Episode 103: Conservative State of Mind

Show transcript:

Welcome to The Broad Experience, the show about women, the workplace, and success. I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte.

This time…attitudes to women’s roles have changed a lot in the last several decades. But some influential people still believe women’s place is in the home…

“…and one of the male representatives from a very conservative area stood up and said we don’t need more childcare, we need to do away with the need for childcare.

Coming up…pushing for change in a conservative place.

How much do you know about Utah? Maybe if you’re a film fan you think of the Sundance Film Festival – it takes place there every year. Or maybe you’re an outdoors type and you’ve been hiking or biking in one of Utah’s incredible state parks. But a lot of us, when we think of Utah, we can’t help thinking about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints – or the Mormon church. Because Utah is where the Mormon faith was born in the 19th century and where the church still has its headquarters. About 60 percent of the population is still Mormon. And it’s a fair to say Mormonism is a conservative faith. Men have the power within the church, and attitudes to gender at home and outside tend to be quite traditional.  

In Utah plenty of women start college, but quite a few drop out to get married and start families before they graduate.  Most women work in some capacity, but you won’t find many women in public life or in leadership roles in business – although today many women are starting their own businesses. The state also has one of the highest wage gaps in the US.

So what do you do when you have progressive ideas about women’s place in the world, but you’re surrounded by traditionalists? If you’re like Patricia Jones, you try…slowly…steadily…to change minds.

Pat describes herself as a very open-minded Mormon. She’s always had a career – including more than a decade as a politician.

She’s in her mid-60s now and these days she is CEO of the Women’s Leadership Institute in Salt Lake City.

She grew up outside Salt Lake City, and she had a different kind of upbringing from most of the other girls in her neighborhood.

“I was the fourth of five children. My mother was a career woman growing up, which was rare in the '50s. I was born in the 1950s so in those days, I think I had one other friend whose mother worked outside of home.”

AM-T: “So why did your mother?”

“My mother? Well, I am a little like my mother. She loved it. They needed the money certainly but I think she got quite motivated going to the office every day. She did some very important things. She helped run the whole company. She worked for a company that provided industrial tools and they were quite well known. They were a fairly large company. She would do bids internationally. She was challenged by that and loved to meet people from different countries.”

Pat’s mum also didn’t put up with what many women felt they had to back then. 

“She worked for the ABC affiliate here as a secretary in those days and was harassed, so when she was approached one day, she told him to stick it and she changed jobs. That would've been in the early '50s and things were--they are similar to things today in some ways, but they are quite different in some ways too. But she tells me those stories of...She'll be 95 this year.”

And Pat says, still going strong. With her mother as a role model, Pat says she always knew she wanted to work and have a family.

She married young and had a son, but got divorced when he was little. Then she met her second husband and they soon had children of their own.   

Five years after they married they set up a business together conducting market research and doing focus groups for various clients.

“In 1980, is when we incorporated, we started with two of us--he and I. We had two little kids. One was barely a year old, one was three. My older son was about seven. We started the business grew and grew. I spend a lot of nights and days. It was hard work but I loved it.”

 She particularly enjoyed talking to all those people in focus groups, gathering their opinions…

But what I heard, especially in Utah is that they felt like their legislators weren't listening to the needs of public education in our state and it kind of stuck with me, and I felt the same way. I had kids in school.”

She says that idea came from the then attorney general of Utah, a woman called Jan Graham. Pat knew her because she’d done some research for her political campaign. And initially she told her no – politics is not for me. And she kept saying no. But Graham wouldn’t give up.

“So Jan Graham – attorney general Jan Graham called me every day for two weeks. And finally I just said yes, to kind of get her off my back.”

When Pat was elected as a congresswoman there were quite a few raised eyebrows in and around Salt Lake City. She had run and won as a Democrat, but her business had done a lot of work over the years with Republican politicians on their campaigns.

“It was quite surprising. There were articles in newspapers about what a risk it was for me. But I am here to say that not all Republicans agree with everything Republican and I think they felt that I was able to work across the aisle quite well and pull it off.”

AM-T: “Well yeah, you talked about that – you said you made an effort to befriend your Republican colleagues.”

“Well yes, and something happened today that reminded me of that--women make a huge mistake when they go into a committee or meeting where there are very few women, which was the case for me today at the Salt Lake Chamber's meeting, and they go and sit and hang out together. I always made it a point to sit next to Republican men, of course most of them were so it wasn't difficult. But I made it a point not to just sit with women because you build relationships in that way. It's absolutely critical that they get to know you, and when they are discussing a bill in a legislative committee, it is very common to discuss it a little bit while you are sitting there, and you can help persuade people and it may make you more open-minded, and it helps you build relationships.”

AM-T: “Did that help your political agenda, ultimately, doing that?”

“Oh, absolutely. In Utah, we have five Democrats in the Senate out of 29. We have a super minority in Utah in the House and the Senate. That's what I had to work with. I think it's all about building relationships with the other side. I wish our Congress would do more of that. It is critical that we can put some of those things aside and really do what's best for our communities and our people, you know put politics aside and think about building coalitions with people who share commonalities.”

This is a big theme with her – the need to talk to others who do not agree with you. She says it’s vital for more women to enter politics. And there’s some evidence that in the wake of the US presidential election, that’s actually happening.

“I had a marvelous experience as a politician. We need women in politics. I mean for example, I was the only woman on the law enforcement committee when I was in the house. They packed that committee with pro-gun legislators. By that, I mean they advocated more the NRA position.”

That’s The National Rifle Association…

“All of the gun bills would go through this committee. At that time, there was a debate about whether the University of Utah should be forced to allow guns on campus. We would hear over and over again that concealed-weapon permit holders are law-abiding citizens and that was just part of the discussion.”

So just to break that down, especially if you’re not a US listener…so a concealed weapon permit holder – someone who holds a permit to carry a weapon somewhere on their person – that they can whip out in the event that they need it.

Pat says she was worried – you know, this was about weapons on a university campus – who were these people who were allowed to carry guns around an area with hundreds of students and professors? Her male colleagues argued look, they’ve been vetted to get these permits, they’re upstanding citizens.

So one day, and It seemed like I was one of the few who would ask questions in that committee…”

She asked, so how many of these permits are revoked every year? And why?

“And no one had ever asked that question before. It took a woman, the only woman on the committee, to ask that question. It turns out, there were hundreds revoked every year for very serious crimes. So after that point, when people would automatically say that concealed-weapons holders were law abiding citizens, I would always point out, "yes, until they break the law." That's just one example of many that I could point to that if you have no women on a committee or maybe one, you need a critical mass of women who can ask pointed questions.”

AM-T: “Before we move on can I just ask what happened in that case? Are people just allowed to carry open weapons at that university?”

“Yes, it passed. The University of Utah was forced to allow concealed weapons on campus. One of the bills that was passed, later on when I was on the Senate...was we have a state gun. We have a state tree, a state song, a state bird, go down the list…and we have a state gun. And I think that's unfortunate and I was there fighting that also in the Senate committee. Not all women and not all men feel the same way on those issues, on, for instance, guns. But I can tell you based on research that we have done over and over again in my business, women and men feel different in aggregate about guns. And if you don't have a women's voice at the table asking those questions, you'll get policies like we do today.”

She remembers another time when she cringed at what she was hearing. One year when she was a congresswoman, Utah’s House of Representatives was debating a bill on affordable childcare…

“…and one of the male representatives from a very conservative area stood up and said we don’t need more childcare, we need to do away with the need for childcare. And I looked at my colleague, a woman next to me, and said, does that mean we get rid of kids?

It’s critical that we are at the table and that we share our views and our experiences to help shape public policy that affects us – us!”

Those kinds of views on women’s role as homemaker are hanging on in Utah. In February a Republican politician wrote to his local newspaper opposing equal pay for women. He said if businesses were forced to pay women the same as men, they’d have to reduce the amount they paid men. And he said that would make it harder for men to support their families, and more mothers would be forced to leave the home and join the workforce. There was quite a backlash, and he ended up resigning.

To many people in Utah as elsewhere equal pay is a matter of simple fairness. But the whole topic of gender equality can still be fraught. Pat says in a conservative state like hers you can’t make equality about politics and make any progress. In Utah, just over a quarter of people voted for Hillary Clinton. Plenty of Pat’s friends loathe her. And the word feminism? It tends not to go down well. She says as head of the Women’s Leadership Institute she talks up women’s economic impact on businesses because that’s something all business leaders can understand.

She also emphasizes how much better off both men and women will be if women are doing better at work.

But sometimes getting there takes a roundabout route. Recently she set off to give a talk.

“There’s a company, it’s a very large construction company, they own gravel trucks, it’s very large, housed in most conservative city, Provo, in Utah. The head of it asked me to come down and tell them something about the Elevate Her Challenge and the Women’s Leadership institute. I drove up, there were pickup trucks all over the place with gun racks and so forth. I knew I was in for a challenge. I went in there. It was all men, their executive team, all their VPs were there, and I started to talk about the Women’s Leadership Institute, why it was important, and you know, it was crickets if you will, all looking at their phones. So I thought I’m gonna change the discussion here.” 

She started talking about research she’d read on how men and women are quite different – and how those differences can complement eachother in the workplace…but she wanted to appeal to the men directly to get their attention…

“And I said to them, I just dropped everything and I said, ‘you know it’s very difficult working in your environment right now and bringing in women. I said men are confused about the rules today. They don’t know what to call women: ladies, women, girls? They don’t know whether they should compliment them on what they’re wearing. They’re concerned about reverse discrimination. They’re wondering, can I go to lunch alone with a woman in my office if we talk about business? You go down the list today of the things men are worried about working in the office with women…and as soon as I started talking about it in this way, where the men felt understood, something they had never heard a woman talk about before, they put their phones down, crossed their arms across their bellies, and started listening to me.”

So I bet some of you will be fuming to hear this…the idea of indulging the privileged white male psyche to get those men to embrace equality? But Pat says you have to meet people where they are. And this way… it’s a first step to getting roomfuls of conservative men to actually care about elevating women into senior roles at their companies.

She says unlike Provo where she gave that talk, Salt Lake City where she lives is quite a diverse place. There’s a mix of religions, more of an ethnic mix than elsewhere in the state, and a gay population. She laments that Utah has kind of a bad rap.

“I’ve traveled extensively in my legislative career and in my business. And once you tell people you’re from Utah there’s like stone cold silence – they wonder how many husbands you have, they wonder if you’re stuck at home. This is a very vibrant culture here, very different than most people who haven’t been here. We have some issues, yes, we have a wide wage gap, very few women in political office, we’re working on that. We have women who start college but don’t finish to the extent we’d like them to…but the women here are forward thinking, looking for new ways to do things…we have an incredible number of women who are starting businesses in their homes and outside of their homes, and great executives that are moving here. But we have some work to do in some areas and that’s what we’re doing.”

You can check out the Women’s Leadership Institute at WLIUT.com.

Pat just mentioned women starting their own businesses in Utah. In the next show we’re going to meet one of those women…and unlike Pat, she was raised in a strict religious home.

“I was like on just this dogma treadmill to winning heaven and would never have expected that I’d need to have a career and I certainly wouldn’t have expected to be financially caring for myself and my children 20 years into that experience.”

Tune in for that next time.  

And thanks to those of you who’ve left comments on that episode I did about how open to be about your home life when you’re working in other cultures. I love the feeling that I’m building a community of people who can help eachother. It’s one of the most rewarding things about doing the podcast. 

I'm Ashley Milne-Tyte. See you next time.