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New study shows gender disparity in Utah state leadership

SHARE New study shows gender disparity in Utah state leadership

The Capitol in Salt Lake City is pictured on Thursday, Feb. 13, 2020.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

LOGAN — The state of Utah still has a way to go in achieving gender equality, according to a study published Tuesday.

Susan Madsen is the founder and director of the Utah Women & Leadership Project, and she and her team released a study highlighting the disparity between the number of men and women in state government leadership positions, with a focus on how Utah’s public sector can improve.

“No matter what people say, there are absolutely — it is clear in the research — processes and systems still in place that disadvantage women,” she said.

Based out of Utah State University, the research group used 3,850 leadership, managerial and supervisory positions spanning 53 Utah organizations as its data set, provided by the Utah Department of Human Resources.

The Utah Women & Leadership Project found that women held 39% of state leadership positions, despite making up 48% of the government workforce. 

The team analyzed the data in seven additional ways, attempting to understand the gender imbalance in leadership from different angles.

7 analyses of the data

  • Leadership level: Jobs were classified into four categories — Cabinet, executive, senior and front-line positions. Women made up 41% of front-line workers, the lowest level of leadership, but just 27% of Cabinet-position workers, the highest. 

According to Madsen, even that 27% can be misleading.

“It doesn’t equally represent,” she said. “When you look at that top level of leadership, that Cabinet level, and you see 27%, that doesn’t necessarily mean 27% in all of the leadership teams, you know? That just means there really are leadership teams and groups out there that still have no women.”

“When you get to the upper leadership,” she continued, “there is going to be a lot of important decisions made for the state of Utah with only men’s perceptions.”

Additionally, women occupied 37% of executive roles, the second-highest level of leadership, and 29% of senior-level positions, the third.

  • Agency category: Jobs were grouped into agency categories to discover which fields were most likely to have women in leadership roles. At the top of the list were courts, where women held 67% of the leadership positions. The National Guard and Veteran Affairs were the areas where women were least represented in leadership positions, at 10% between them.
  • Budget cluster: Jobs were broken down into seven budget clusters, including groups such as public education, social services, and infrastructure and general government. Public education had the highest concentration of women in leadership roles at 61%, with the social services category right behind at 60%.

Women held the fewest proportional leadership positions in infrastructure and general government at 17%.

  • Typology: Jobs were sorted into administrative, distributive, redistributive and regulatory types. Administrative and regulatory jobs have been, historically, masculine fields, according to the research paper. Redistributive jobs, such as education and health care, are generally more female-oriented.

According to the paper, “Because departments and divisions tend to adopt masculine and feminine divisions of labor, where a woman works often impacts her career progression.”

Indeed, in the project’s study, women held 60% of leadership positions in redistributive fields, while holding 24% of administrative leadership positions, 32% of regulatory and 14% of distributive leadership roles.

  • Number of employees: Jobs were sorted by the number of employees at each organization. The scale ranged from increments of 0-24 to 1,000-34,000 employees. The distribution of women leadership percentages formed a sort of curve, with the lowest percentage, 29%, in the middle increment of 100-499 employees and rising to either side.

“Usually you see that the smaller the organization, the more women leaders you have, and that was interesting because it didn’t play out exactly like we were expecting,” Madsen said. “It’s a little bit all over the place. But we found more leaders within agencies that were actually 500-1,000.”

  • Size of budget: Jobs were organized by budget increments, ranging from $0 to $10 million to $900 million to $6 billion.

“Utah does not align with national research that suggests women were more likely to be responsible for smaller budgets,” the paper states.

Women were best represented in leadership roles in the $900 million to $6 billion increment at 50%, and least represented in the second-highest tier, $100 million to $899 million at 30%.

  • Position classification: Jobs were sorted based on whether they were appointed, merit-based or part-time positions. Women had the highest proportion of leadership roles in appointed positions, 42%, followed by merit-based, 39%, then time-limited/part-time positions, 18%.

While the statistics manifest the gender imbalance in Utah’s state leadership positions, questions remain as to whether it is caused by bias, choice or some other factor.

Madsen acknowledged internal differences between men and women in terms of aspirations and job preferences do play a part. However, she believes external factors, such as bias in practices and policies, play a much more significant role in keeping women from attaining leadership roles. 

Rep. Patrice Arent, D-Millcreek, has worked in the public sector for much of her career and has noticed differences between the level of confidence men and women have when considering running for office.

“It is sometimes harder to convince women to run because they feel like they have to be so prepared,” Arent said. “Whereas that is not always true of their male counterparts. But we find that when women run, they win at the same rate, they are able to raise money and all of those things that are important to campaigning.”

She also said, by and large, she has been treated well by her colleagues. 

“I served under two attorneys general,” she said. “One was a man, and one was a woman. I felt like I was treated extremely fairly there. I was the division chief of two divisions, and I thought I was treated very well. Obviously we all have stories, all attorneys have stories, of going to court and having funny things happen and having judges say inappropriate things because you are a woman.”

Regardless of the reasons as to why gender bias persists, Madsen said companies and agencies, both public and private, miss out on the benefits that a representative team of leaders provides.

“When there are complex problems, when you have men and women working together, they absolutely, almost every time have the best solutions. So the research is clear on innovation, on creativity, on decision-making: When you get more perspectives you get more ideas, and then you make better solutions,” Madsen said. “We’re talking hundreds and hundreds if not thousands of studies now that confirm that.”

8 tips for improvement

In the paper, the team listed eight recommendations to help improve gender diversity:

  • Make it clear that diversity is part of the organizational culture, with elected officials and top Cabinet members playing an active role in prioritizing gender diversity and communicating that throughout state agencies. 
  • Develop strategic plans that clearly show steps for recruiting and advancing women.
  • Evaluate hiring processes to eliminate potentially outdated language, unnecessary minimum qualifications and other exclusionary measures.
  • Update interview practices for hiring managers with a lens to diversity.
  • Be more intentional about the leadership pipeline, particularly when it comes to jobs that have traditionally been designed for men (consciously or unconsciously). 
  • Emphasize the need for training agency managers to raise their awareness of gender equity and to provide proper ways to address gender bias in the workplace. 
  • Train both women and men to react/respond appropriately when they encounter gender bias in language, behavior or policy.
  • Commit to transparency.

While there is still work to do, Arent has seen improvements take place during her career.

“There are a lot of really great programs that are out there now that didn’t exist before,” Arent said. “Like the Women’s Leadership Institute … Real Women Run, I speak at all of these. I know that Susan Madsen heads a wonderful program, and then there are others out there to train women in what they need to know when they’re thinking of running for office at any level.” 

This study is just the beginning, and the Utah Women & Leadership Project has already started to analyze similar data on the municipal and county levels, the results of which will be released in the coming months.

The group views these studies as baselines — measuring sticks for future progress.

“When you’re trying to lead social change you want to show where you’re at,” Madsen said. “When you are doing anything you want to say, ‘Well here’s where we are at now, and then hopefully in three years we do another one and see some improvement.’”