Utah continued its streak of horrible performances on equity issues in an August report from personal finance website WalletHub, which found the state ranked dead last when assessed on metrics measuring women’s equality.

It marks the fourth year in a row Utah has found itself at rock bottom of the annual analysis of all 50 states.

Now, a white paper released Thursday by national expert and Utah State University professor Susan Madsen, part of a series of reports from the Utah Women & Leadership Project, not only parses WalletHub’s findings but goes beyond the data with guidance on how the state can begin “addressing critical disparities and inequities in the state.”

Madsen notes in her analysis that the WalletHub report is not alone in ranking Utah at the bottom of lists that analyze how women fare in the nation.

Other notable examples, Madsen wrote, include a 24/7 Wall St. ranking in 2014 that put Utah at the bottom of “The 10 Worst States for Women” in a report that considered, among other factors, the gender wage gap, poverty rate, percentage of women in the state Legislature and infant mortality rate. In 2013, the Center for American Progress report, “The State of Women in America,” ranked Utah 49th of 50 states with an “F” grade in an analysis that considered 36 factors related to women’s economic security, leadership and health.

In addition, economists from the University of Chicago, Northwestern University and National University of Singapore conducted an in-depth study based on a nationwide questionnaire measuring sexist attitudes — beliefs that isolate or devalue women. Madsen reported that the resulting 2019 publication ranked Utah as the second-most sexist state.

But, Madsen also highlighted that while WalletHub identified Utah as the worst state for women regarding equality, it does not mean it is the worst state for women generally. 

“WalletHub has two annual state ranking reports,” Madsen said in a statement. “The second report is ‘Best and Worst States for Women,’ where Utah ranks much better at 28th.

“This ranking includes women’s economic and social well-being, where Utah ranked 32nd, and women’s health and safety, where Utah ranked 24th. So that is the good news, but it is critical that we address being ranked lowest in the nation for equality.”

And addressing those issues is what sets Madsen’s work apart from the data-driven rankings that stop short of proposing solutions to Utah’s persistent equality failings.

Madsen asks, and provides answers to, a critical question that goes to the heart of issues raised by WalletHub and other assessment efforts: Can Utah create a unique path forward that will improve gender equity and equality, while also respecting the circumstances and choices of women and families?

“These are difficult issues but there is energy and optimism to find the solutions,” Madsen said in a Deseret News interview Thursday. “We are making progress and we know what we need to do to move the needle.”

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Madsen and her team did their own independent assessment of WalletHub’s findings that looked at 17 metrics to assess rankings in three key areas of women’s equality: workplace environment, education and health, and political empowerment.

While a few minor differences arose, and calculations using updated data gained Utah a few points along the way, Madsen was able to confirm Utah’s last-place ranking.

Building women’s political empowerment in Utah figured largely in Madsen’s list of top 10 recommendations for the state’s decision-makers to help address equality issues, occupying four of the 10 slots and mostly aiming to achieve some level of equity in elected offices. Those included items like electing one woman U.S. senator for Utah, two women to occupy half of Utah’s U.S. congressional seats and seven additional women to the state’s House and Senate bodies. Madsen noted that those changes could have multiplying downstream impacts when it comes to championing new public policy focused on equality issues.

“Having more women in positions where they shape public policy could lead to improvements in many areas,” Madsen said. “Decisions made by people in these positions do lead to changes, including in workplace policy that includes things like addressing wage gaps.”

The WalletHub report shows Utah women earning 25.5% less than men, a rate that earned Utah a 45th place ranking, and Madsen noted other gender pay gap reports have shown Utah having an even larger pay gap of approximately 30%. For comparison, the state with the lowest gender wage gap, Maryland, has a 10.9% disparity in median weekly earnings between men and women.

And when it comes to higher income earners, Utah drops even lower in the disparity rankings.

Among Utah workers, 18.9% of men are earning more than $100,000 per year, but only 5.9% of Utah women have that level of compensation. The difference put Utah in the 48th position on that metric.

Equity in education levels was also an area of underperformance for Utah in the WalletHub report.

Madsen writes that, on a national level, women earn 57% of bachelor-level diplomas, 60% of master’s degrees and 51.7% of doctorates. But, in Utah, 9.2% of women and 13.5% of men earn a college degree above bachelor’s, either a master’s or doctorate. The gap in Utah is 4.3%, which is much wider than that of any other state and a difference that earned Utah a ranking of 50.

Madsen notes that equity at the leadership level, be it public office or private sector positions, can have widespread positive equality impacts in the systems below them. Her solution recommendations include adding 780 women to executive positions in the state and cultivating 1,000 new women-owned businesses. And it’s a change, she says, that would not only help address equality issues but will lead to better performance for the businesses and organizations that embrace it.

“Research continues to show that organizations and entities will increasingly thrive when both men and women hold leadership roles and are provided equitable opportunities and access to resources,” Madsen said. “This topic is central to existing discussions about meeting the current and future needs of Utah’s thriving economy.

“We know that gender inclusivity benefits not only businesses, but also entities such as churches, state legislatures, city councils, the state government and society at large.”

Madsen also noted in her report that the metrics used in the WalletHub rankings and other assessments don’t do a thorough job in accounting for the roles of, and tasks performed by, women working in areas outside the workforce.

“Scores of some of these metrics may directly or indirectly link to the fact that more than 60% of Utah residents are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” Madsen wrote. “Clearly, the division of effort and focus on the family continues to influence the decisions of many Utah residents and most likely impacts how Utah scores on several of the metrics measured in the WalletHub survey.

“Yet major limitations of WalletHub’s metrics are that they don’t highlight many of the things that Utah women do so well, like home, family and volunteerism.”

Madsen provided the Utah Women & Leadership Project’s top 10 recommendations for Utah decision-makers in terms of shifting the negative national rankings of women’s equality, based on the WalletHub metric, as follows and listed in the order of the highest point values related to the WalletHub report:

  1. Elect a woman for one of the two seats in the U.S. Senate.
  2. Elect women for two of four seats in the U.S. House of Representatives.
  3. Reduce the disparity related to Utah women’s perceptions of the affordability of doctor visits by 50%.
  4. Shrink the disparity in eighth grade math scores by one point.
  5. Elect one additional woman to a statewide executive office.
  6. Add 780 women to executive positions within the state.
  7. Elect seven additional women to the Utah House and Senate.
  8. Add 1,000 additional women-owned businesses in Utah.
  9. Narrow the gender pay gap.
  10. Increase the percentage of Utah women completing graduate degree programs.