‘My only obstacle is my gender’: Women leadership in Iron, Washington counties ranks less than 25%

ST. GEORGE — A report published recently by the Utah State University’s Utah Women & Leadership Project on the percentage of women leaders in the state showed both Washington and Iron counties ranking on the low end with less than 25% of municipal leadership roles filled by women.

This percentage further decreases at the city level. Only 13% of leadership roles in St. George are women and 10.6% in Cedar City, according to the study.

At the state level, the study reports that women hold 42.5% of leadership positions within county governments in Utah.

Susan Madsen, founding director of the project and inaugural Karen Haight Huntsman Endowed Professor of Leadership at Utah State’s Huntsman School of Business, said that number shows a positive representation of the state average, but many county governments are lower.

“While some counties are doing well in making their leadership more representative and inclusive, other counties show a distinct disadvantage for women who want to advance, particularly in nontraditional agencies,”  she said. “Being aware of this provides counties with an opportunity to improve the diversity of their leadership.”

Members of the Daughters of the American Revolution Color Country Chapter receive a proclamation for “Women’s Equality Day” at St. George City Hall, Aug. 20, 2020 | Photo courtesy of Daughters of the American Revolution Color Country Chapter, St. George News

Madsen told St. George News that no other state has done this type of study, “so what that tells us is that this really is a groundbreaking study.”

The reasons why women, in many cases, don’t see themselves as leaders oftentimes have to do with underlying cultural aspects, Madsen said. Whether in business or politics, many organizations are not as open to going outside of what they determine as “the fit.”

“It’s going be a man who’s white,” she said.

One of the ways to break out of this, she added, is through gaining a better understanding of conscious or unconscious biases, especially when it comes to things like recruiting and promoting.

What’s important about these reports is how they highlight areas in need of improvement, “so then when we move forward, we can be more strategic in terms of individuals, but also cities and counties, but also things that we are doing on all levels of government.”

In terms of what benefits women bring to the table, Madsen referred to a 2015 report that looks at these specific factors. In general, she said women tend to consider more ethical components and are more likely to get engaged in community needs.

“Legislatures that have more women tend to give more funding to education, health care and social programs like poverty and homelessness,” she said. “So if you don’t have women in the conversations, you’re just not representing the community.”

Of course, not every woman thinks the same, she added, but gender is a really strong component of identity.

“We’re better as a community when we have both men and women in the conversation.”

L-R: St. George City Council incumbent Jimmie Hughes and challengers Dannielle Larkin and Gregg McArthur during a candidate forum held at Dixie State University, Oct. 2, 2019 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

Dannielle Larkin, a St. George City Council member, told St. George News that she thinks a large factor for having a low percentage of women in leadership roles in St. George has to do with religious influence.

“It’s so interesting in Utah because of the religious element – because there is a predominant religion in Utah that for a very long time has had a lot to say about gender roles,” she said. “Not always in negative ways but more so in ways that have led women away from leadership roles.”

Looking back through the history of St. George, Larkin said you find very few stories of women.

“They’re there. Women were leading. They were just leading in kind of these shadow roles. I think we’re just coming into a new era where it’s more acceptable in a highly religious space for women to be not just leaders, but visible leaders.”

One of the visuals that continually reminds Larkin of the work that still needs to be done is a wall inside the Washington County Administration Building.

“There’s just this wall of every county commissioner we’ve ever had in Washington County, and there’s not a single female,” she said. “We’ve never had one.

Likewise, there is also a wall in the city chambers with photos of all the mayors: all male. She added that many cities throughout Utah have had women in these roles on and off, but for some reason St. George and Washington County remain dominated by men.

Larkin also pointed out that it’s not that a woman should get the position because she’s a woman, but rather that she shouldn’t worry that being a woman will keep her from obtaining a position.

“Sometimes my only obstacle is my gender.”

One of the major obstacles Larkin has had to overcome throughout her career in leadership roles comes down to how she delivers a message. Women are more often judged for their tone and appearance rather than the actual words of the message in order to appeal to the expectations of the audience that surround gender.

“Our tone and delivery has to be soft and ingratiating,” she said. “If a man comes in and delivers a strong message, he’s just a strong leader. But if a woman comes in and delivers a strong message … it’s viewed as grating, like all the sudden her tone is commented on.”

Much of what happens is an effect of social conditioning, she said.

“We as females are conditioned from birth to step back – that’s my belief – we are conditioned to play small, to step back, to defer, to do all those things that are basically creating that space where women always sit in that secondary role. Even if they would be the best leader, they’ll sit in that secondary role.”

Iron County Commission member-elect Marilyn Wood, date and located unspecified | Photo courtesy of the Marilyn Wood for Iron County Commissioner Facebook page, St George News / Cedar City News

Marilyn Wood, who will be sworn in as the second-ever female commissioner for Iron County in January, told St. George News that she never would have thought that she would run for something like county commission.

“My opponent was a woman, so I felt like it was a good matchup that way,” she said, adding that she’s never been in politics before.

Wood has spent her career working in the meat industry, which she said is also a mostly male environment due to the nature of the work.

When it comes to the workplace, Wood said a lot of times women can get things that they want in a different way due to their approach. Rather than having to have it their way, they will find a subtler way to introduce an idea.

By nature, Wood said men and women are very different, which is why having both is beneficial.

“A lot of women came up to me and said ‘I can’t believe you’re doing this,'” she said. “I think a lot of times our self-doubts and insecurities make it hard for some women, but I think you just have to jump in there and go for it.”

While negotiation is something she said has been somewhat lost in the current political climate, this is a skill in which women are the masters, part of the reason she said she doesn’t feel the need to change her persona and be more assertive when working with men. She said she has no interest or talent for pretending to be anyone she’s not.

“It would be so obvious. They would go, ‘What the heck?'” she said. “I’m just a cowgirl.”

About the study

Project researchers obtained their data via phone calls, emails and county websites to document the number and percentage of women in leadership roles in Utah’s 29 counties. The data they obtained can be used as a baseline to help counties see where progress has occurred over time.

April Townsend, lead researcher for the brief, said data was analyzed by individual counties, by county class (or population) and by regions. The most compelling data showed that first-class counties with a population of 700,000 or more (Salt Lake County) and fifth-class counties with a population of 4,000-11,000 (Beaver, Emery, Garfield, Grand, Kane and Morgan) were more likely to have women leaders.

In comparison, women who work in fourth-class counties with a population of 11,000-31,000 (Carbon, Duchesne, Juab, Millard, San Juan, Sanpete, Sevier and Wasatch) are less likely to hold a leadership role.

There appears to be a “leaky leadership pipeline” for women trying to advance within county governments.

“Diverse representation is particularly important in government,” Townsend said. “When women aren’t at the table, it results in public policies and programs that exclude valuable social experiences, talents and perspectives. We often talk about the lack of women leaders in corporations. In that setting, decisions made typically impact stakeholders and employees, but when government leaders make decisions, it impacts entire communities.”

Diversity in government leadership conveys to the community that a range of interests, experiences and priorities are being represented, she said.

“It also allows for more innovative decision making, increased adaptability and more creative problem solving – which is desperately needed during these particularly challenging times,” she said.

Recent national discussions highlight the importance of listening to women’s voices and experiences, particularly women of color. The current lack of equal representation in some county leadership in Utah contrasts starkly with the goal of a diverse government workforce. Acknowledging the relationship between gender and leadership can translate into behavior-changing actions.

“It’s exciting to be able to gather and share this data,” Townsend said. “Ultimately, we count what we value, and in my opinion, this research represents a call for local governments in Utah and throughout all states to consider whose experiences are included – and excluded – when creating public policies that impact our communities.”

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2020, all rights reserved.

Free News Delivery by Email

Would you like to have the day's news stories delivered right to your inbox every evening? Enter your email below to start!