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Sandy Journal

Women are driving economic opportunity in Utah

Apr 08, 2024 10:40AM ● By Robert Spendlove

A higher percentage of Utahns are directly contributing to the growth and prosperity of our state than residents anywhere else in the nation. True to its motto of "industry," the Beehive State ranks first in labor force participation, with 69.3% of the working-age population employed or actively looking for a job, according to the most recent data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

This figure reflects a multitude of factors, including Utah's young population, its ethos of hard work, and its success in pulling people back to the labor pool during the pandemic recovery. But zooming out, the most significant boost to Utah's labor market—and by extension, the economy —has unfolded over the past century. 

In 1950, 51.7% of Utah's population participated in the labor market, according to the Census Bureau. By 1970, the participation rate jumped to 59.2% and by 2000 it was 69%, near today’s level. 

What changed? From 1950 to 1970, the share of Utah women taking part in the workforce soared from 24.4% to 41.5%. By 1990, the state’s female labor force participation was double its post-World War II rate at 58.6%, and by the end of the century, 61% of working-age Utah women had joined the labor pool. 

Demand for office and clerical workers in the early 20th century gave rise to women's increased participation in the labor market, according to economic historian Claudia Goldin. 

Goldin, who received a 2023 Nobel Prize for her work uncovering key drivers of gender differences in the labor market, revealed how a “quiet revolution” in the economic role of women accelerated in the 1970s as expectations around careers and family began to change. Young women increasingly anticipated and prepared for future careers, seeking the education and training that would qualify them for more skilled positions. 

The influx of women into the labor pool not only brought societal shifts, but it also improved the economy by increasing economic output, consumer spending, tax revenue, poverty reduction, and overall quality of life.

While the COVID-19 pandemic disproportionately impacted women in the workplace, women have also been driving the labor market’s post-pandemic recovery. Nationally, labor force participation among women of prime working age has returned to pre-pandemic levels.

The latest available Census data show that in 2022, 62.5% of Utah women 16 and older participated in the labor force, compared to 58.8% of women nationally, though they still participate at much lower rate than Utah men. Women make up 44.1% of workers and own 43.8% of business owners in the state.

A December 2023 report by the Utah Women and Leadership Project, authored by Robyn C. Blackburn, April Townsend and Susan R. Madsen, notes that while the majority of Utah women are in the workforce, they are underrepresented in business leadership and STEM fields. Utah women are also much more likely to work part-time than their national counterparts. 

The report cites access to childcare and cultural factors, and occupational segregation in lower-paying industries as factors influencing Utah women’s participation in the labor force. 

Women have been key drivers of Utah’s economic growth—among the best in the nation by almost every metric. As more women enter and remain in the workforce, their talents, perspectives and skills will continue to propel innovation, productivity and economic growth.  

Robert Spendlove is chief economist for Zions Bank in Salt Lake City. λ