When it comes to leadership in Utah, where are the women?
Photo courtesy of Dominion Energy
According to Utah’s Department of Workforce Services, “a higher percentage of Utah women participate in the labor force than the national average,” with women composing about 44 percent of Utah’s labor force. Despite this strong presence in the workplace, women lack representation in leadership roles. Women account for less than 5 percent of corporate CEOs in the state and hold only 32.7 percent of Utah state board and commission seats. They own less than one-third of businesses in the state.
But a shift may be underway. According to a 2019 survey by the Salt Lake Tribune and Suffolk University, 81.75 percent of Utah’s women would like to see more women in government leadership positions. Even more—84.25 percent—said they would like to see more women in business leadership positions.
Government agencies, businesses and nonprofits are looking at ways to drive female leadership in their organizations. The new Inspire InUtah initiative highlights 100 Utah companies that are working to advance women employees, managers and leaders. At these companies, “leadership” means going beyond simply checking the boxes on perks that draw female employees; it involves creating women-oriented leadership development initiatives to drive serious cultural change.
“If you’re only concentrating on sticking women at the bottom and hiring and that’s it, it’s not going to magically translate into more women being in top positions,” says Dr. Susan Madsen, founder and director of the Utah Women & Leadership Project (UWLP).
Unconscious bias and ‘good intentions’
In the first two months of 2023, 31 percent of new CEOs in the U.S. were women, marking an all-time high according to a report by the Chicago outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas.
The payoff of more women in the C-suite goes beyond offering equality. Hundreds of studies show that companies with women on their leadership teams see better financial results, increased profitability, higher stock prices, better corporate governance, decreased turnover, higher employee satisfaction and more innovation.
Utah lags behind the rest of the nation regarding women’s equality and was even ranked the worst in the nation in a 2022 WalletHub study. The Beehive State was near the bottom in a number of key categories, including executive positions and political empowerment.
The state’s conservative culture adds another layer of complexity to the issue. At least 62 percent of the population identifies as members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a faith that has long preached traditional gender roles in parenting. Some women claim there are unspoken expectations within the faith that make it difficult to be a mother with a career, according to a 2016 report by Argosy University in San Francisco.
A 2021 UWLP research policy report also noted that culture creates difficulties in career advancements and rising in leadership ranks. As many as 67 percent of the women surveyed said they believed women need to prepare to be leaders, but 35 percent disagreed with the idea that Utah men are in support of advancing women into leadership roles.
One woman interviewed for the report said she was moving into a major leadership role when one of the four evaluators on her team said, “Don’t forget that you are a mother and need to take care of those needs.”
“I have never seen a time where anyone has listed, ‘Remember you are a father’ to the men being evaluated,” the woman said in the report.
Heather Brace, the executive VP and chief people officer at Intermountain Health, blames unconscious bias for sexist comments like these. She recalls someone telling her early in her career that they “felt bad for her children” because of the hours she worked. Elsie Powley, community manager at Clyde Companies, recalls being at one meeting and noting her children were at home, to which a male colleague responded, “Then what in the world are you doing here?”
Photo courtesy of Intermountain Health
Changing those cultural norms is difficult, says Curtis Greenfield, the lead researcher on the Argosy study, especially in a state like Utah. Women must straddle two different cultures: the language and expectations of the predominant religion’s culture and the opposing female working culture, he says.
Sara Jones, the founder of InclusionPro, says sometimes men believe they’re doing the right thing by making a career decision on behalf of a female colleague. She recalls a man approaching her after a diversity, inclusion and equity seminar in Utah County last summer. He was wrestling with whether a conservatively religious man would be accountable to God for “encouraging a woman to spend time away from her children.”
Jones thanked him for trusting her with the question and suggested he not carry any guilt for women’s advancement in the workplace. “You’re absolutely entitled to your faith and whatever stewardship you believe that your religion has provided,” she told him. “How you navigate that with women in your personal life is not my business. But, in the business context, you don’t actually have religious stewardship over your colleagues, the women executives or women on the team. It’s overstepping the bounds of your religious stewardship.”
Brace agrees with Jones that this attitude—commonly referred to as “benevolent sexism”—is rooted in good intentions but doesn’t translate well to the workplace.
“One thing I try to bring to the table at Intermountain is, let us not be too paternalistic,” Brace says. “Let marginalized individuals make their own decisions about what’s appropriate for them or their family.”
This is not an issue isolated to the Latter-day Saint faith. Religious societies overall are less likely to promote or accept women in leadership positions, according to a report by Polish researchers Małgorzata Mikołajcz and Janina Pietrzak.
Madsen says that, throughout centuries, men have had a more “public” role in society and women a more “private” role. To this day, religious societies are typically more traditional, so these dynamics and others play out in societies that have stronger and more defined gender roles.
Developing generations of women leaders
Brace steered the women’s leadership initiatives that increased the number of female leaders at Intermountain. Six years ago, women made up 72 percent of the company’s employees but only 28 percent of executive leadership. Today, that senior leadership makeup is 50-50 men and women.
To boost representation, Intermountain created leadership programs specifically for women that offer mentorship, networking and classroom learning on everything from what it means to be a strong leader to how to self-advocate or prepare for an interview.
Another piece of the puzzle: Research shows that women typically don’t tend to apply for jobs unless they feel they are 100 percent qualified, whereas men tend to apply if they feel they are at least 60 percent qualified. “Most women have the skills but lack either the courage or confidence to move forward,” Brace says. “Our programs are really pushing our leaders to think, stand up for themselves and be courageous to bring up an idea or raise a concern.”
Nancy Philipp, HR manager at Dominion Energy, teaches Utah women to navigate communication styles that may be prevalent in the traditionally male-dominated energy sector, especially when they may be one of the only women present.
Philipp draws on her own experience. She would often be the only woman in executive leadership team meetings, and her male colleagues would talk over her when she spoke up. Eventually, she learned to pause and ask for the space to finish her thought. “I did that over and over until they finally knew I wouldn’t talk if they talked over me,” Philipp says.
To help women get noticed and promoted in the male-dominated utility and energy industries, Philipp started the first Utah chapter of the Women’s Energy Network, which holds female networking events and conferences. This year, Dominion held a three-day, company-wide women’s conference that offered networking, leadership training and information on how to navigate challenging workplace issues. It also runs an employee resource group for women that provides education on finances, promotions and self-development. Women in the group connect with mentors, which boosts the chances that they’re engaged in work and will progress in their careers, Philipp says.
Mentorship, however, can be an overused word for any kind of developmental relationship. A variety of relationships drive leadership advancement—from one-on-one mentors and coaches to advisers, sponsors and supporters both inside and outside the organization. Sometimes the most important conversations about your career happen in a room where you’re not present, so it’s critical to have a sponsor in that room who can advocate on your behalf and highlight what you bring to the table.
"If you’re only concentrating on sticking women at the bottom and hiring and that’s it, it’s not going to magically translate into more women being in top positions."
Photo courtesy of Clyde Companies
Those connections and developmental networks are critical social capital if women want to get promoted and see improvements in their compensation, performance and work satisfaction, Madsen says, yet those networks don’t come as naturally and readily to women as they do to men. But when women get strategic about networking and building those connections, their careers inevitably advance.
Driving female leadership should not rest solely on women. Men also need to do the work, says Diana Chapman, co-founder of The Conscious Leadership Group. Women are learning they don’t necessarily have to behave like a man to be successful, she says, claiming emotional intelligence, relational leading and less hierarchy as “gifts of feminine leadership.”
Men may need help identifying the oversights that lead to a less inclusive atmosphere, says Chapman, who has coached men who have been “canceled” because they didn’t recognize how their comments were sexist or demeaning to a woman.
“There must be more of a mindset and cultural shift. Whoever has the power or whoever has had the power has even more responsibility,” she says.
At Clyde Companies, top male leaders took that challenge to heart. CEO Jeremy Hafen and chairman Wilford Clyde championed a cultural shift inside the $2 billion construction company, which had been male-dominated for nearly 100 years.
Hafen and Clyde may not have experienced the struggle of being a woman navigating the industry, but they understand the importance of elevating women in their careers at the company, Powley says.
Clyde Companies hired its first female executive last year when it named Ally Isom as VP and chief strategy and marketing officer. In the last three years, the company saw a 60 percent increase in women in management leadership positions.
“I hope we’re moving toward a place where, rather than just being tolerant of women in construction, we are welcoming of them,” Powley says. “We’re on the right trajectory.”
Overstock may be one of Utah’s trailblazers for women in leadership. The online retailer has been recognized four times as one of the “Best Companies for Women to Advance,” a list curated by Parity.org, a nonprofit dedicated to closing the gender and racial gap in corporate leadership. In 2017, Overstock took the ParityPledge in support of women, committing to interview at least one qualified female candidate for every open executive position, VP and above, to help improve pathways for female leadership opportunities.
Three of Overstock’s eight board directors are women, including its board chair, and 33 percent of its C-suite are women. The company runs two different women’s employee resource groups—the Overstock Women’s Network and the Women in Technology group—that aim to promote more women in Overstock’s tech positions. It also runs a LatinX resource group, a Black employee network and the Overstock pride employee network for the LGBTQ+ community.
Overstock CEO Jonathan Johnson says it is smart business to get women in the C-suite. Women are the primary customers pressing “buy” on Overstock.com, resulting in $1.93 billion in annual revenue. “I don’t always think like our customer, and so having an executive team that looks and thinks like our customers is really important,” he says.
The company carefully tracks metrics on its diversity and inclusion progress, analyzes pay increases and promotions and flags any signs of potential unfair treatment of both men and women. The goal: drive a culture of building great leaders, no matter their gender or skin color.
“Ultimately, people get it, and it becomes part of who we are,” Johnson says. If more companies follow suit, it could become part of who Utah is, too.
Photo courtesy of Dominion Energy