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Opinion: Education opens doors — but Utah’s women of color face more obstacles

If we want Utah to be a place where people thrive, we need to help all people obtain education

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People walk on the University of Utah campus in Salt Lake City.

People walk on the University of Utah campus in Salt Lake City on Monday, Sept. 19, 2022.

Ben B. Braun, Deseret News

For the last few years, I’ve been on a journey to better understand the experiences of women of color within Utah. Although our Utah Women & Leadership Project reports have always included race and ethnicity as one of several demographics — when the data was available — we had never focused specific research on women of color.

Fortunately, with some one-time funding from the Utah Legislature this past year, my team and I made this a priority. Frankly, my eyes were opened as to the multitude of challenges Utah women of color face that were previously invisible to me. I want to focus on just one important element of these findings: educational attainment

Educational attainment is the foundation for so many things in life. As research has shown over and over, there are direct links to college and university certificates and degrees (the more education the better) with job opportunities, higher income, employment benefits, job security, career advancement and job satisfaction. Postsecondary education is also linked to an improved ability to communicate effectively, heightened capability to make good choices, increased benefits to your children and an overall happier and healthier life.

Susan Madsen poses for a portrait at her home in Bountiful.

Susan Madsen poses for a portrait at her home in Bountiful on Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2022. Madsen is a Utah State University professor, speaker, author and a renowned global thought leader on women and leadership.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Because of these and hundreds of other benefits, I think most of us would agree it would be good for individuals, families and communities to have more educated Utah residents. Yet, access and opportunity to education is not the same for all of us. 

In our research, we gathered data from many sources and published five reports that detailed the available data on Utah women of each U.S. census race/ethnic category: American Indian/Alaskan Native women, Pacific Islander, Hispanic/Latino, Black and Asian. Here are some highlights: 

  • American Indian women in Utah end their education with a high school diploma (33.2%) more than Utah women generally (23.8%), and, transversely, they have lower rates of attaining bachelor’s degrees (11.2% vs. 29.0% of all Utah women). In addition, more American Indian women in Utah (17.6%) and the U.S. (18.3%) end their education without a high school diploma than attain bachelor’s degrees (11.2% and 15.1%, respectively).

  • Pacific Islander women in Utah end their education with a high school diploma (32.6%) more than Utah women generally (23.8%), and they have lower rates of attaining bachelor’s degrees (18.1% vs. 29.0% of all Utah women). 
  • More Latinas in Utah end their education with a high school diploma (30.8%) than Utah women generally (23.8%), and Latinas are more likely to end their education without a diploma (25% vs. 7.1% of all Utah women). Utah Latinas also attain bachelor’s degrees at much lower rates than all Utah women (13.2% vs. 29.0%).
  • Black women in Utah end their education with a high school diploma (26.0%) slightly more often than all Utah women combined (23.8%) and have much lower rates of attaining a bachelor’s degree (19.0% vs. 29.0% of all Utah women).

In every instance, except among Asians, women of color are educationally disadvantaged.

Interestingly, although Asian women in Utah appear to do better than all Utah women combined on educational attainment, the term “Asian” represents more than 20 different ethnicities and multiple geographical regions, including the far East, Southeast Asia and the Indian subcontinent. Even in Utah, there is a range of Asian women from economically developing countries to high-income nations. Hence, Asian women from certain countries fair much worse than others in all the metrics we found data on, including educational attainment. Watch a recent panel for additional details. 

Since higher education is foundational to opportunities for so many things in life, it is imperative that we provide access and opportunities to all.

Solutions will include a combination of public policies; work around inclusion in our schools, higher education institutions, businesses and community groups; and an analysis of our practices, policies and systems that unknowingly advantage some and disadvantage others.

Honestly, I’m just starting down the path of understanding the experiences of my sisters of color. It has been hard for me to set my own experiences aside and to just listen and learn. But as I do, I see that change is essential. I must change. We must change. And Utah must change to be a place where everyone can thrive.

Susan R. Madsen is the Karen Haight Huntsman endowed professor of leadership in the Jon M. Huntsman School of Business at Utah State University and the founding director of the Utah Women & Leadership Project.