Utah businesses adapt to women leadership

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The number of women holding CEO, president or top manager positions in Utah has dropped since 2014, according to research released in May by The Utah Women and Leadership Project. (Danny Burnham)

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SALT LAKE CITY — Already behind the national average, Utah’s number of women holding business leadership positions slips five percentage points in a new 2018 study. Despite the discouraging loss, experts say headway is being made. Promising changes are happening within companies to transform a traditionally masculine work culture into something more inclusive.

The Utah Women and Leadership Project published a four-year update on a research brief titled “The Status of Women Leaders in Utah Business: A 2018 Update.”

Susan Madsen, one of the report’s co-authors, said she initiated the research after receiving years’ worth of requests. The big question? How does Utah’s percentage of women holding business leadership positions stack up against the rest of the nation?

The research brief answers this information and more, but as the human beings behind the research show, hard statistics are only a small piece of the picture.

Madsen is an expert in researching the lifetime development of women leaders. In addition to her time with the Utah Women and Leadership Project, Madsen is a UVU professor and is involved in numerous organizations that lift women.

“I academically know how to lead change. I’ve studied it, its part of my doctorate work,” Madsen said. “One of the things you do when you lead change is create urgency. Very strategically I keep doing that. That’s what the research does.”

The research brief shows Utah women holding 32 percent of the management jobs. The national average as of 2016 is 40.2 percent.

In Utah specifically, Madsen said the most discouraging thing is the loss of footing in terms to where that state was. Women hold only 6.4 percent of the top leadership positions (CEO, president, top manager) within Utah businesses, which means the number dropped five percent since 2014.

“Most of the women’s groups in the state of Utah — there’s been significant work, especially in the business environment in terms of workshops and training and awareness,” Madsen said, voicing her disappointment that headway was still lost.

Although the research proves exclusivity in the workplace, having diversity in the workplace really does benefit the organization as a whole, she said.

Diversity within an organization is important, research from all over the nation makes it absolutely clear, Madsen emphasized. There are thousands of studies that show when there are women and men in positions of influence, the company does better financially, the workplace climate is more positive and creativity and innovation increase exponentially.

Utah culture is a bit different from the rest of the nation, which Madsen said is why the state is a bit behind the national average. Even when women do go into the work force, there is less of a social norm for them to get into leadership positions.

“You see the women behind in every country, there are discrepancies, but in Utah oftentimes whether it is the wage gap, whether it is women getting their bachelor degrees, whether its women in management, we are always even more behind,” she said.

Madsen thinks many companies’ refusal to acknowledge the issue is a big reason women hold fewer leadership positions in Utah. The best practices might exist, but many organizations are resisting. Women’s male coworkers need to understand issues like the wage gap, diversity and how to make a masculine work culture more inclusive, otherwise nothing will change.

Perhaps the best way to understand Utah’s scarce number of women holding business leadership positions is to talk directly to the six percent in charge of companies of their own.

Like Madsen, Rona Rahlf, president of the Utah Valley Chamber of Commerce, has her fingers in a lot of areas to support women.

Rahlf said she thinks there hasn’t been a priority to engage and meet the women at their needs, which is where some of the discrepancies come from. Balancing a traditional job with having a family — something that is especially valued in Utah culture — isn’t easy in the current workplace culture.

“It’s been awkward, it’s been inconvenient and it’s been difficult because of the inflexibility that traditional businesses haven’t provided. I think that has slowed down that growth,” Rahlf said.

Women have countered this by starting their own businesses so they never have to worry about working around a boss, according to Rahlf.

Vanessa Quigley, co-founder of Chatbooks, entered the business world rather unconventionally. At BYU she studied vocal performance and opera, not marketing and numbers.

Her husband, Nate, and an all-male team were working to create a cloud-based memory book without an element of printing. The group was running on the notion that print is dead, but Quigley said she remembers wanting a book because she understood the power of holding on to something.

The family moved to Utah, but the idea still wasn’t picking up traction.

She described getting involved with the company out of frustration and necessity. The push came when she walked into her youngest son’s bedroom and discovering him crying cradling an old photo book. Quigley said she felt like she was failing one of her most important jobs as a mom: helping her son hold on to old memories.

But scrapbooking is expensive, time consuming and not practical for most people.

“I had this flash of inspiration that if I could just print my instagram that would be better than nothing,” Quigley said.

Her husband and his software developing team redirected themselves. Two weeks later they had a prototype. Things took off for the company after that.

About her positions on the executive team, the product team and the marketing team, Quigley said, “I stepped into that role with absolutely no business experience and never before having a desire to work in business, but I felt really strongly about the product we were selling, and I knew it needed to come from my voice. There weren’t any more women on the team at the time.”

Quigley said she thinks one of the keys to the success Chatbooks enjoys today is from the beginning the company was very deliberate in sculpting its culture — something she was able to do because of her gender.

“I thought ahead, like we are going to need to be deliberate about our culture. If we hire people I want it to be clear who we are, what we stand for and how we behave,” Quigley said. “That’s something else that I’ve been able to contribute here without any formal business background — it came from my experiences as a mother and as a woman.”

Part of creating the company culture meant making it flexible for all types of employees.

Quigley said companies should be more creative with hiring and employing women outside of traditional full-time office opportunities. Women who have children and stay at home, whether by choice or by necessity, are no less educated, motivated and skilled than anyone employed full time.

There’s no right or wrong way to have a career, Quigley said. It’s OK for moms to pay attention to other parts of their personality. Moms should have goals and dreams too.

To make this a reality, Chatbooks employs 80 people who work part time from home. The company also offers three months of paid maternity to both men and women.

Today, 70 percent of Chatbooks leadership positions are held by women.

Sara Jones, COO of the Women Tech Council, said women leave Utah because they work up the company ladder and are ready for the next position, but are rarely given the opportunity.

Looking at the 95 percent of male CEOs in Utah, Jones said the reality is that they don’t know many female executives. When CEOs don’t have relationships with a diverse network it is “highly unlikely” they will hire someone outside of their circle.

Competent women leave Utah because they don’t have access to those networks.

“It’s always unfortunate when a study comes out and has bad news around five percent of women CEOs, you know we want to focus on the problem, but Women Tech Council really wants to focus on the solution,” Jones said.

One of those solutions, according to Jones, is taking the men in positions of power and networking them with women at the director level and above. Through this process, relationships are formed that never would have happened otherwise.

The Women Tech Council also promotes women into leadership positions by insuring the CEOs in the state know who the great female talent is.

Throughout the years, over 180 different women have been recognized for awards by the Women Tech Awards Program. Fifty percent of the individuals who attend the awards are men, many of which hold those positions of power. According to Jones, many of the women who receive the award are given opportunities soon after they are announced as finalists.

Despite some of the discouraging findings in the research brief, Jones said many Utah companies are doing their best to be more welcoming for women, offer equal pay and are implementing programs to support diversity within their organization.

Jones said she thinks about it this way: tech companies especially, are trying to solve problems that have never been solved before. Smart CEOs should want to have lots of ideas on the table to work with.

“When you have a homogenous group you tend to fall into groupthink; they tend to fall into approving whatever the CEO says, and I think smart leaders don’t actually want that. They want people who will speak up,” Jones said.

She empathized the point that teams with diversity outperform other companies in revenue, profitability and operations.

The research exists and strides within Utah organizations are being made.

Perhaps next time The Utah Women and Leadership Project releases a research brief, the number of women holding leadership positions in Utah will be topping the nation, not falling short.

Jones, Rahlf, Madsen and Quigley all hope so.

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