I read with great interest LaVarr Webb’s well-intentioned commentary “Gender ‘equality’ rankings often don’t include key factors.” In this article, he laments studies by “liberal” groups such as Wallet Hub who consistently rank Utah dead last in the nation for “women’s rights.” His wish was that these groups would acknowledge some key factors that might skew the results in Utah. Included were the following: That Utah women choose to stay home with their families, that they choose lower paid jobs to give priority to family and that they choose to avoid the pressure of running for political office. As a Utah woman who spent 18 years as a stay-at-home mom raising five children, 20 years in a career, and 12 years as a state legislator, I believe the answers are complicated. I’d like to offer my thoughts.
Certainly, staying home with children is a legitimate and respected choice. I have often wished that I could include the managerial skills and other expertise I learned as a stay-at-home mom on a work resume. But, as Mr. Webb acknowledges, statistics show that the vast majority of Utah mothers must work at some point. Families are expensive. When they do, statistics also show that they get paid much less that their male counterparts for a number of reasons. When I graduated from BYU in 1971, there were three things a woman could be- a teacher, a nurse, or a secretary, all traditionally low paid professions. Sure enough, you could major in other things, but we were all keenly aware that there would be no opportunity for jobs. Choices are much better for young women today, but many attitudes persist. When my own daughter attended law school, a male family member asked why she would waste all that time and money when “all” she would be was a mom and maybe, eventually a secretary. Utah’s culture assumes that the male will be the breadwinner, thus the priority for higher education and training usually goes to our sons over our daughters. So, when the Utah woman, who expected to be a stay-at-home mom goes to work, she usually does so without the benefit of that higher education and training and gets paid much less than her male counterparts. I am also aware of many Utah women who do have the same educational equivalent and years of experience as their male counterparts and are getting paid much less for similar jobs. Wallet Hub ranks us 48th in the nation for the male/female income gap. This should cause us to pause and reassess wage policies. Currently, we are ranked 50th in educational attainment. This should encourage us to prioritize education and training opportunities for women.
Do Utah women purposely choose low paying jobs so they can attend to family as the article suggests? I find it hard to believe that anyone chooses to do a hard day’s work for little pay. However, in Utah, traditional gender role models prevail. Most working women I know with families, myself included, still bear the major responsibility for the cooking, cleaning, laundry and childcare in their homes. During the pandemic, that would include their children’s education. That may have forced women to cut back hours, go part time, take a pause in their careers, or take a less responsible job in order to cope. However, is this something to be proud of? Surely, our low rankings in women’s equality should encourage us to reassess the division of domestic and childcare responsibilities in our homes and families.
Finally, do our low numbers of women participating in leadership and political roles indicate that women have chosen to avoid these roles because of the high pressure involved? Again, the answer is complicated. Just this week, news coverage highlighted several incidents of “bullying, sexual harassment, and intimidation,” against women candidates by the Salt Lake County Republican Party. Obviously, this was an attempt to help these women “choose” not to participate. In my own case, a local ecclesiastical leader stopped by my house to counsel me that because I was an elected official, I had stepped out of my place as an LDS woman. Clearly, the underlying message was that I had displeased God by bucking traditional roles. That’s a heavy guilt trip, intended to help me make a better choice. I wish I could say this was an isolated incident. My experience with my female colleagues in the Utah Legislature was that they were confident, efficient, collaborative and excellent in handling the pressures of the job. We need more of them. Again, our low rankings in this area, 49th in pollical attainment, offers an opportunity for us to facilitate and encourage smart, talented women to step up and serve us with their competent leadership.
I agree that we should respect the choices of women in all areas. However, I do not think we should discount or ignore studies which year after year rank Utah dead last in women’s rights, regardless of the source. Utah’s low rankings in gender equality should make us reassess our attitudes and policies and make positive changes. We can do better.
Marie Poulson spent 18 years as a stay-at-home mom raising five children, 20 years in a career, and 12 years as a state legislator.