Women who work in Utah's Silicon Slopes share its dark side: 'I was traumatized' Utah is the fastest-growing state for tech jobs, with affordable housing and an outdoorsy lifestyle. But Silicon Slopes has a not-so-hidden difficult side for women.


During an interview for an engineering job at a Utah tech company, Trina Limpert was told she was a "risky hire."

Although she got the job, Limpert still feels frustrated remembering her first day. As a network engineer, she had to prove herself by showing she could put together computer hardware. The male hires were given no such test and instead received shiny new desktops.

"When I got in and met everyone else I was working with, I was just as skilled. I was just as qualified," said Limpert, now the CEO of RizeNext, a Utah-based leadership training consultancy she founded. She believes the only reason she was told she was a "risky hire" was because she's a woman.

It wasn't the only time she felt like she was being treated differently than male colleagues in Silicon Slopes, Utah's term for its tech industry. Limpert said she'd been passed over for promotions because people assumed a husband was providing for her, while she watched men get promotions because people assumed they were the primary breadwinners.

"Sexism exists everywhere," Limpert said. "There's an extra layer here. That's why I chose not to work at startups in Utah. Stereotypes of gender norms are extremely heavy here. There's the expectation you should be at home."

Utah has a unique atmosphere in the tech industry. It is ranked highest in job growth in the US, and it's projected to be the top state for tech job growth for the next decade, according to data from The Computing Technology Industry Association.

Many people are attracted to Utah because of its job opportunities, reasonable housing prices, abundant natural beauty, and family-friendly reputation.

But unlike many other states with plentiful tech jobs, it ranks abysmally low on women's equality data points, according to multiple research reports.

Tech-worker transplants have moved to Utah only to be shocked by the culture there, multiple people said. Insider spoke to 22 women who previously or currently work at Utah tech companies told Insider. Some asked for anonymity so they could speak freely and to avoid retribution. Their identities are known to Insider.

Nearly all of these women said they experienced unequal treatment at their jobs or witnessed it for other women. Several women reported traumatic work experiences and shared personal stories about facing discrimination and sexual harassment.

"Traditionally, it has been a very conservative state, where women's labor-force participation has been low," Claudia Geist, an associate professor of sociology and gender studies at the University of Utah, told Insider. "There's the expectation that women are primary caregivers. Changing those ingrained perspectives is just difficult."

Fast-paced tech meets family-values conservatism

It's true that statistics and individual experiences can never fully capture a culture, and many Utah tech companies are making efforts to hire and promote more women, as well as offer family-friendly benefits that benefit both men and women.

It's also true that women experience similar issues in Silicon Valley and the tech industry at large. Women, for instance, are far less likely to receive venture-capital funding, while major companies including GoogleUberMicrosoft, and Meta have faced complaints or lawsuits from female employees alleging sexism and unequal pay.

But in Utah, these tech-industry tendencies can be more intense, according to the women who spoke to Insider.

Silicon Slopes, named for Utah's world-class ski slopes, is the headquarters for tech companies like Ancestry, Domo, Entrata, Pluralsight, and Qualtrics, and hosts outposts for others like Adobe and a Meta data center. It has a burgeoning startup community fueled by talent from Brigham Young University and the University of Utah.

Unlike other states that are havens for tech jobs, such as California, Washington, and New York, Utah has a decidedly politically conservative bent, with four times more registered Republican voters than registered Democrats.

Utah is also the home base of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saintsover 60% of the state's population are members of the church. Mormons, who are heavily represented in Utah's tech scene, also tend to lean conservative both socially and politically, which influences the state's tech culture. For example, a member of the church's Quorum of the Twelve Apostles spoke at the Silicon Slopes Summit conference held last month.

Multiple research reports have ranked the state poorly in areas of women's equality. Utah has the third worst gender pay gap among US states, according to a report by the US Chamber of Commerce, with the median income for men about 37% higher than it is for women. That's a slightly bigger gap than Washington, home to Seattle's tech hub, but significantly worse than California and New York, where the gap is about 14%.

The American Community Survey found that 9.2% of women in Utah and 13.5% of men earn a college degree above a bachelor's, a wider gap in educational attainment than in any other state.

People in Utah also tend to have larger families, with 28% of the population under the age of 18. Because women often shoulder more childcare duties, particularly in socially conservative societies, 62% of women in Utah with children under 6 participate in the labor force, compared to 72% of US women overall.

All of these factors influence women's experiences in Silicon Slopes, keeping them from reaching leadership positions while contributing to difficult work experiences, the women Insider spoke to said.

"Utah is not in a very strong position when it comes to women in business in general, whether you're more in the tech corporate sector or whether you are a woman in small business and entrepreneurship," said Robyn Cohen, the founder, and CEO of the W Collective, which focuses on supporting women in tech and venture capital.

The male-bonding boys' club

Michelle Kuo, the head of talent acquisition at JumpSearch, said she experienced culture shock when she relocated to Silicon Slopes. Kuo previously lived in Southern California, where she worked with more women and people of color.

"Women in general don't get as much opportunity to move up as often unless the company is open-minded and diverse," Kuo said. "For the longest time, culturally, women tend to stay at home. They're basically raised to be a homemaker."

Many women — both Mormon and not — described their Utah tech companies as Mormon boys' clubs.

Tech companies commonly recruit talent after they complete their two-year missions for the church. The experience of spreading the word about their faith is seen as valuable work experience, particularly for sales teams, some of the women said.

"If you can sell religion, you can sell anything. That's the joke around why there are so many sales teams based here," one woman said.

Sales teams are often dominated by men and "male bonding" outside work is common, which means fewer women participate in out-of-office conversations. "It's really a big boys' club at the end of the day," one woman said.

Having been warned for decades by church leaders not to be alone with women other than their wives, many Mormon men won't meet with women one-on-one for lunch or coffee, multiple women said. Such attitudes may be slowly changing but are, for some, still deeply ingrained, The Salt Lake City Tribune reported in 2017.

"There's a feeling of discomfort among men and women working together," said Robbyn Scribner, a cofounder of Tech-Moms, a group that helps women move into the tech industry. "The Mike Pence rule is still alive and well. This comes back to the church. I am a member of the church, but I'm a feminist active member of my church. There's a long-standing policy that men and women should not be alone together if they're not married."

Women described instances of not being invited to golf outings, volleyball games, or the gym during lunch. One woman said she was asked to surpass her sales quota, while men on her team hit the gym during lunch once they hit their quotas.

"The people who got the best territories, these had been guys who had weight-lifting buddies. There was this kind of sense that if you wanted to get ahead, you had to do weight lifting and hunting and boy stuff with the guys," another woman said. "I just felt sort of left behind because I didn't do all that even though my performance was still really high."

This salesperson said she started getting fewer sales leads and felt she was getting pushed out after her boss learned she was pregnant. She wanted to move to a different team but was offered entry-level pay for the role.

"I was so insulted by that, I was like, I'm out of here," she said. "If it was a guy, they would have paid top dollar. They were just looking at me as a way to push me out."

One cybersecurity analyst recounted how she had to advocate for maternity leave when she got pregnant at her previous Utah employer. She argued that three months of maternity leave was necessary and had to compare it to how a field worker would need time off to recover from knee surgery.

"They can't imagine putting kids in daycare let alone having a successful woman in the family, being a breadwinner," she said.

And there's not much legal help in the state for families seeking childcare help so both parents can work. For instance, a 2020 bill that would provide tax breaks for employers offering childcare benefits has yet to gain traction in the state legislature.

"Laws to promote more opportunities for women have been diminished because of that focus on how women should focus more on families rather than careers," said Scribner.

Then there's "benevolent sexism." This is common everywhere, but especially in more conservative and religious societies where there's more of a divide in gender roles, said Susan Madsen, a Utah State University business professor who has led studies on women's equality in Utah.

Men may make well-meaning comments like, "Oh, you take more time with your kids, you don't need to go to this event this evening," she said, which leaves women with fewer opportunities for advancement. "It's very subtle but has been shown to impact a woman's advancement and career."

HR policy: Confront the boss who harasses you

Other women described experiences that crossed the line from sexism to harassment.

One woman said she often got propositioned by married men who would invite her to hotels. Another said male colleagues would touch her without permission, putting their arms around her back or their hands on her waist.

"After a while, I learned there was somebody who got kicked out of the company because he did the same thing to another female employee," she said of one of the men who had harassed her. She said she stayed "quiet at the time because I was traumatized. I don't know how to handle it that well."

She said most of her colleagues were white, male, and Mormon.

"Their wives are at home. In the engineering department, it's mostly all male," she continued. "When there's a female, it makes them a target for that because there's not a lot of women they interact with daily."

Other women who said they experienced sexual harassment came up against problems when they reported incidents. One woman said she reported sexual harassment, and the company's policy was that she had to confront her harasser, who was a higher-level leader.

While she did confront him about it, she received no follow-up from her company until a year and a half later. She had to re-explain to HR what happened and send proof of her previous communications.

During that time, her harasser had gotten promoted and was also accused of harassing someone else, she said. He was finally let go more than two years after the incident.

"I've stayed with the company because I did want to make it work," the woman said. "It's been really frustrating."

How things are changing

John Richards, a managing partner at Startup Ignition Ventures, moved to Utah from Seattle 20 years ago. He said the difference between when he arrived and now is like "night and day." Today, more women are working in tech, and men's attitudes toward women have evolved.

Still, he said that Utah's tech industry still has a long way to go, including in closing the pay gap.

While Richards said his firm works to recruit women for its entrepreneurship boot camp, women in Utah often leave the workforce to stay home to raise children. And those who don't stay home are still doing the lion's share of domestic work.

"It's not fair for a lot of women who still do most of the domestic chores at home even if they're working," Richards said. "Working at a tech company in a high-pressure job, and then you also gotta go home and carry a huge burden of domestic responsibilities. That's all changing, but it's changing gradually. Women are under a lot of pressure."

Of course, there are some women working in Silicon Slopes who do view their companies as equitable workplaces and see positive role models around them.

"I feel like I'm pretty fortunate," Emily Perkins, a content research manager for Ancestry, said. "I do work with a lot of women, and I do have a manager who's a woman a CEO who's a woman, and a vice president of our company that is a woman. I feel pretty lucky in that regard."

Ancestry, one of Utah's most established tech companies, hired former Facebook executive Deborah Liu as CEO in 2021.

Liu, known for championing diversity in technology, is the co-creator of the Women in Product​ nonprofit. Ancestry's chief product officer is Heather Friedland, who previously worked at Glassdoor.

Ancestry says that 38% of its leadership roles are held by people from diverse communities, which includes women, people of color, LGBTQ+ people, veterans, and people with disabilities. The company didn't break out statistics on women in its first diversity report, released last year.

"We are proud of the female tech leadership at Ancestry, but we know there is still more to do," Ashlee Davis, Ancestry's global head of DEI, said in a statement. "We remain committed to fostering an inclusive workforce that is reflective of our diverse world, and we're proud to partner with other Utah companies that share that commitment."

More change may happen for Silicon Slopes because the lack of female representation is having a measurable impact. Limpert said she's gotten calls from executives at Utah companies hoping to go public who've told her that NASDAQ won't work with them because their leadership is made up entirely of white men.

"The labor market in Utah is extremely tight," Scribner said. "We have to import a lot of talent from other states. A lot of women getting recruited from other areas, other states, look at a company that's all white, Mormon men, and say, 'I don't want to move my life and my family.'"

As the state looks to recruit more tech workers, there's a growing awareness that damaging attitudes toward female talent must change.

"Even though we're the worst state for women's equality, we're not passively looking at it," Madsen, the Utah State University business professor, said. "We're saying, 'No, we need to change.' We want to be really well known for how good we become for girls and women."

Post a Comment

Previous Post Next Post