Politics

Report: Women Missing from Utah Politics

Women in Utah aren’t as politically engaged as their peers in other states. Current and former elected officials want to change that.
by | May 30, 2014
Utah state Rep. Jennifer Seelig, the Democratic minority leader in the Utah House of Representatives. AP/Rick Bowmer

Women occupy none of the five statewide elected offices held by politicians in Utah. Of the 104 members in the state legislature, only 17 of them are women. And when women in Utah vote, they consistently participate at lower rates than their peers nationally.

The limited political participation by Utah women is but one dimension in a broader report on the well-being of women in the state published in May. The YWCA Utah contracted with the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, a national women’s research and advocacy nonprofit, to collect, organize and contextualize data related to women in the state. Besides political involvement, the Utah report looks at education, health, safety and employment.

The research group has published similar reports in the past year on North Carolina, West Virginia, Colorado, New Haven, Conn., and the District of Columbia metropolitan region. A national assessment on women, funded by the Ford Foundation, is scheduled to be released in 2015.

Utah ranks near the bottom -- 45th -- when compared to other states and the District of Columbia for the percentage of women in the legislature. The report raises important questions about gender differences in the state, but the policy brief does not explain why the differences exist. “It needs to be investigated,” said state Rep. Jennifer Seelig, the Democratic minority leader in the Utah House of Representatives.

About 49.7 percent of Utah's population is female, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Yet  women represent only about 16 percent of Utah state legislators. The statistics are slightly better for other states: Of the 7,383 state lawmakers across the country, about a quarter (1,787) are women. Nationally, women occupy 72 of the 318 statewide executive offices, though none are in Utah. (The figures on political involvement derive from past research by the Center on American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.)

The report also highlights the fact that women in Utah both register to vote and vote at higher rates than men, but at lower rates, on average, than women across the United States. In 2012, voter turnout among women in Utah was 54 percent. Nationally, turnout among women was 58.5 percent.

Seelig is writing her doctoral dissertation at the University of Utah on the capacity of neighborhood organizations, such local rotary clubs, to provide entry-level leadership positions that can help women launch political careers. Too often, she said, women assume leadership roles in local organizations, but don’t take the next step of running for the city council or state legislature. She wants to know why.

Another report released in May by the Institute for Women's Policy Research examined why women across the country aren't more politically active, especially at the state level. Based on in-depth interviews and focus groups, the report highlighted a range of factors, from a lack of support by local party leaders and power brokers to logistical challenges inherent in wanting to raise children while seeking public office.

Not every metric in the Utah report is so dour. Based on 2012 data, a higher percentage of women in Utah have a bachelor’s degree than the national rate (28.7 percent vs. 21.6 percent). Also, Utah has the 17th highest labor force participation rate among women of any state in the country – 61.6 percent – markedly better than the national rate of 58.8 percent (in 2012). But their average wage compared to men (69 cents on the dollar) is worse. Public officials who hope to improve the lives of women in Utah will face “complex realities,” writes Cynthia Hess, who co-authored the report.

In March, Utah's legislature and governor agreed to create a Women in the Economy Commission to better understand how women are faring in the current economy. A mix of political, nonprofit and business representatives will populate the 11-person commission, which is charged with recommending policies related to the rights and needs of women in the workplace.

While the state investigates the economic status of women, advocates have formed a grassroots coalition to elect more women to state and local government. Real Women Run, a collaboration between the YWCA of Utah and a think tank at the University of Utah, holds training sessions for women who want to run for state and municipal office. The group is nonpartisan and advised by civic leaders and former elected officials who are women.

“There’s a culture here, and it comes from the Mormon Church, that women should be home raising their family. That becomes their goal in life: Get married, have children,” said Jackie Biskupski, a former state legislator who co-chairs Real Women Run. “Our general message is that you can do both and be successful at both.” She said the group emphasizes how winning elected office empowers women to shape policies that impact children and families.

"Statistically, the same percentages of women who run for office are elected, as men who run," wrote Lorie Fowlke, another former state legislator who sits on the coalition's executive committee. "It is just that less women run."

Last year, Utah had openings for 343 elected positions across state and local government, according to a tally by the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah. Only 93 women ran for those positions, but in races in which they did compete, they won about two-thirds of the seats.

Seeling notes that there is some irony in Utah's current lack of political involvement by women. Martha Hughes Cannon, a Mormon doctor who lived in Salt Lake City in the late 19th century, was a women's suffragist and the first woman in the nation to become a state senator, according to the National Women's History Museum.

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