Women Leaders in Utah Government – Their Paths to Power

Setting the Stage

When both men and women work together in leadership roles, organizations thrive. This holds true for government—and democratic governance processes in general—and it supports the call to reflect gender diversity at all levels. Yet, typical conversations about women in government often focus on the need for women to run for elected office. While this is certainly important, little if no attention has been given to the lack of women leaders within the halls of government. In response to this, Utah Women & Leadership Project researchers recently conducted pioneering research resulting in three research briefs that, for the first time, identified the number of women in leadership positions within Utah’s state, county, and municipal organizations. However, the numbers and statistics alone do not tell the whole story.

It is equally important to understand women’s experiences as they advance in government organizations. Although women comprise half of the government’s workforce, and rules and regulations have been legislated to reduce bias, research has found that women continue to experience barriers, challenges, and prejudice that impact their leadership paths. While the bias may be less overt, the cumulative impact of even subtle discrimination affects the career progression experiences for women and can influence their willingness to even approach possible leadership opportunities. Clearly, each woman’s career experience is unique; however, there is value in hearing and learning from women’s own words the ways they experience advancement to leadership.

The research findings can benefit both individuals and organizations. For individuals, understanding women’s career progression experiences provides useful insight for other women who aspire to lead, as it creates a more realistic understanding of what to expect while navigating one’s own professional situation. Within organizations, government agencies and supervisors can learn which leadership development strategies are most effective, what barriers exist, and how to best support efforts to attract and retain qualified women leaders.

Study Background

To support this research, the UWLP research team collected data during May and June of 2020. Participants were initially recruited statewide by using direct emails to women who currently hold leadership positions in a Utah municipality, county, state, or special district government organization. Organizations that work directly with government agencies (Utah League of Cities and Towns, Utah Association of Counties, Utah Association of City Managers) also assisted in distributing the survey information to their membership.

Data were collected through an online survey designed to capture participants’ career progression and advancement experiences. The survey asked participants to provide basic demographic information, to rate a series of statements on a scale of strongly agree to strongly disagree, and to answer the following questions:

  1. What strategies or initiatives do you feel have supported your professional development and advancement?
  2. Please share one or more experience that was pivotal to your career progression.
  3. Describe any challenges you faced during your leadership advancement.
  4. What advice do you have for government organizations or supervisors within government organizations to support the advancement of women to leadership roles?

Although not every participant responded to every question, 435 women completed the demographic questions and rated the statements that highlighted their own perceptions. All data from the open-ended questions were carefully analyzed and coded, with only select highlights included in this research and policy brief.

 Perceptions of Advancement Experiences

Most participants felt they had someone within the organizations they could turn to for advice, and many felt they had a mentor or sponsor who supported their advancement. However, many participants answered most questions only between neutral and somewhat agree. More advanced statistics revealed that older women did feel more prepared for their roles. We also found that women who worked in a municipality who had more education and held a more senior role felt that their ideas and contributions were listened to and implemented. When it came to whether government organizations supported women leaders, there was a significant difference between women who worked for the state versus municipalities, with women working for the state rating higher. It was no surprise that women with more education who were serving in higher leadership roles spotted more bias around them, felt more listened to, and believed that leadership development was less important to the organization. Finally, those who felt men were less supportive were the same individuals who had personally experienced bias (subtle or overt) due to their gender.

Behaviors and Strategies

There were 245 participants who responded to the open-ended question about what behaviors or strategies they experienced that supported their professional development and advancement. Analysis of their answers resulted in three over-arching categories: personal strategies, organizational strategies, and networks of support. 

Pivotal Experiences

There were 260 women who responded to the open-ended question asking them to share experiences that they considered to be pivotal to their leadership development. The following themes emerged and are presented in the order in which they were most frequently mentioned: mentors, role models, and coaches, significant projects or assignments, new job opportunities and visibility, and encouragement and others listening. 

Leadership Advancement Challenges

When asked what challenges they had experienced during their leadership advancement, 271 participants shared their experiences, and the following themes emerged: biased attitudes, lack of organizational support, stifled voices, pay equity and caregiver responsibilities, hiring and interview processes, and social exclusion.

Advice for Government Leaders & Organizations

There were 253 women who shared ideas on how government leaders and organizations could better support the advancement of women.

  1. Intentionally Support Women: Offering intentional support to women was the most frequently mentioned suggestion, which was given by 85 participants (34%). One wrote, “Don’t expect women to work harder than men to gain the same opportunities.” Another woman shared, “Make room for women to advance. Be supportive. Let us sit at the table and have a voice.”
  2. Provide Equal Access to Opportunities: Gender should not be the determining factor when deciding developmental experiences or advancement. Forty-seven women (19%) emphasized that they just wanted equal access to opportunities. Participants often commented that they did not want—or expect—preferential treatment, just to be treated equally. One individual stated, “Treat women equally. It is important to make the staffing decisions based on the best candidate rather than their gender or if they participate in a certain religion. Treat everyone equally and provide opportunities for women to advance beyond administrative assistant positions.” Another participant stated, “Equality. Period. Women do not need nor deserve anything ‘extra.’ Just give us an absolute fair chance. And also, hold us accountable.”
  3. Embrace Inclusivity and Diversity: Thirty-nine women (15%) encouraged organizations to embrace inclusivity and diversity, with an additional 32 participants (13%) calling out the need for organization-sponsored leadership development efforts, as well as diversity and unconscious bias training and development opportunities.
  4. Engage in Open Communication: Open communication that includes active listening and honest feedback was mentioned by 32 women (13%). Eighteen women (7%) encouraged supervisors to ask women about their career goals, suggesting they try to “be aware of the personal and professional goals for the women in your organization. Support them in the achievement of those goals.”
  5. Advocate for Yourselves as Women: Finally, there was a call for women to be proactive and advocate for themselves. Seventeen participants (7%) offered advice such as, “Do not be afraid to voice your opinion and stand up for yourself.” Another shared, “We need to be prepared and proactive. We need to take courage and do the things that make a difference. We need to promote ourselves better because often we are the only ones doing that for ourselves.” Words of advice were also offered by another participant: “Be true to yourself and don’t be afraid to put yourself out there. Be confident you are capable of being a great leader and an example to those around you.”

Recommendations

In addition to the suggestions identified under Advice, women also offered recommendations and ideas on how organizational supervisors, managers, and leaders could more effectively support women’s advancement. 

Benefits: Establish family-friendly policies and practices, including childcare benefits, on-site childcare, flexible schedules, and part-time work; paid family leave; more telecommuting opportunities.

Experience: Provide opportunities for women to take the lead on projects and initiatives; create opportunities to move between departments or divisions to provide upward mobility; provide internal on-the-job training that could include acting-in opportunities, cross-training programs, job shadowing, and being a lead worker; identify opportunities for women to be mentored, particularly by those in higher management; give women opportunities to participate in decision-making and government business that supports their professional development.

Organizational Culture: Be aware of the work environment and build a culture of collaboration, inclusiveness, and diversity; be cognizant of microaggressions or biases, particularly in relation to practices, procedures, and job titles; provide organizational training on communication; commit to mirroring the population in organizational leadership; find ways to engage male colleagues to recognize and confront discrimination and bias.

Research: Look at possible reasons for low numbers of women in upper leadership, including travel restrictions, lack of women applying, and not feeling supported; survey men for their view on issues related to women advancing in the organization.

Training & Development: Support training at both local and national levels; provide professional development resources, including leadership development curriculum; be clear on the path for advancement, letting women know what skills and competencies are required and how to obtain them; support continuing education through funding/scholarships earmarked for women with optional childcare stipend.

Voice: Ask women their opinion and feedback, then support their ideas; ask about their career goals and how the supervisor and organization can support them; include women at the table and encourage their participation.

Women-Specific Support: Create opportunities to network and collaborate with other women in leadership to share their experiences safely; provide training and networking opportunities between women who work at city, county, and state governments; develop a structured women leadership program that includes women of color; share ways women have successfully advanced.

Conclusion

This brief explores the responses participants offered to questions about their leadership advancement experiences in government organizations. Several women emphasized how rewarding it was for them to work in government. Yet, it should be noted that over one-third (37%) of the overall participants chose not to provide responses to any of the questions. It may be that those women had very positive experiences that are not represented in this study.

That said, research at the national level has shown that women “view the path to advancement as more stressful, have lower career longevity and satisfaction, and receive less recognition compared to men.” In Utah, many women are faced with the discouraging reality that they will have fewer opportunities than their male counterparts to advance, and they will also receive less peer- and work-related support. Despite these challenges, the women working for Utah’s special districts, municipalities, counties, and state, showed considerable resilience and persistence while navigating challenges and frustrations, particularly in the face of persistent gender bias.

We extend a call to action for leaders and supervisors within Utah government agencies to learn from the experiences of the women reflected in this study. By intentionally incorporating some of the effective advancement strategies offered in this brief, leaders can provide a more inclusive leadership environment that considers a variety of experiences and perspectives. As our communities face increasing challenges, supporting the advancement of women can be a valuable tool for government leaders.

To learn more about the paths to power for women in Utah government, read the full brief.

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