SALT LAKE CITY — When it comes to women in U.S. politics, men hold far more elected offices than women. In Utah, the gender gap is a bit wider. But in this last election, a shift started to happen with more and more female mayors taking office — many of them the first elected female mayor in their city’s history.
“When women do run, they tend to win,” said Pat Jones, former state legislator and CEO of the Women’s Leadership Institute. She says about 17 percent of Utah cities have a female mayor.
When asked why it’s so important to have more equal representation, Jones replied, “When I was in the research business, we studied all kinds of issues over the years and we found a huge gender gap on issues like education and education funding, for instance, healthcare, gun issues, environmental issues — you can just go down the line and you’d see anywhere from 5 percent to 25 percent difference.”
West Valley City swore in its first-ever female mayor earlier this month. Mayor Karen Lang says she’s never seen gender roles as a barrier in any of her previous positions, and that’s still not the case for her.
“I’ve been fortunate. I have not had any stopping points due to gender," she said.
Lang worked in a lumber yard and then built her own company before getting involved in politics.
While the numbers overall are still low for female versus male mayors in the state, six of the state’s 10 largest cities are run by women. That includes Salt Lake City, West Valley, Provo, Sandy, St. George and South Jordan.
1 Salt Lake City
2 West Valley
3 West Jordan
7 St. George
9 South Jordan
Mayor Michelle Kaufusi in Provo is now in her second term in office, and she is the city’s first elected female mayor.
“I went over and found the ‘wall of mayors,’ and there were 44 wonderful, strong male mayors on that wall and not a single woman," Kaufusi said. "So I thought, 'I’m going to work really hard for one year and still maintain my other elected position and just see if I can break this glass ceiling,' because I want my daughters and everyone’s daughters to know that this is not just a boy’s club.”
When asked why she thinks more women don’t run for office, she said she believes a lot of women just get comfortable playing a supporting role, and to step out of that is uncomfortable.
Two-term Mayor Holly Daines from Logan says more good people — both women and men — are needed in local politics.
“Way back when I ran for council, there were 13 candidates. And these were good, qualified people who were running for two seats. Our last election, there were three candidates that ran for two seats. And fortunately, we had good people, but I think the number of people across the board who want to get involved in politics is shrinking these days," Daines said.
Brand new Mayor Mollie Halterman serves in the southern Utah town of Parowan and is that city’s first female in the role.
“It’s an overcoming of sorts. I think the reason it’s not ‘more equal’ is an obstacle that doesn’t exist, and I think for other women that’s an obstacle you don’t need to think about. Just think about where you fit in, what you really want to do," Halterman said.
Utah has had a female governor in Olene Walker, but she was never elected. She ascended to that position when Governor Mike Leavitt accepted a federal position. Her bid for a second term failed.
Voters in the state have elected four women to Congress in the past. However, the current delegation has no women, and there has never been a female senator from Utah.
“Women look at things differently than men do,” Gunnison Mayor Lori Nay said. “I think it’s important people serve for the right reasons, and that can be really fulfilling when you do.”
Nay is in her third term as mayor of the small central Utah town, after serving in the city council for two terms before that. She says even in rural Utah, women can still win elections.
“I think it’s a perceived barrier. Once you get into that arena, you find it’s a perfect venue for you to do the things that you care about in your community. It gives you a chance to do things to make a difference in other people’s lives, and what a wonderful feeling that is when you can make a difference," she said.
The mayors from all across the state come with varied backgrounds, some with previous political experience before taking the role as mayor and some without any.
“You don’t have to have a certain set of qualifications to run for office," Mayor Daines said. "I mean, I’d run a household, that’s probably similar to running a small business, but I hadn’t run a particular business, I hadn’t been involved in politics before council, but I had been involved in my community.”
Mayor Kaufusi encouraged other women to try it.
“If I can do it, you can do it. There’s nothing too special about me. I’m a hard worker and that’s probably my positive talent I’ve got, so if I can get in and do this, you can, too," she said.
Mayor Halterman added: “I do visualize us all, many of us as racehorses that have been stuck in the starting gate, and now that gate’s open and we’re just ready to go.”