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Women are still underrepresented in Utah politics, research finds

Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson shakes hands with someone in a room full of people. She's smiling.
Office of the Lieutenant Governor
Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson shakes hands at the Women Making History event hosted by Better Days at the Capitol.

A new research brief on women in Utah politics reveals that while women's representation has improved in some areas, there is still a long way to go.

The Utah Women and Leadership Project has been following the status of women in Utah politics since 2014. In their newest updated research brief, they looked at data on representation at all levels of government, including state legislature, county commissions and councils, mayors and boards of education.

In almost every category, women were significantly less represented than men.

Women’s representation in politics

The lowest overall category was the U.S. Congress, where women currently are 16.7% percent of Utah’s members. Only five Utah women have served in Congress since its statehood in 1896, all in the U.S. House of Representatives — there has never been a Utah woman elected to serve in the U.S. Senate.

Utah’s only female Utah governor, Olene Walker, also was not elected, but rather appointed to finish the previous governor’s term when he left early. Walker is one of two lieutenant governors in Utah’s history, the other being current Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson, who was elected in 2020.

In other political bodies, women represent:

  • 26.9% of the Utah State Legislature 
  • 21.4% of county commissions and councils 
  • 22.1% of mayors 
  • 30.8% of city councils, with 47 of 255 city councils composed entirely of men

Nearly every area and level of government also fell below the national average in terms of representation.

The research brief did note a few areas where women had about equal representation to men. Boards of education statewide had 54.4% representation, the only area that aligned with the national average, and the Utah State Board of Education was compromised of 66.7% women.

In county commissions, 59% of county clerk and auditor seats and 62% of county treasurer seats were also held by women.

There has also been some growth from previous years, chiefly in the Utah State Legislature, which has seen a steady increase of women elected since 2015.

Factors in representation

A number of complicated factors go into women’s representation in politics, from local culture to systemic sexism to a “pipeline of leadership.”

“When you don't see that representation in current leadership, it's less likely than that the younger generation sees themselves in those roles, because there are not role models for them to follow after,” said Kolene Anderson, associate director with the UWLP and lead author on the research brief.

“When you know that you are going to be one of just a few women in a primarily male organization or group, that can be daunting and uncomfortable,” Anderson said.

She said women are also treated differently when they run for office. In a recent survey on political and civic engagement by the UWLP, 16% of respondents agreed on some level that a woman serving in a political role would negatively impact her family, and 17.2% were neutral.

“And then we know that there is research that highlights the way that women are treated when running for office,” Anderson said. “They deal a lot more with comments on their appearance, harassment, things like that.”

Looking forward

Despite some growth, there’s still a lot more work to be done — work that Anderson said is not just about how many women get elected.

"The numbers are just a way for us to get to the outcomes,” Anderson said. “We're not asking for token females; we are genuinely asking for the outcomes that will be a result of having more women in these leadership positions.”

She said those outcomes include elevating conversations that affect women and incorporating women’s unique leadership styles and abilities.

But how to reach those ideal outcomes? For women looking to run for office, Anderson suggested running together.

“If you know that you won't be the only female in the room because you've got a friend who could potentially be in the organization too, that can be a helpful thing,” Anderson said.

For Utahns in general, Anderson said they can examine their individual biases about women in politics, encourage girls’ and women’s aspirations in these fields and stay active in Utah’s political process.

“2024 is an election year, and it's a real opportunity for Utahns to not only get out there and vote, but to ... really make sure that Utah is a place where women girls and our families have the opportunity to thrive,” Anderson said.

Duck is a general reporter and weekend announcer at UPR, and is studying broadcast journalism and disability studies at USU. They grew up in northern Colorado before moving to Logan in 2018, so the Rocky Mountain life is all they know. Free time is generally spent with their dog, Monty, listening to podcasts, reading or wishing they could be outside more.