This Is What It’s Like To Job Search As A Female Executive In Utah
“Women aren’t valued for their careers in Utah,” he said with a nonchalance that suggested he’s had this conversation many times. “But women are valued much more highly here than in other places… just not for their careers.”
I excused myself and released my tongue from my teeth, reeling not from the blatant devaluation I just experienced, but from the fact that what I’ve been fearing, was just laid out before me in plain language, straight to my face, by a man who was a respected and established business leader.
There it was: “women are not valued for their careers in Utah.”
I fell in love with Utah four years ago after spending time in Salt Lake City with clients and partners and speaking several times at industry conferences. I visited Utah’s great national parks some years earlier and, to me, the combination of world-class outdoor diversity and accessibility, combined with unprecedented growing tech scene was one I could not say no to when I was recruited to the state close to three years ago.
After completing the contract I was recruited to Salt Lake City for, I found myself wanting to stay. I was eager to make a positive impact as a female in a male-dominated world, and unprepared for the reality I was about to experience as a female looking for an executive-level position in Utah.
For the purpose of this article there is no need to focus on my experience, my industry, or defend my overall qualifications. The facts you should know are that I am a competent, proven, and unapologetically strong female executive. I was already well connected in the state’s tech sector but set out to broaden my network as I started my search.
I got to know many female-driven organizations, such as the Women Tech Council, and despite scary research showing how women in Utah are their own worst enemy, I found passionate advocates and resilient souls eager to help and engage. But, over time, I also came to realize how isolated and stonewalled these organizations can be, or worse, leveraged as tokens and then not taken seriously.
Am I applying for a job? Or a date?
After two recruiters made romantic advances during meetings they set up under the guise of professional purposes, I found myself questioning my resume trying to cipher how it could possibly come off as a dating profile. Once, the CEO of a company I interviewed with called me to let me know that despite my qualifications, and overall good impression on the team, they would not be making me an offer.
I barely had a chance to respond before he jumped back in, stating that since we wouldn’t be working together, he would love to take me to dinner sometime very soon to make up for the disappointment of the professional rejection.
Blatant sexism and preying aside, subtle sexism and general discrimination were more common bedfellows on my job search. Male executives said all the right things and ticked all the boxes about the value of diversity in leadership, but they constantly fell flat in execution. They claimed to be allies! They wanted to be a force of change and an example! They wanted to be held accountable! They wanted role models for their daughters!
As discussions went deeper and I began to peel back the layers, it became clear to me that those intentions were not necessarily genuine. A bit of marketing was painting a layer of diversity over a lack thereof. They are diverse, they said, and yet only five percent of their workforce are women, all in low level positions. They sponsor an [insert women’s organization here] they said, but never attended any events. They (proudly) interviewed more than one woman for this role and yet they hired a man instead.
I was eager and glad to be the first female executive on a team, so I would take the call despite seeing this evidence on their websites. As a result, I wasted so much time on scenarios where I was clearly being interviewed as the token female.
A conscious effort to include a female in an interview pool is so far from a conscious effort to hire a female, yet it was clear when companies felt that was enough. I had receptionists admit to this ploy as they notified me that my scheduled hour-long meeting had been dropped to a mere 15 minutes upon my arrival. One ally informed me that a CEO I interviewed with always interviewed women, but refused to hire them because his wife was not comfortable with a woman in the office with him.
It seemed there was no sad angle to this story left untold, and it was wildly discouraging.
Is this an interview? Or a free strategy session?
Searching for a role as a female leader in Utah certainly has its challenges, but admittedly, I could―and likely would―run into some degree of those issues anywhere. I’ve experienced everything from subtle discrimination through outright harassment and assault over the course of my career, and I use those experiences to strengthen my resolve to make a positive impact for women in the future.
But gender challenges aren’t the only impediment to the job searching process in Utah. As I was introduced to more companies, I realized how homogenic Greater Salt Lake really is and how desperately it needs diversity of gender, color, thought, and perspective. Throughout more than 50 interviews at 30+ companies, I found a redundant recruiting process that followed a strikingly similar playbook.
Challenge questions were all the same, vernaculars were stunningly similar. More than one company had “grit” as their guiding principle while others promoted “hustle.” The compounding practice of hiring only by referral to ‘proudly protect culture’ seemed, in reality, to be a recipe for as much homogeneity as possible, and it was felt across organizational lines.
The most egregious aspect of job searching at an executive level is the consistent ask for free strategy work as part of the interview process―something not unprecedented outside Utah but was prolific in my experience here. I was asked for copies of strategy from my previous endeavors (which I hoped was a trick question to see if I understood NDAs and the value of IP, but was wrong), I was asked to provide (in as much detail as possible!) a go-to-market strategy, to present precisely how I structure paid campaigns (yes, whiteboard it please! and let us take photos!), and close to every company I seriously interviewed with asked for my “30-60-90-day plan,” laying out in detail what I would do for the first several months of my tenure.
These actions reveal, at best, how inexperienced and ineffectual these companies are at evaluating candidates, and, at worst, are deliberately exploiting candidates. Sophisticated hiring teams use unique interview questions and references to validate resumes, not a gauntlet of free work. In Utah, not a single company elected to speak with my references, even those that made me offers.
Is this (really) what I’m worth?
The ask for free work is a warning shot, but low pay, small equity stakes, and sub-par benefits packages were also de rigueur. While one of the greatest benefits of life in Utah is the low cost of living, even with cost of living adjustments considered I received offers at salaries 40 percent lower than those I received for similar opportunities in other states.
I’d like to believe that my gender did not have an impact here, but surely, it did. Most frustrating were low equity stake offers from Seed and Series A stage companies, which are factors not impacted by cost of living. To me, this is a clear reflection of the small sandbox we’re playing in and a lack of experienced executives, directors, and investors.
After a year of searching for a job, interviewing for jobs that ended up going unfilled, receiving offers that were rescinded after a counter offer or for reasons one might not believe, and being passed over for male candidates who were―at least on paper―not as qualified and not as positively endorsed, I’ve reprioritized my intention to make a positive impact on Salt Lake City’s diversity as a local executive. Instead, I accepted a CMO role in another state, with an enterprise where I am positioned as a valued, equitable partner in the business.
I am deeply driven to find a way to make a difference in Salt Lake City by other means―perhaps as a mentor, a sponsor or investor, a speaker, or as a listening ear. This article is but one of those efforts, and my hope is that it encourages leaders to walk the walk, and diverse candidates a strengthened resolve as they run the gauntlet of securing a leadership role in greater Salt Lake City.
I remain anonymous in this article to protect my ability to have an unbiased impact when the time comes. Until then, I’ll welcome ideas for the best way to make a difference, and stories of experiences that were much more positive than mine.