When Catherine Murphy relocated with her family from the East Coast to Utah three years ago, she started to reenter the workforce after being a stay-at-home mom.

After being a stay-at-home mother for 15 years, she said she wanted to work in the health care space. “But I quickly realized that I needed to get higher education in order to do so.” She took undergraduate classes to meet the graduate school requirements.

Murphy said she wanted to be taken seriously in the job application process for participating in her community and being a stay-at-home mom, but was discouraged by applying for jobs and feeling like she was at the bottom of the ladder.

There were two main obstacles Murphy said she encountered: 1) not having a group of women around her to offer mentorship and community and 2) flexibility within the workplace.

While Murphy has been able to find community online, she said it’s been difficult to find a group of local women who can offer her the advice she seeks. “Most of, if not all of the positions that I would be looking at, if I start out at the associate level or just the base level, don’t have inherent flexibility.”

These positions usually require being in-person from 9 to 5, Murphy said. And juggling the cost of child care with the kind of salary those positions offer makes it difficult to financially make things work.

Murphy isn’t alone in experiencing these sorts of challenges. A report released by the Utah Women & Leadership Project on Wednesday showed that Utah women have a higher rate of labor force participation than the overall rate across the country and the report also highlighted some areas where improvements could be made to help women succeed.

Opinion: What women can add to the workforce — if we remove these obstacles

What can benefit Utah women in the workplace?

The report offers four main suggestions to increase Utah women’s success in the workforce: 1) giving access to affordable child care, 2) confronting the wage gap, 3) increasing support for women entrepreneurs and 4) establishing higher rates of participation in education.

With rising child care costs across the country, access to affordable and quality child care is one suggestion the researchers offer to help Utah women who wish or need to enter the workforce succeed in doing so.

Other reports like one from Brookings Institute and one from American Enterprise Institute have found similar results. Child care enables women to work outside of the home, which can increase the chances they find jobs with better pay and benefits, including saving for retirement. Whether that child care is a nanny or day care, having access to child care can help women succeed in the workplace.

Murphy said finding a job where she would make enough money for the child care that she needs, “particularly now as my husband and I are going through a divorce,” presented some challenges. Working up the ladder would mean a higher salary, but that’s difficult to do when child care is a significant expense.

“I’ve traveled to 16 counties in the state of Utah in the last year and run meetings with leaders from the communities and every single one of those (meetings), child care came up in their group discussions and different things,” Susan Madsen, founding director of Utah Women & Leadership Project, said.

President of the Women Tech Council, Cydni Tetro, said she thinks there needs to be more women ascending executive ranks because women are attuned to thinking about the flexibility and child care some families need.

Tetro also said she believes women can achieve the success they desire in business and find solutions that work for their families. When she travels for work, she said, “I take the red-eyes because I know I can put my kids to bed. And if I fly to New York and I do meetings and come back, the disruption for my family and for child care was lower.”

The wage gap between men and women in Utah is another area that researchers pointed toward as an area for improvement. As Sara Israelsen-Hartley reported for the Deseret News, the wage gap is complex and involves multiple factors, including how part-time work often comes with lower pay and fewer opportunities for long-term career growth.

Supporting women entrepreneurs is another area researchers highlighted as one that could benefit Utah women. Sixteen percent of businesses in Utah are owned by women and, across the country, Utah has the second-highest rate of growth of women-owned businesses. With additional support, there could be more Utah women who become business owners and in turn, they could generate more revenue.

The last area that the report said could contribute positively to Utah women’s success in the workforce was education.

“Increasing support, particularly for women of color and mothers, will expand opportunities for those who have been underserved,” the report stated. Through higher education, trade school, certification, accessible child care, better access to financial aid and encouragement, Utah women could be better positioned to continue their education.

Madsen noted that there was another area that could help support Utah women in the workforce: innovation of part-time jobs.

“There are more and more of our best companies that are moving toward family-friendly practices and so forth,” Madsen said. One of the best practices she brought up is job sharing, where a full-time job with benefits is split between two people. She praised the Cox-Henderson administration for innovation on this front.

What’s a ‘returnship’ and how can it boost Utah’s businesses?
Shay Baker looks over schoolwork with her daughter, Holland, 9, as Maxwell, 7, looks on at their Layton home on Wednesday, Dec. 13, 2023. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News

The Return Utah program, which helps Utahns return to work after career breaks, was launched in 2021 after Gov. Spencer Cox signed an executive order. Shay Baker, the program manager of Return Utah, said that around 70% of participants in the program (returners) are women and the majority of women in the program are returning after taking time off to raise their children.

In Baker’s experience, Return Utah offers the community support that can benefit Utah women as they return to the workforce. “They are returning to the workplace individually, they have a community in place,” she said.

That kind of support is something Murphy said would have helped her. “I have had to go quite a distance to find women to reach out to and network with.”

The Return Utah program not only helps with establishing a community, but it also aids in providing resources and training that some returners may need. As technology rapidly advances, some people in the program have fear about whether or not they will be able to keep up, Baker said. She also pointed out that a lot of returners still have concerns about their family members at home.

Another benefit of the Return Utah program that Baker highlighted was the mentorship women can receive. “They have the opportunity to connect to executive level leaders within the private and public sector to learn from them and to learn from their experiences.”

Mentorship was also something Tetro said was pivotal for helping women succeed.

“I’m a big believer in the power of mentors and sponsors because you need people who are championing you and see your potential and drop you into those environments,” Tetro said and added that throughout her career, she’s had several mentors that have helped her along the way.

“I believe that our networks and those connections and being connected to people and being someone that you’re building up other people and other people are you, pays a tremendous amount of dividends in our careers,” Tetro said.

In addition to mentorship, Tetro also underscored how important it is for companies to offer flexibility. “We need acceleration of career paths and we need flexible environments (for women), so that talent can succeed in all of the ways that help our company and our economy grow,” she said.

Shay Baker speaks with her daughters at their Layton home on Wednesday, Dec. 13, 2023. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News

The majority of Utah women work

Six in 10 women above the age of 16 in the Beehive State participate in the workforce, compared to an overall nationwide rate of 56.1%. Utah also leads the way in the number of women who work part-time jobs.

Utah women who are in the 16 to 24 and 55 to 61 age brackets had higher rates of workforce participation than the rate across the country. The age range from 25 to 54 was where the percentage of women working in Utah was lower.

One significant reason fewer women aged 25 to 54 are working could be that they are raising children during those years. Some women choose to stay home because it’s their preference, others may be staying home for different reasons, such as the cost of child care would not be commensurate with the salary they would make.

It’s difficult to know what percentage of women 25 to 54 want to stay and what percentage would work if circumstances were different. A 2019 Gallup poll found that 56% of U.S. women respondents said they would prefer to work outside the home while 44% said they would rather stay at home.

Drilling down more specifically to Utah, a Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute survey found that 33% of respondents said their household consisted of one full-time worker and one stay-at-home parent, while 43% said that was their ideal situation. Thirty-seven percent said their household had two full-time workers while 17% said that was their ideal situation. Thirty-two percent said that the ideal situation would be one full-time worker and one part-time worker.

The majority of Utah women with children participate in the workforce. While it’s still a majority, those with children under 18 years of age are less likely to have a job compared to women in that situation across the country. With children under 6 years old and between the ages of 6 to 17, just over half of Utah women are employed, according to the report. Women with just children under 6, under 18 and only 6 to 17 participate in the workforce at a rate at least higher than 64.1%.

Perspective: What do working mothers want, and why can’t employers give it to them?

Married Utah women have a lower rate of employment than the national rate. However, not married, separated, divorced or widowed women in the state are more likely than other women across the U.S. to be employed.

Using U.S. Census Bureau data, the report showed Utah women’s participation in the workforce by ethnicity: 66.2% of Asian women, 65.3% of Black or African American women, 62.7% of Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander women, 61.% of white women and 57.2% of American Indian women.

By geography, women who live in Grand, Summit, Tooele and Wasatch counties were the most likely to be employed. Women with residence in Piute, Rich, Duchesne and Emery counties had the lowest rates of employment in the state.

If Tetro could say anything to a woman in Utah who is facing challenges in the workforce, she would say, “You can absolutely do this. There is a way to be able to find a path to make the thing that you want possible happen. And you’re going to find that you’re going to have opportunities come to you.”

Cyd Overton, the Baker family’s nanny, eats ice cream with the kids after school at their Layton home on Wednesday, Dec. 13, 2023. Overton helps out four days a week while Baker is at work. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News