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Dr. Astrid Tuminez: Women are essential to society’s success

The first female president of Utah Valley University weighs in on women’s role in higher education and society.

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Utah Valley University President Astrid Tuminez moderates the Building Inclusive Communities Through Education panel at the 68th United Nations Civil Society Conference at the Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City on Monday, Aug. 26, 2019.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Last year marked 100 years since the passage of the 19th Amendment, which gave many women the right to vote in the United States. While we have made significant steps toward valuing female voices since that time, the COVID-19 pandemic has deepened persistent inequalities in education, health care, and the workforce. 

According to McKinsey & Company, global job loss rates for women due to the pandemic are around 1.8 times higher than for men. A report from the National Women’s Law Center estimates that over 2.3 million women have left the workforce since last March, bringing women’s labor force participation rate to 57% — the lowest it has been since 1988. 

The effects of the pandemic threaten to reverse years of progress we have made toward reaching gender equality, but they also serve as a vital opportunity to reflect on how we as a society can better support women.

As the first female president of Utah Valley University, I acknowledge the long line of women who blazed the trail before me. While more women serve in leadership roles today, cultural, social, and structural factors nonetheless continue to prevent women from reaching top positions. 

Women today earn the majority of postsecondary degrees in the U.S. and participate in large numbers in the labor force, but they suffer from significant gender gaps in leadership and compensation. A recent study by the Women’s Power Gap Initiative found that 60% of professionals in higher education are women but, of the top earners in leadership positions, only 24% are women and only 2.5% are women of color.

As former vice-dean at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore, I led a research initiative on women’s leadership and gender equality in Asia. Although Asia has experienced unprecedented growth in the last few decades, women have not been able to contribute fully to, or benefit from, Asia’s rise. A report from McKinsey & Company states, for example, that Asia-Pacific countries could add $4.5 trillion to their collective annual GDP by 2025 by advancing women’s equality.

Women are vital to society’s success. Their talents and perspectives are needed to sustain economic growth, provide diverse perspectives, drive innovation and demonstrate that a more just society is possible. In Utah, a college education is especially critical for young women. Utah has the youngest median age for first marriages in the nation and a divorce rate that is higher than the national average. While some women in Utah do not anticipate the need to work, current data does not align with this vision. In fact, 72% of women ages 20-59 participate in the Utah workforce. Additionally, 26% of women across the state are the primary or sole earner for their families. 

UVU is committed to empowering women through education. Our chapter of the Utah Women in Higher Education Network is involved with the Women Leadership Institute’s ElevateHER Challenge, which provides action commitments for organizations to increase women’s leadership and retention rates. For the first time in UVU’s history, there is now female representation at almost all levels of UVU’s leadership. Besides myself as university president, women today serve as UVU student body president, faculty senate president, and president of the association of campus employees.

We recognize that female students face unique challenges in completing their degrees, including unpaid care, pregnancy, and economic factors. The Women’s Success Center at UVU provides mentoring, financial aid, childcare resources, skill-building workshops, and even a course on managing life transitions. Since 2011, the Women’s Success Center has improved college completion and retention rates for female students every year. The center is a critical resource for students returning to school or navigating difficult circumstances.

As we celebrate Women’s History Month, let us think of the women who came before us, who persisted despite many obstacles, and who helped level the playing field for others. We can honor them by continuing to understand the barriers that women face and working to remove these barriers. When we encourage women to embrace and use their capabilities, we will improve society as a whole — for it is indeed a weaker society that chooses to develop and use only half of its human talent.

Astrid S. Tuminez is the president of Utah Valley University.