SALT LAKE CITY — What do female leaders in Utah find to be the hardest part of their job?

“Trying to parent while meeting the demands in a leadership position is soul crushing at times,” said a participant in the Utah Women and Leadership Project’s latest study.

After releasing three studies highlighting the gender disparity in each level of Utah’s governing bodies, the Utah Women and Leadership Project concluded its series on the public sector by giving female leaders a chance to speak out through a survey.

The recently released fourth and final research paper is a qualitative look at women’s stories, rather than a deep dive into the numbers of women versus men in leadership roles.

“The numbers are important to create urgency and so forth, but in terms of really understanding how to change things, what to do to change things, you really need to hear from women,” said Susan Madsen, founder and director of the Utah Women and Leadership Project. “You need to actually understand their experiences and their stories.”

The report involved 435 women; most (63%) between the ages of 40 and 59; a majority were married or had a life partner (73%), had a bachelor’s or graduate degree (69.2%) and were white (90.1%).

Women in state leadership positions were also highly represented (56.6%), as were those in supervisory roles (38.1%), merit-based positions (77.8%) and those who had 20 or more years of experience in government (30.3%).

While not representative of Utah’s entire leadership body, the participants’ lack of diversity — especially racially — means that some demographics’ needs likely aren’t as visible to policymakers, the study notes.

“Understanding the unique challenges that women of color are experiencing across the state is vital to really understanding what needs to happen in terms of community investments, school investments, infrastructure, to create a more level playing field for everybody,” said Shireen Ghorbani, an at-large member of the Salt Lake County Council.

Participants were asked to rate nine leadership advancement metrics on a scale from 1-7 (1 being strongly disagree; 7 being strongly agree), and the questionnaire received 424 respondents.

When the scores were averaged, all of the statements placed above a 4. The highest scoring statement was “I have access to someone within the organization I can turn to for advice,” which averaged out at a 5.8.

The lowest scoring statement was “I have experienced bias (subtle or overt) that I feel is due to my gender,” which averaged out at a 4.4.

“These could be, obviously, higher,” Madsen said of the averages. “But there is some encouragement here that women are finding some support at least.”

“Generally, I feel like we’re moving in the right direction.”

The researchers concluded their survey by asking women in municipal, county, state and special district government leadership positions several open-ended questions about their time in the public sector and how organizations can improve.

When asked what strategies supported professional development and advancement, 95% of the women responding said that self-directed, personal action was behind their success.

“Women frequently mentioned they would ‘take a risk,’ ‘take a chance,’ or ‘took a leap,’ while others shared they were on their own,” the study states.

Some women talked about the importance of their advanced education.

“I’m a voice for getting more women to college and through college,” Madsen said. “I’ve done so much research in past years on the benefits of higher education ... And there is such connections to getting more education — specifically for women but men too — and their level of knowledge and their level of confidence.”

Survey respondents also credited organizational training and professional development for helping their careers as well as networks of support inside their organizations.

When describing pivotal points of their career, the most frequent answer was the importance of mentors, role models and coaches. Generally, women struggle more than men in finding mentors.

“Studies have confirmed that ‘women have to overcome greater barriers when acquiring a mentor than do men’ and that most mentoring opportunities occur between same-sex mentors,” the paper states.

Madsen emphasized the importance of sponsors — people in positions of power who can introduce employees to superiors and recommend them for promotions — in addition to mentors.

“It’s really more of an external (thing), and a mentorship is more of an internal, one-on-one thing, and you need both,” she said. “Everybody needs both.”

She wants more male leaders to break the paradigm of same-gender sponsorships and help women attain leadership positions as well.

The women also wrote about the challenges they faced. Researchers saw six main issues: biased attitudes, lack of organization support, stifled voices, pay equity and caregiver responsibilities, hiring and interview processes and social exclusion.

Biased attitudes was the most commonly mentioned challenge among participants, with many women highlighting preferential treatment toward men as being problematic.

“When women are leading, you just get these biased attitudes, and they’re really around a lot,” Madsen said. “And there’s hostile sexism, and there’s benevolent sexism; There’s conscious and unconscious, and even if they’re unconscious, they impact things.”

Additionally, some said that Utah’s culture and religious tendencies were sources of bias prohibiting women leaders.

“There’s a very strong culture in terms of what roles are between men and women,” Madsen said. “Even women themselves (think) men should do this, and women should do this ... Women themselves have these attitudes.”

Advice and recommendations

A third of the women said that intentionally supporting women was something that organizations could emphasize more.

“If you don’t intentionally support women, we’re not going to get more women in leadership because of all of the subtle, unconscious things that happen all the time that really disadvantage women,” Madsen said.

Providing equal access to opportunities and embracing inclusivity and diversity were the second and third most common answers.

“For me, what this pandemic has done is sort of pulled back the curtain or shone a direct light on many of the places where we already had disparities,” Ghorbani said. “We know that more women have left the workforce than men in COVID. We know that more women are taking on the responsibilities of educating their children … We know that there are gendered implications.”

The women surveyed also offered recommendations on how to successfully promote more women to leadership positions.

• Establishing family-friendly policies.

• Offering more opportunities to learn through experience and be trained and mentored. 

• Being mindful of biases and discriminations and to actively confront them. They also asked that organizations “build a culture of collaboration, inclusiveness and diversity.”

• Actively engaging in trying to understand and solve the gender disparity in Utah’s leadership bodies. 

• Providing education and training opportunities and establish the skills needed for promotion. 

• Inviting women to be part of discussions. 

• Creating pathways where women can encourage, support and network with other women.