UVU professor’s research answers questions regarding why Utah is ranked last in women running for political office.
“I’m not surprised,” Jacqueline Smith, senior, said. “We’re not exactly on the up and up when it comes to gender equality. It’s just another symptom of the same problem that makes us the state with the least number of women graduating from college.”
Despite Utah’s positive history of being the second state to grant women’s suffrage and the first state in which women voted in a national election, Utah is the last state to catch up on women working as politicians.
According to the 2010 census, women make up 49.7 percent of the population of Utah, but only 16.9 percent of Utah’s legislators are women, and less than one percent of Utah’s national legislators have been women. Utah has not elected a woman to congressional office since 1995 and has never in its history elected a woman to a seat on the senate, making it the only state not to have crossed that threshold.
“Theoretically, if our population is almost half women, women should make up close to half of the political population as well,” Smith said. “It’s not really a accurate representation of the population’s voice otherwise. But that’s how Utah runs for the most part, white males still have the predominate say even if they aren’t the majority.”
Susan R. Madsen, professor of management is conducting research surrounding Utah women in politics. A major part of her work is dedicated to calling women to action. Madsen said that most of the problem stems from the culture surrounding women in Utah.
“Utah women need to shed the traditional role socialization stigma and step up to run for public office,” Madsen said. “But that’s easier said than done when role socialization starts in childhood and can stay with us our entire lives.”
This social role Madsen speaks about is understood as the stay-at-home mom who believes that in order to prove her commitment to her family she must not only prioritize family first, but also let all other priorities fall to the wayside.
“I was raised to believe that the most influential role a woman can have is to be a mother,” Jenna Flores, sophomore, said. “I think that’s true, and I like that, but there is this weird side effect of that teaching that says that if you aren’t proving to everyone else that your family is your priority then no one will think you’re a good mother. And if no one thinks you’re a good mom then you must not be one, which is dumb.”
Studies have shown that the call to political duty rings louder for men than women, but it also shows that a significant portion women feel a strong sense of civic duty.
“Maybe guys care more to run for office, but it’s probably because it’s always been men that do,” Flores said. “I mean I can only think of seeing maybe three women in politics and none of them are from Utah, so they’re not in my culture.”
The issue proves to be a lack of support in the pursuit leading to the belief that they, as women, are not as qualified for the political world as their male counterparts.
“Women will step forward more often if they believe they can help the community and truly make a difference in people’s lives,” Madsen said. “If women don’t see the potential to do that in a leadership role or political office, they won’t bother running.”
Though women are facing more societal roadblocks than men when it comes to obtaining a political profession, Madsen’s research shows that the issue could be solved with a simple action: encouragement.
“When a girl is told that one option is the very best option for making an impact on the world, as it is in the predominate culture in Utah, that girl sees only one worthy option,” Deborah Staples, women’s rights activist from Salt Lake City, said. “Some may even wish for something different but will feel guilty for that wish, so they will ignore it.”
Madsen’s research found that when women are prompted to run for office that they are significantly more likely to do so.
“Being encouraged that you can make a difference is what it is all about,” Madsen said. “And it is a tremendous tool for recruiting more women to run.”
Critics of the research question the need for constant encouragement. One UVU student said that he didn’t think that if someone needed the constant emotional and moral support to even begin a run for office, that they would be suitable for office.
“If you’re so scared about running, I doubt that you’re going to be able to handle the intensity of the position,” Garrett Paul, junior, said. “Politics is a rough world and if you’re too intimidated to throw your hat in the ring, then you’re not going to be able to handle the blows once you’re in there.”
The real problem Madsen’s research is showing is not so much that women are inherently more intimidated than men to run, but that they are given less a foundation to consider running to begin with.
“The thing most people don’t understand is that women aren’t inherently trembling waifs,” Smith said, “but that generally speaking haven’t been given the strong foundation men have from an early age. Boys are expected to be the tough, confident leaders. Girls don’t get that. Girls are taught that their place is in the humanities and the arts. We still have the homemaker undertones in educating girls here in Utah. So, what else is a girl to do?”
Madsen said that the gender gap in Utah politics could be shifted if we educated both our boys and girls to not only respect public office, but to take an active interest in their own community’s governance and development.
“First and foremost, teach your daughters and sons to become involved in their communities,” Madsen said. “Teach them that it is a civic responsibility to serve in the community in various ways and that running for public office is one of the ways to demonstrate civic responsibility.”