By Lindsey Bakes Harper
As a state, Utah ranks highly in multiple categories. In fact, the World Population Review deemed it the second-happiest state in America, just below Hawaii.
With Utah’s high volunteer rate, safety ranking and low divorce rate, it seems to be a pretty great place to live. But for the past five years in a row, it has ranked dead last out of all 50 states in one major category: women’s equality.
WalletHub released its yearly report on women’s equality across the United States last month, looking at determining factors such as workplace environment, education/health and political empowerment. Utah came up short in each category besides political representation.
Utah State University professor Susan Madsen of the Utah Women and Leadership Project released a paper addressing the issue last year, outlining statistics that contributed to Utah’s low ranking, including income gap numbers and gaps in executive positions between men and women.
Despite Utah’s reported lack of equality for women, BYU’s faculty and student body work hard to make campus a place of equal opportunity and empowerment for female students as well as women around the world.
Classes to take for female empowerment
One way BYU works to uplift its female students is through the classes it offers. HLTH 450: Women’s Health Issues is just one example of BYU’s many women-centered classes.
Professor Stephanie Lutz has taught the class for the past 15 years. While the official class description says that HLTH 450 teaches “an overview of selected health topics affecting women’s health status,” Lutz said students learn so much more than that.
“In my class, while we cover the lifespan of the woman, we also discuss body image, self-esteem, nutrition, social media’s portrayal of women, women being marketed to sell products, eating disorders and more.” Lutz said. “I also try to infuse more of the social context of what’s going on in that, looking at marginalized groups such as LGBTQ+, BIPOC, disabled women, etc.”
As a teacher and mother of five, Lutz said it’s crucial to be discussing some of the things that contribute to less women in the workplace, such as a lack of paid maternity leave and proper healthcare.
“I never got maternity leave,” Lutz said. “I worked right until I gave birth, and after giving birth, I brought my kids to work with me.”
According to a 2019 study from Pew Research Center, America is the only nation among a list of 41 developed countries that does not mandate paid time off for new parents. Studies from the European Institute for Gender Equality have found government-required parental leave has a significant positive impact for working moms, increasing women’s participation in the workforce and reducing gender pay gaps.
Liz McGuire, who teaches POLI 472: International Political Economy of Women, works to inspire more discussion of women’s role in the workforce by comparing American economies with those in other parts of the world.
McGuire, who earned her doctorate in political science from Yale University last year, found teaching POLI 472 at BYU to be very different from her experience working as a TA in a similar class at Yale.
“The students here that have grown up in the Church and experienced Church culture have a vastly different perspective,” McGuire said. “People have told them how to be a woman and that there’s one way to be a woman.”
McGuire explained some of the unique struggles women in her class face.
“We have female students who come in whose parents don’t want them to go to law school or don’t want them to get a degree, and I think this class helps them understand their true potential,” McGuire said. “They don’t have to be just moms.”
As members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, we believe in the “Family: A Proclamation to the World,” which states that “mothers are primarily responsible for the nurture of their children.” While McGuire commends the Proclamation, she hopes to broaden young girls’ perspectives on their futures and show them that society needs female politicians, business owners and executives just as much as it needs full-time mothers.
“Women are a huge asset and if we narrow their focus to cooking and cleaning, we do a disservice to their divine feminine,” McGuire said. “I don’t think our Heavenly Mother is a stay-at-home mom.”
Other women-focused classes BYU offers include GWS 222: Introduction to Global Women’s Studies, GWS 330: Women in the Scriptures, GWS 370: Women in Science, and STDEV 117: Career Exploration sections 14 and 15, which solely focus on women’s career issues.
In addition to offering women-focused classes, BYU helps students through its Women’s Services and Resources Center, which provides a variety of resources to uplift and strengthen female students and staff. The WSR office resources include everything from sexual assault survivor advocacy to nutrition consultations, from maps of mother’s rooms to changing stations on campus.
Jackie Nuñez, WSR assistant director and sexual assault survivor advocate, added The Body Project to the WSR’s list of services in 2021. This peer-led workshop series gives women tools to combat negative body image through behavioral and mental exercises.
“We want girls to be able to embrace all of the wonderful non-appearance-related aspects of themselves and others,” Nuñez said.
BYU’s Women’s Services and Resources Center also works to empower and protect female students by serving as a confidential reporting area for cases of sexual harassment or abuse. This service is especially important at Utah colleges, as research from BYU professors found the state to be above the national average for rapes per capita.
BYU College of Nursing dean Julie Valentine and BYU associate professor Leslie Miles’ 11-year research on sexual assault among Utah women was published by the Utah Women and Leadership Project in August 2022. This research shows that Utah is ranked ninth in the United States for the amount of rapes per capita. The national average stands at 42.6 rapes per 100,000 people, while Utah’s stands at 55.5 rapes per 100,000 people.
Utah State University professor Susan Madsen of the Utah Women and Leadership Project said there’s work that needs to happen in order to reduce the number of sexual assaults.
“Our mission is to strengthen the impact of Utah girls,” Madsen told the Daily Universe in August. “It’s just wrong on every level, and being silent and not taking this on as one of our most serious problems in the state is not acceptable anymore.”
Despite the numerous resources BYU’s WRS provides, BYU nursing student Abigail Walker feels not enough students are taking advantage of them.
“The Women’s Services and Resource Center is amazing, and I see their flyers and social media posts, but I just don’t think many women are actually getting the help they need,” Walker said. “I wish every girl on campus utilized all it has to offer.”
BYU professors work to empower women both locally and internationally. Recently retired BYU nursing professor Sheri Palmer has worked with the nonprofit organization Days For Girls since 2018, taking groups of BYU nursing students to Paraguay to help teach young girls about first aid, menstrual health and sexual education.
Palmer leads the 10-day trips alongside BYU professors Sondra Heaston and Shelly Reed, following up on a qualitative research study on preventing teen pregnancies that was conducted during the first trip in 2018.
“We asked them why they thought teenage pregnancies were happening and what to do to prevent them, and one of the main reasons was lack of education,” Shelly said.
Reed added, “That’s why we focused on the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization and had the students develop and teach various health and sex education modules.”
Heaston believes increased education can help empower women and allow them to make better choices in their relationships, lives and future careers.
“If we can educate them just a little bit, maybe it will help break a cycle and help them become what they truly want to become,” Heaston said.
Walker attended the most recent trip to Paraguay in August 2022. Walker felt a personal connection to teaching sexual education to the girls in Latin America after growing up in Mexico, El Salvado and Puerto Rico and serving a mission in Guatemala. Walker saw firsthand what life looked like for young women in these countries. She recounted stories of classmates as young as 18 already having three children or dropping out of school to take care of their children.
“Knowledge about contraceptives could change their lives for the next 60 years,” Walker said. “It could allow them to graduate high school, pursue careers and live their life rather than be held back by one mistake they made.”
Walker said attending the Paraguay trip only reaffirmed her strong belief in women equality and empowerment.
“You have the power to choose, you are your own self, you have worth and you get to determine what you make of your life, no one else,” Walker said.
BYU student Miriam Hyde also got the chance to head overseas to help young women in Zambia this past June as a part of the nonprofit organization Mothers Without Borders.
After Hyde came home from her mission in 2021, she had an intense desire to help strengthen women and educate them on various topics. Hyde was hired earlier this year by Mothers Without Borders as their fundraising advisor and participated in their annual two-week trip to Zambia.
In Zambia, Hyde worked with local organizations to help provide food, water, education, first aid and — most importantly — love to the people, focusing their efforts on young women.
Hyde said the trip has opened up more discussions about female empowerment with her roommates, classmates and family members.
“I just want all women to know they’re capable of achieving their dreams, whether it be to travel the world or pursue a successful career or to get a Ph.D. or being a stay-at-home mom,” Hyde said. “We have a lot of different perspectives and ideas to share and I think we’re doing the world a disservice if we hide those things thinking it’s more convenient for other people.”
Work remains to be done in Utah to increase women’s equality regarding wage gaps, executive position gaps and other issues. Professor Stephanie Lutz believes for the world to improve, women need to be given equal opportunity to truly achieve their full potential.
“If you want to lift societies and communities, lift women,” Lutz said.