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Why does Utah have so few female legislators?

October 9, 2016 at 2:49 PM EDT
Nationally, about a quarter of all state legislators are women. But Utah’s numbers are some of the lowest in the country, with six female senators in its 29-member Senate and 10 female representatives in its 75-member house. The NewsHour Weekend's Christopher Booker reports on the reasons for that imbalance.

By Christopher Booker and Connie Kargo

SOPHIA DICARO: Okay, alright sister.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: For Sophia DiCaro, political campaigns are a family affair.

SOPHIA DICARO: Well I can’t thank you enough for your support.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: Throughout the fall, DiCaro, her husband Robert and their three kids caravan through Utah’s state House District 31.

ROBERT GOODICK: Thank you so much we appreciate it.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: For DiCaro, who previously worked for four governors, the family’s full-court press is designed to hold the seat she won two years ago.

SOPHIA DICARO: You know, these campaign politics world. It’s one of those things that you can’t really describe unless you experience it for yourself.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: As a Republican in Utah, DiCaro is part of the state’s majority in the House of Representatives, but as a women in Utah politics, she’s a rarity.

Nationally, about a-quarter of all state legislators are women. With 6 senators in its 29 member senate and just 10 representatives in its 75 member house, Utah has one of the lowest percentages of female legislators in the country.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: Yet this low percentage lags behind what’s happening in the workforce — 60 percent of Utah’s women are participating in the labor market.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: Why do you think so few women are involved in state legislature here in Utah?

SOPHIA DICARO: I think there’s a number of factors that play into that question. We have a part-time legislature. It is full time intensity for a 45-day period. So your family situation has to be such that you’re able to accommodate that kind of schedule. You have to have the availability of time and you have to have the financial ability to make it work, you’re not paid very much as a legislator.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: DiCaro says her ability to make the arrangement work for the family is largely due to the support she receives from her husband.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: Do you ever find yourself– contemplating the gender questions that surround campaigns? Does that come into your world at all?

SOPHIA DICARO: You know, initially when I ran for office, you know, that did come up in our caucus meetings ‘Are you going to be able to manage your family?

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: Do you think if you were a man they would have asked you those questions?


CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: You can’t discuss women in Utah politics without addressing the role of the state’s dominant religion — the Mormon Church.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: The majority of the population identifies as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. At the same time, Utah has one of the lowest percentages of women in state legislature. Is it fair to ask if there’s a correlation between the two?

ALLY ISOM: I think it’s a fair question to ask how the culture impacts the greater community.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: Ally Isom is the church’s director of family and community relations.

ALLY ISOM: We’re having the conversations within the church, as an employer, but we’re also having the conversation within the church as a faith-based group.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: Although the Mormon Church currently does not allow women to become priests, she believes the state would benefit with more women in politics.

ALLY ISOM: We’re looking at, what are the cultural barriers that might inhibit women from stepping up? And do they need a little encouragement? Do they need to know that they make a difference? We need women to recognize the value they add to public policy conversations. The questions they ask are so important. And to understand they make an– a meaningful difference when they step up and engage. But cultural change sometimes takes some time.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: With permission from the church, Isom sits on the executive committee of Utah’s Women’s Leadership Institute — a coalition formed by the Salt Lake City business community working to train Utah women for senior leadership positions both in business and politics.

PATRICIA JONES: There will be people when you run for office that will ask you how you feel about certain things.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: Today is the first day of their political development series – designed to train women of any party affiliation how to run for office. The six month program is led by the institute’s CEO, Patricia Jones.

PATRICIA JONES: Women make up more than half of the population, and yet we have such a small percentage of women who are making policy decisions. You know, I think it was Oprah Winfrey once said that politics is social work with power.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: First elected in the year 2000, Jones spent 14 years as a democratic state representative and state senator.

PATRICIA JONES: The first race that I had, I didn’t know what I was doing. You know, I knew that I had to walk door to door, because I was a Democrat. I ran as a democrat in a republican area

PATRICIA JONES: Understanding how the system works is really important to you, personally.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: Jones spent much of her time in office fighting for increased funding for public education. She says while she was warmly received by her male colleagues, collaboration was often easier with women.

PATRICIA JONES: I saw that personally. You saw women, you know, working together on both sides of the aisle when I was in the legislature.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: Utah, like many states, does not require companies to provide paid family medical leave for the arrival of a new baby or to care for a sick relative. Utah workers workers benefit only from the federal law which allows for 12 weeks of unpaid leave from their jobs.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: What’s the causation or correlation between the lack of women within state legislature and a lack of family policies within the state of Utah? Is there a correlation between the two?

PATRICIA JONES: Yes, absolutely, there has to be. I mean, I could give you countless stories about my own personal experience. You’re often either the only woman, or one of very few women in a committee, and that is really where the work goes on is in the committee, is where you discuss issue, and you discuss bills, and you figure out public policy. And these are committees that are discussing issues that are of primary importance to women.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: Advancing women’s issues thro ugh the legislature is a goal of the the Utah’s women’s coalition run by Stephanie Pitcher.

STEPHANIE PITCHER: If we don’t have women up there speaking and lending that perspective to the issue, then we’re not going to have a policy that is representative and comprehensive to the entirety of Utah’s population.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: Last year, Pitcher worked with a republican senator to pass a bill requiring employers to provide reasonable accommodations for pregnancy and breastfeeding in the workplace. This year, she’s working with democratic state representative Angela Romero to resurrect a bill granting six weeks of paid parental leave for state and university employees.

ANGELA ROMERO: I think states like Utah want to show that they’re fiscally conservative, but I flip that and say, ‘well, if we really invest in our employees, and we provide them with these incentives, then they’re gonna be happy in their jobs.’ They’re gonna have happier families, and we’re gonna have a healthier economy, long-term.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: Two prior attempts to pass a paid family leave bill in Utah have failed. Today in this interim session, the bill is once again under economic scrutiny.

UTAH STATE SENATOR JERRY STEVENSON: Has anyone taken a look at that and the cost of that versus a first benefit?

UTAH REP. JOHN WESTWOOD: That’s my concern as well, that we look at the fiscal side of this very carefully

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: Despite those questions, there was one receptive republican — representative sophia DiCaro.

SOPHIA DICARO: I’m a little bit more interested in the mechanics, because I would like to see something like this work and would hate for it to get hung up due to mechanics. Maybe I can help take a look.

SOPHIA DICARO: And it’s not about necessarily accommodating the woman, it’s about accommodating the family. Because the husband’s impacted just as much. It’s a family affair so if we have a welcoming environment for family, I think that would only help this state.

PATRICIA JONES: Women tend to migrate towards certain issues, whether it’s public ed or health, it’s issues where you know, child care, you know, family leave, and that sort of thing. Because those are the lives that they’ve lived. But to have the power to actually make change is really what’s important – that women understand the power that you can have. And there’s nothing wrong with the word power.

PATRICIA JONES: Suzanne’s running for, you are running for the house aren’t you?”

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: Suzanne Harrison is one of 40 women in Jones’ political development series this year.

SUZANNE HARRISON: Thank you all for coming!

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: An anesthesiologist and member of the Mormon Church, the first time candidate is running as a democrat for state house district 32, just outside Salt Lake City.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: So you are running for office for the first time. Why?

SUZANNE HARRISON: Mostly ’cause I’m a mom. And this is a priority for our family. We have some of the largest class sizes in the whole country and we have the lowest in per pupil spending in the whole country and I feel like that’s wrong. That’s not where my values are. That’s not my priority as a mom and as a doctor. I value public education and I want that to be a priority in this state.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: This november women are competing for 35 seats in the Utah house and senate. If, in the unlikely event they win all 35, this would more than double the percentage of women in state government…..But women would still only occupy a third of the Utah state legislature.

SUZANNE HARRISON: I’m an anesthesiologist. I’m a physician. My first priorities are to families and to my patients. And we could use some more of those kind of viewpoints in the legislature. There’s a lotta people in real estate. A lotta people that are developers. There are not very many physicians, and there’s not a lotta moms. And those perspectives really matter.