Tiffany Frandsen | News Editor | @tiffany_mf
Utah House of Representatives Speaker Becky Lockhart (R-Provo) and Minority Leader Jennifer Seelig (D-Salt Lake) discussed the newly created Women in the Economy Commission at a seminar at Utah Valley University on October 21. UVU’s Utah Women & Leadership Project, Center for the Study of Ethics, Woodbury School of Business and Women’s Success Center organized the event in the Sorenson Student Center.
Lockhart and Seelig co-chair the 11-member commission created by HB90 earlier this year. The mission is to highlight the impact of women on Utah’s economy and figure out how inequities are cased. Seelig proposed the bill that created the commission after a study by the National Women’s Law Center found that Utah women are twice as likely to work low-wage jobs.
According to the study, 44.4% of Utah’s workforce is female, but 65% of low-wage jobs are held by women. Women are paid 70 cents for every dollar that men earn in Utah, according to the American Community Survey data from 2013 (data is for full-time, year-round workers over the age 16). The median earnings for a man in Utah is $50,458 and for a woman is $35,447.
Some members of the legislature were unreceptive to the bill; they didn’t want to acknowledge that the problem exists in Utah.
“Talking about wage gap, talking about potential discrimination, was met with vitriol,” said Seelig.
The commission has theorized that the culture of women being taught not to be assertive is one of the factors that influences the pay gap. It discourages women to negotiate for higher raises or pay themselves more when they’re in charge.
Women leave the workforce to have kids, and then come back to the workforce at a competitive disadvantage. Even with a degree, women are coming back to the workforce at lower-paying jobs. When asked what they feel they deserve, women ask for 80% pay of what men ask for.
A member of the audience and president of the Women’s State Legislative Council of Utah , Kari L. Malkovich, cited the high rate of volunteerism in Utah as a potential element.
“ Do we think that that has an impact on women in the workplace in regards to the wage discrepancy because we’re so used to volunteering for everything that we do that in our jobs?” said Malkovich.
Utah has been ranked the top state for volunteerism by the Corporation for National and Community Service.
Lockhart suggested that licenses should be easier to renew for women that volunteer at schools while they aren’t working.
The commission is exploring all factors, from culture to public policy. As a legislator, Seelig looked at what laws are doing a disservice to working women.
“The focus of the commission, for me as a policy maker, is most interesting and that I find the most important is what are the policies and procedures, what are the administrative rules, what are the laws, what are the statues that the state has in place that make it more difficult for women in the workforce?” said Seelig.
She brought up Medicaid as an example – under the previous law, if $1 over $5,000 was earned, all benefits were cut off. Now, only the amount earned over the $5,000 base is taxed. Child subsidies are also important for encouraging women.
Lockhart said options aren’t be successfully translated to young girls, which leads to many students taking on student debt without knowing what they are getting the degree for.
“College isn’t for everybody, it’s just not,” said Lockhart. “Some kids have no interest in what a university offer… but we’ve created this expectation that you can’t be successful unless you have a college degree.”
Anne Wairepo, senior director of the Women’s Success Center at UVU, respectfully disagreed, with murmured agreement from multiple women in the audience.
Lockhart clarified; women should know that they have all of the options and then choose for themselves.
Candice Backus, a senior in political science, said that young girls need examples of women in leadership roles so they can envision their own potential easier.
Jennifer Jackenthal, president of the Park City School District Center for Advanced Professional Studies, and said that boys are willing to take more risks than young girls, and she sees an imbalance in gender in her program.
“Much of it is inherent, in how we’re socialized, but also in the hormonal DNA structure of women versus men,” said Jackenthal.
The commission has a $55,000 budget and has met twice since the law went live in July.
“We can have the framework, but if we don’t have the personalities, such as ourselves, in there driving this, then the framework can be empty and go stagnant,” said Seelig.
Tiffany is the Deputy Managing Editor for Spring 2015. Follow her on twitter @tiffany_mf