A new study on women’s leadership in Utah found that more than 4 of every 10 of county governmental leadership positions statewide are held by women, though there are disparities across Utah’s 29 counties.
In the study, which was published on Wednesday, researchers with the Utah Women and Leadership Project at Utah State University compiled data through public records requests on women in leadership positions at the county level in government in order to “document a baseline of the number and percentage of women in leadership roles within Utah’s 29 counties that could be used in the future to learn where progress has been made.”
The study found that 42.5% of “all supervisory, managerial and executive leadership positions within county governments are held by women, which is slightly higher than the 39.3% recently reported for State of Utah employees.”
“Admittedly, the leadership composition of each county is different,” wrote the authors, Susan Madsen, founding director of the Utah Women and Leadership Project, and April Townsend, a research fellow. “However, it does compare well to the (United States) Census (Bureau) data from 2016 that show women in the US hold 40.2% of all ‘management occupations.’ ”
Of the 828 county leadership positions held by women across the state, just under half are “front-line” positions, including supervisor, manager, administrator and analyst roles, while 38.8% are “executive” positions, such as department director or chief deputy positions.
“Senior” positions, like deputy director and manager positions, account for 36.9% of positions held by women. 29.2% of women in county leadership positions are elected officials.
“I was actually somewhat surprised when we ran the data and found that 42.5% of supervisors and up are women in our county governments,” Madsen said during an interview Wednesday, noting that she expected the percentage to be lower.
“But on the other hand, there’s not other research that we could (use to) compare ourselves to (other states) in the nation,” Madsen added.
The collected data shows drastic differences across counties, some that soar above the statewide average and others that sink below it.
In Utah County, four of the 29 reported government leadership positions, 13.8%, are held by women, the second lowest percentage in the state after Piute County, 12.5%.
The other counties with the lowest percentage of women in county leadership positions are Juab (17.6%), Sevier (20.5%) and Box Elder (21.3%).
Emery is the county with the highest percentage of women in leadership positions, 73.5%, followed by Garfield (58.1%), Daggett (51.9%), Carbon (50%), Rich (50%) and Salt Lake County, where 364 of the 737 reported positions, or 49.4%, are held by women.
Madsen said that counties that offer women’s leadership and development programs, such as Salt Lake County, tend to have more women in leadership positions.
“I think it matters somewhat of the culture and what top leadership in those counties and government are really doing,” she added.
The researchers wrote that examining women’s representation in county government can help identify “where local governments are doing well and where there are opportunities to improve the diversity of the workforce.”
“A more diverse local government workforce provides Utah’s county leaders with a greater range of perspectives when identifying and implementing public policies and can be a valuable tool in creative problem solving and complex decision making,” they wrote.
The study provided a number of recommendations for improving gender diversity in county government positions, including “establishing a ‘tone from the top’ that is firmly committed to supporting and advancing women, with an eye to advancing women of color,” as well as making a “visible commitment,” such as a pledge or challenge, and providing staff with training on how to address unconscious bias and “support gender equity in the workplace.”
Other recommendations include analyzing and changing gendered language in policies and procedures, recommending women for “stretch assignments and speaking opportunities” and “recogniz(ing) and verbally acknowledg(ing) the leadership that women provide.”
“This is a subtle yet powerful way to interrupt gender bias and shift social expectations regarding women as leaders,” the researchers wrote.
“And it’s not just about ‘doing the right thing’ and having more women lead,” said Madsen. “The research is absolutely clear that, especially for complex problems, when you have men and women working together, you’re more innovative, you just have better problem-solving. You’re more creative with your solutions. There’s so many benefits.”