Scott: This Is the Place, but perhaps not for women

Girl+Scouts+visit+the+Senate+Chamber+in+the+Utah+State+Capitol

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Girl Scouts visit the Senate Chamber in the Utah State Capitol

By Elise Scott, Opinion Writer

Utah is often touted for its upward mobility, a claim that may be a little more nuanced than at first blush. Ironically, another thing Utah has been acclaimed for is being the second most sexist state in the nation–making its quaint vignette of bountiful opportunity fall under deserved skepticism. Utah’s chilly treatment of women is a tale supported by analysis and anecdote alike. In Utah, women are underrepresented across the board, their absence especially noticeable in politics and high-paying industries. The higher the position of power, the scarcer they become. This Is the Place, but perhaps not for women.

Utah’s “woman problem” has no shortage of coverage or critique, and yet it remains a continually demoralizing reality. It’s been discussed for years, broken down into careful, nuanced explanations and had small steps toward incremental progress identified. Yet women remain caught up in it like the smothering tar pit it is. Sexism within Utah is so ingrained that it feels insurmountable–even for the younger, educated and professional (though less experienced) women such as myself who supposedly have the world at their fingertips.

Whenever women want to talk about sexism, open disbelief is predictably garnered by the unaffected or unconcerned. There are likely readers of this piece who are already rolling their eyes, turned off by what they perceive as the unnecessary, melodramatic nitpicking of uppity local feminists with nothing better to do. People become defensive when uncomfortable topics are broached, especially as a state-wide reprimand. However, sexism persists in Utah, and it has a marked effect–whether people believe women or not.

For example, two years ago the Salt Lake Tribune reported that Utah held the nation’s second-widest wage gap–including data from a recent study that had claimed that it was not expected to disappear until at least 2102. That estimate had projected 86 years of continued inequality, inequality that will continue to persist as Utah went on to obtain America’s largest wage gap only two years later. Sixty percent of Utah women work, making up 44 percent of the workforce. That is a lot of accumulated loss for 49.7 percent–per the 2010 Utah census–of the state’s population.

It’s quite interesting that women’s wages here continue to drop. Could it perhaps have something to do with a culture that strongly encourages women to marry young and stay home? It’s the same culture that cracks jokes about women going to school to earn their M.R.S. degree, or argues that even educated women desire an eventual return to homemaking. You know, the culture that produces male politicians who feel comfortable enough to publicly condemn equal wages as a “vicious cycle” that is bad for families and thus for all of society.”

Pay discrepancy isn’t the only way to hurt a woman. She can, and often is, rejected by her community, bullied and physically harmed. Female candidates for office are regularly threatened and harassed–including an acquaintance of mine who had to file a restraining order against an aggressive neighbor, a man who was also member of her party. Violence toward women in Utah is all too common–one in three Utah women experience domestic violence. Nationally speaking, Utah’s homicide rate is quite low, but 44 percent of it is domestic violence related. Utah is a wonderful place to live, but women still pay a special little price.

It can be hard to suss out who most perpetuates this sexism. I do know that many men have graced me over the years with snide comments about about myself, other women and the supposed limitations of our gender. I’ve even had male law professors caution me that Utah’s legal community is fond of excluding women from the one-on-one meetings necessary for networking and mentoring. I have also felt burned by the unsympathetic glares of other Utah women. Women who feel insulated–by what I would call luck–from the effects of sexism. There are also the complicit, who do feel the effects but prefer not to rock to boat.

Unfortunately, sexism affects everyone in Utah, though it may manifest differently. It harms women differently than it does men, and women do not share a monolithic experience. Women of color experience both sexism and racism, and their racial identity, culture and experiences are not interchangeable with one another. LGBTQ women and non-binary people experience sexism that often invalidates their identity and relationships. Poor women may face economic and educational barriers. Rural women might be isolated from the resources that urban women enjoy. Undocumented women might struggle to find work or are unable to report domestic violence, because doing so could risk breaking up their families–something that has already happened to many Utah mothers.

Speaking as a young white woman who is fairly privileged and educated, I often bounce between gender-based impostor syndrome, the acute pressure to settle down and start a family and a fear of discrimination at work. It’s pretty obvious that I could have it worse–a lot worse. Still, because I am female–something I cannot control–I am at risk for limitations that education and certain privileges can’t completely outrun. I know that I am far from alone in these feelings of marginalization.

About 46% of students at the University of Utah are women, and of the ones I know, our experiences are tinged with this state’s specific brand of sexism. Several of these friends are also subjected to racism and homophobia, something that twists sexism in even uglier ways. Despite our differences and the variation in our fields of study, we all share concerns about our future.

Our anxieties are many–we strategize about how to come off as extra agreeable in the workplace, to avoid having our careers dinged if we decide to have children and to dodge the already manifesting sexual harassment of these professional environments. One’s early twenties are supposed to be wonderfully uncertain and vivacious time. Spending them worried about facing unconscious bias during interviews or becoming a victim of revenge porn is hardly that. Even the brightest will struggle to see the path to the top if they live in a place where few people like them are granted access to it.

Despite claims about our desire to receive “special treatment,” most women only wish to pursue their life without a gender bias. We’ve already paid for our education, we only ask that unfair barriers are removed so that we can properly use it. Feeling forced to constantly advocate for oneself is not a comfortable experience. It brings no particular joy to climb the jostling rope ladder of professional life–especially while knowing that those with perceived weakness are pulled down and whacked by antiquated, arbitrary measuring sticks.

Proactive work needs to be done to empower women within Utah, and that means correcting the biases that keep them from leadership. Women are interesting, multidimensional beings who deserve a world that works with them as well as it does men. Including women is a move that is both economically savvy and morally ethical, depending on where your priorities lie.

Women control the majority of household expenditures, therefore business suffers when women are not consulted. Female leadership produces relevant products and services, ones that court a female consumer without patronizing her. Legislation is similarly insufficient without female input. Utah’s elected officials are overwhelmingly of the straight, white, cis male variety–it’s time to shake that up. Women can represent men just as well as they do other women–their interests are not constrained to “women’s issues.”

Thankfully, there are dedicated Utahns working to address gender inequality, such as the many impressive women in education, business and journalism who advocate for improvement. Utah’s legislature boasts incredible women who lead their districts and tussle for power just as well as any of the men do. While the Republicans only have nine women in their 86 member majority, twelve of the eighteen Democrats are diverse women.

There are also symbolic victories. As far away as January 23rd, 2017 feels, female activists orchestrated the largest protest the Utah Capitol has ever seen, cramming nearly 6,000 protesters inside to raise hell on the first day of the legislative session. Less far away, February 14th, 2018 saw a landslide vote to send a statue of accomplished politician Martha Hughes Cannon to represent the state of Utah in Washington, D.C.

I would like to think we are seeing progress. I love this state dearly and believe that it has a legacy of women’s empowerment that is long forgotten. Even while a territory with a complicated relationship with polygamy, Utah was the second state to grant women suffrage–a legacy it ought to try to live up to. Women in Utah push barriers and themselves–they don’t let the uphill climb keep them from living fulfilling lives. Despite itself, Utah has such potential for overcoming this calcified sexism. I hope we continue to chip it away.