor of leadership in USU’s Jon M. Huntsman School of Business and founding director of the project. She co-wrote the report with the project’s associate director, Kolene Anderson.
The center has launched a framework for improvement it calls “A Bolder Way Forward.” Madsen said the goal is to ensure that all Utahns thrive, so the report offers some recommendations in areas where the center says the Beehive State lags.
The report is based on existing data on women and girls, collected by others and from the project’s own previous reports, that rank states across five realms: political and civic engagement, education, health and well-being, safety and security, and workplace. Where they could, the researchers said they compared Utah data to national data.
“The objective is to provide a collection of data points that move the conversation from individuals’ perceptions of women’s experiences toward data-driven realities that can help Utahns identify and change environments in which women’s perspectives, representation, and leadership are either underrepresented or missing entirely,” the report said.
When it comes to female leadership in nonprofit organizations and board membership, 57% of CEOs in Utah are women. And both women and men are actively involved in volunteering compared to most other states, though Madsen said it’s not clear whether women have a leadership role there, which her organization would like to see.
Utah is making progress on more women being involved in politics and they show up often on school boards, the researchers say. An area that’s harder to track is whether women are gaining ground in business. Corporate boards and executive positions are harder to keep track of, though a team from the project is looking at that. “It’s a monster,” Madsen said.
Utah is seldom at the bottom of a statistical heap and often at or near the top, she added. But there’s always room for improvement.
There are a number of areas where she says Utah lags. Here’s a sampling:
Violence and harassment
The area of “greatest concern” for Madsen is violence, she told Deseret News. “We are ranked as ninth-worst in terms of rape and sexual assault. That is something we should take super seriously. We have been ranked quite badly for a few decades and it hasn’t created a lot of urgency,” she said.
“According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Uniform Crime Reporting database, rape is the only violent crime in Utah with higher rates (55.5 per 100,000 people) than the national average (42.6 per 100,000 people). In fact, Utah is ranked 9th out of the 50 U.S. states for the number of rapes per capita,” the report says. It notes that is especially concerning because it’s widely accepted among authorities and women’s advocates that about 1 in 8 rapes are reported to authorities.
For domestic violence, Utah is near the national average in some data or slightly above it. “That’s not saying much,” Madsen said, “given so many women and men, too, experience it.”
The report notes, too, that Utah employees have little confidence that if they reported sexual harassment or gender-based discrimination at work, employers would take action. “There is low trust that anything would happen,” Madsen said, based on her survey data.
Accessing child care
More than two-thirds of Utah women ages 20 to 64 who have children under age 18 work. The report suggests more would if they could find high-quality, affordable child care. But Utah’s near the bottom on having adequate high-quality and affordable child care.
The Department of Health and Human Services defines child care as affordable if it costs no more than 7% of household income.
Utah child care providers are among the lowest paid, said Madsen, even though many families are stretched thin to afford the service. According to ZipRecruiter, in Utah the average child care worker makes $12.68 an hour. The national average is $15.
She said she found child care was a challenge in all 16 Utah counties she visited last year for the project, ranking high among concerns. She believes it’s a statewide issue affecting both rural and urban communities.
Fixing that will require making it easier for people to provide quality affordable child care and also for people to access it, said Madsen. She calls child care a “true market failure,” with a disconnect between how expensive it is even for some higher-income families to put their children in child care, while at the same time, many providers are living in poverty.
Market solutions have not worked, said Madsen, who believes government intervention will be needed. Without that, child care will continue to be a vital profession that doesn’t thrive. She noted that businesses — which are impacted because they need workers who may need child care — don’t even want to talk about how they might help on the child care front.
“I discovered a couple of years ago in Utah that businesses were staying away from the topic — didn’t even want to talk about it — because they figured it was all or nothing: ‘I’d have to build a child care center.’ But there are so many things in between,” Madsen said.
Being physically active
Women and girls are behind when it comes to physical activity, though boys aren’t exactly thriving in that realm. Among youths in grades 9-12, 28% of boys meet the recommended levels of physical activity set by the state. But half as many girls that age do. “Among other factors, research highlights that most physical education classes consist primarily of competitive sports, which rank among the least favorite activity for women and girls, whose preferences are yoga, walking, biking and dancing,” the report says, citing 2021 data.
Single moms and poverty
Utah women live in poverty at a lower rate than the national average (9.6% vs. 13.5%), the report says. But that’s not true of single mother-headed households with minor children, where the percentage rises to 27.4%. And in single-mother households with very young children — all under age 5, the poverty rate is 36.4%. compared to married-couple families in which just 4% live in poverty.
Such challenges often translate into lost opportunities to thrive.
“When Utah women and girls are expending energy on surviving poverty, domestic violence, sexual abuse and/or sexual assault, homelessness, or adverse childhood experiences — many of which are happening concurrently — there is little energy left to concentrate on education, leadership development, or other endeavors that can position women to be the spaces and places that create additional opportunities in their futures,” the report says.