By Brice Wallace 

The celebration of International Women’s Day earlier this month recognized the contributions of women to Utah’s economy, but it also was muted by the economic troubles women have confronted because of COVID-19.

During an online event by the Women’s Business Center of Utah in collaboration with World Trade Center Utah and coworking space Maven Create, speakers lamented the pandemic setting back economic and career gains made by women. Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson said the pandemic-caused “she-cession” was responsible for “effectively wiping out 30 years of [women’s] economic progress in nine months.”

“Women in Utah have a long track record of doing, not just talking, and there’s plenty more to do,” she said. That has occurred despite low college graduation rates, high domestic violence rates and unequal pay for equal work, “and that was before COVID-19,” Henderson said.

“We know that nationally women are bearing the economic burden of this pandemic, with four times more women than men leaving the workforce to care for their families as child care options evaporate and schools shift online.”

A recent study by accounting software firm Freshbooks founded that nationally, women are more likely to be caring for children or the elderly during the pandemic, resulting in nearly three times longer to recover from the financial setbacks brought on by COVID-19 compared to businesses owned by men.

Sixty-nine percent of surveyed women said their business has seen a decrease in revenue or clients since the pandemic began, while the figure for men was 59 percent. Nearly 60 percent of women say it will take them longer than six months to recover their business to pre-COVID levels, compared to 47 percent of men.

But as Utah and the nation emerge from the pandemic, “we have a tremendous opportunity to rethink our support systems for women and families,” Henderson said. The state is working to boost women through upskilling, retraining, scholarships, mentoring, improved child care options and creative solutions with the private sector, she said. Current programs are being strengthened and new efforts started “that empower woman and expand opportunities for advancement and leadership,” she said.

Those efforts would augment the existing environment, which features over 89,000 women-owned businesses that employ more than 80,000 people in the state. Women also are nearly 45 percent of Utah’s workforce, control most of the consumer purchasing power, control more than one-third of small-business purchasing decisions, and contribute over $15 billion to the state’s economy annually, she said.

Much of the event discussion focused on ways that individuals, organizations and programs can assist women in business. For example, the Women’s Business Center of Utah is launching a statewide directory of women-owned businesses, “because it’s important to know where they are and who they are so we can support them,” said the organization’s state director, Ann Marie Wallace.

As for individuals, Pat Jones, CEO of Women’s Leadership Institute, suggested that women both seek out examples, mentors and sponsors and also serve in those same roles. Mentors, she said, can be inside or outside a company or industry; can provide emotional support, feedback and advice; can help mentees navigate corporate politics; and can focus on the mentee’s personal and professional development.

Meanwhile, sponsors often are senior managers with influence in a company, who ensure that women are considered for challenging assignments and other opportunities for advancement.

Women are 54 percent less likely than men to have a sponsor, Jones said. “Sponsors are people that watch out for you when you’re not in the room, but they have influence on who makes the decisions in the organization,” she said.

Whether they are called examples, mentors or sponsors, she said, “we need go out of our way so that woman of all ages and all colors are following and know that there’s a place for them.”

Speakers also discussed serving on boards, helping organizations or doing volunteer work as ways for women to collectively give back to the community and help others.

“This is a question that I think a lot of people have on how we ‘do it all,’ as they say,” Jones said. “I really don’t think there is any such thing as balance. It’s a matter of prioritizing the same 24 hours each day that we all have.”

Everyone gives back in different ways, she said.

“I think some people feel like, ‘Well, I’ll never be famous, I’m not well known, I don’t do much’ — go down the list. But, really, you don’t need to be any of those things,” Jones said. “It’s the collective work that all women do … acts that are large and small that will lift our society and make it a better place.”

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