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Utah Business

One local, anonymous CMO, shares her experience of job searching at the top. And it wasn't what she thought it would be.

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.

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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.

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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.

Comments (19)

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    Diane Johnson

    Well articulated. I do hope your efforts and those of other women executives will make a substantive difference in Utah and elsewhere. Unfortunately, what you report is pervasive and becoming more problematic as Utah is quickly losing its “low cost of living” status.

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    Janelle

    Would love to reach out to the author about mentorship!

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    Lisa H.

    Thank you for your article. I needed this today. Rather, a month ago as I discovered my local peer set in my office make on average 41% more for the same work and I’ve unknowingly worked below established, confidential salary band minimum for two years. I find myself navigating similar challenges a step or two below you and while growing discouraged in my current role, also experiencing diminished ambition to work toward a VP or C-level future. Would love to connect, but appreciate your need for anonymity. Find me @looselydreaming

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    Damascene

    I know of a female engineer who interviewed in Utah. One company bluntly told her that they had considered hiring a woman, but thought they might wait another year. They could not seem to think of her as simply a qualified engineer applying for the open position. They could not get past her gender.

    Another interviewer bluntly told her that he did not want to hire her. His statement, “If I hire you, I cannot date you.”

    In my own LDS family, I have been amazed at the fallout as a few women in the family have obviously out-achieved and out-earned their brothers. The culture does not handle that well.

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    Art

    While I am sad to hear that the outcome of your efforts ended with you taking a position in another state, I would like to encourage you to continue trying to break ground in Utah somewhere. There are currently many companies flocking to Utah and many new start up companies constantly taking root and it would only hurt the tech sector for us to be sectioning off anyone for any reason beyond actual results. If or rather in my opinion when you do make it back into Utah I would ask that you write a follow up listing idea for women who have had trouble breaking ground here in Utah and overcoming discriminatory boundaries. This would hopefully help not just combat some of the sexism that is present here, but also some of the other more (i hate to say it this way) accepted forms of discrimination that are prominent here.

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    Beth Pearson

    Enjoyed your article

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    H

    wait, no mention of the large religious organization that perpetuates some of these gendered views?

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    Maggie

    @Art, your mentality sounds very much like the people Greta Thunberg are fighting against–the very ones who created the problem and who are now asking the receiving group to fix it. Why don’t you do something to help initiate change yourself instead of expecting those who are suffering the downfall to change a situation they didn’t create? As a former female exec in Utah, I’ll never return. There are many better places to live and contribute, where I am simply appreciated & justly remunerated for my skills, no battle required.

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    Deborah

    I am looking for a mentor and you seems to be the perfect one. Would you be my mentor?

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    Mike

    This article caught my eye while scrolling because my wife is a exec at a large firm and half my family is from Utah. Your battle for equality is commendable but, Utah is another world just as my family there are in another world, tenets of the faith (LDS) are ingrained in the Mormon beliefs of male hierarchy and unity of those “in” the church. you from what I gather are neither but from what I’ve seen the large corporations associated with the church do have some women in Upper levels so there is hope but I doubt it would be anything above director level, good luck maybe come to Canada where there are no closed doors..

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    Tina

    I admire the courage of the author to write about this experience. I am so sorry to hear it. I am also a female executive and I moved to Utah in 2018 when I was recruited to a company in Salt Lake City. My experience has been amazing – our leadership is a mix of people from Utah as well as across the country and the world. We work hard to recruit in this mix of diverse backgrounds and create a place people feel they belong. I have heard stories very similar to what the author conveys here. And I am also seeing sparks of a new breed of company and leadership emerging in Salt Lake City. I have found SLC to be friendly, affordable, eclectic and having unparalleled access to the outdoors (a big admission for someone that grew up in Colorado). I spent most of my career in the Bay Area and my company here in SLC has as many or more female scientists and engineers than a lot of tech companies in the Bay. That gives me optimism about the future here despite significant gender equity challenges that Utah faces today.

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    Hannah

    Please by my mentor. You can find me on LinkedIn, https://www.linkedin.com/in/hannah-matthewspr/

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    Cyndi

    Sadly, this article is spot on. As a female executive, the opportunity came only as a result of opening my own business. I spent a year as well, applying for executive positions I was very qualified for only to be passed over because I was not the right gender and didn’t fit into the “boys club” that dominates this market. Utah has developed a hierarchy where nearly every company’s c-suite executives are made up of mostly men. The struggle is real and the discrimination is blatant. I now work with those same c-level executives to create cultures of diversity with intentional focus on year over year growth impacting the communities they work in. It’s an uphill climb but worth every moment.

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    Scott

    Very interesting article. As a man from the U.K. I also have experienced forms of this discrimination. From being offered positions with a much lower salary, to being told “You have little chance of being a senior executive because you’re not LDS or from Utah”

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    TS

    I often find myself feeling trapped in this godforsaken state.

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    Thomas

    As a long time “member” of Utah, I am not in the least surprised by your experience. I have worked in and out of Utah with a variety of companies. Your revelations expressed above about the the lack of actual diversity in leadership is obvious. The practices by leadership, you so accurately noted, is precisely the template by which this discrimination is craftily executed as a serial practice here in Utah.

    How to effect change..? Perhaps a social movement could help accelerate a better tomorrow such as a public diversity commitment or contract signed by “in tune” businesses and leaders to equalize the Gender gap in leadership roles as well as pay by 20??. Other ideas?

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    Michelle

    Very well written article! I am impressed by the level of candor and clarity that was clearly portrayed in just a couple paragraphs. As I read the comments I am sadden to see people simply resulting to religion as the singular negative source. Culture will always be influenced by its surroundings and in turn therefore influence more than just business or careers. In some circumstances culture is used to express the beauty and richness of an area in other circumstances it is used as a crutch for anyone viewing a scenario with an outside lense. I deeply hope, for others and myself, that women will viewed with equality but I also hope that women will always in some way remain different from men. We hold a deep responsibility to not only respect cultures but to change and build them ourselves. Identity and differences are what enrich and diversify our lives. I hope we equally continue to protect that just as much as we continue to fight for change.

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    Christy

    In 2018, I interviewed for several mid-level roles and encountered non-profit and private companies based in SLC, seeking free consulting as part of the interview process. These company’s touted their diversity and fair hiring practices, but they never actually hired for the role. They sought to source answers to problems they had and couldn’t solve. I appreciate you sharing your experience and am interested in connecting for mentorship. Thank you.

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    Jim

    I live in Salt Lake City and have a ten year old daughter. Knowing well the corporate culture here, I will encourage her to leave the state for school and her career and never look back.

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