More on the Mormon Gender Gap

Once upon a time, I wrote a post titled “The Puzzling Mormon Gender Gap.” It is still puzzling, primarily because it seems so inconsistent with the popular picture of the Church as a patriarchal institution run by old white males. When the topic came up recently in a ZD thread, the ZD discussants (generally a fairly rational bunch) simply denied the data. Well, I think the question is too important and too interesting to dismiss simply because LDS feminists (and I use that as a descriptive term, not a dismissive one) don’t want to talk about it.

If data won’t do, how about an opinion from an expert? Here is a paragraph from sociologist Marie Cornwall’s excellent article “The Institutional Role of Mormon Women,” included in Contemporary Mormonism: Social Science Perspectives (U. of Illinois Press, 1994).

Women’s tendency toward religion — their greater willingness to affiliate and participate — created an imbalance in the number of males and females in local congregations. The LDS Church organizational structure assumes that each household constitutes a family (the smallest organizational unit), which is headed by a Melchizedek priesthood holder. Changing demographics created an organizational dilemma for the growing church, since many households are headed by mothers married to nonmember husbands, or single mothers, or single adults, or widows with no priesthood liaison in the home. Priesthood-bearing men became a scarce resource — more men were needed to carry out both institutional and familial priesthood roles. As a scarce resource, men became more valued than women, and the attention of the hierarchy focused on somehow restoring the balance by increasing the number of Melchizedek holders. Having delegated responsibility for women and children to the auxiliaries and the male head-of-household, church leaders focused on increasing the number of men who had been ordained to the Melchizedek priesthood and encouraging men’s institutional and familial participation. An unintended consequence was that women, particularly single or divorced women or women married to nonmember husbands, are now more likely to be viewed as a liability than as a resource in the face of the institutionally defined demands of the rapidly growing Mormon church. (p. 259; citations omitted; emphasis added.)

The author accepts the existence of a Mormon gender gap and then discusses (in the paragraph and the article) why that it is a problem. The author’s discussion is, in fact, quite friendly to what one might call the feminist critique of how the LDS Church marginalizes women, but you can’t even get to that discussion if you deny the problem. If you just dig in you heels and deny there is a Mormon gender gap, you can’t get to the important questions of why there is a Mormon gender gap (the question I raised earlier) or what the institutional effect of that gender gap is (as so ably discussed by Marie Cornwall in the article).

There are two aspects to the gender gap question. One is why there is a generic gender gap, why women in general are more religious and are more likely to affiliate and participate in churches. The second question is why the LDS gender gap is greater than for other American churches. Both are interesting, but obviously the second question is of more consequence for the student of Mormon Studies. What is pushing men away from participation in the LDS Church and doing so in greater proportion than in other churches? What is it about the LDS Church that disproportionately attracts participation by women and (unwittingly) discourages participation by men?

For those of you who have the irrepressible urge to do more research on the topic, here are some helpful links:

33 comments for “More on the Mormon Gender Gap

  1. I think you’re being a unfair to the ZD commentariat– I see one response with a substantive question about sample size and margin of error, and then the thread happened to go in a different direction. That doesn’t mean they’re “denying the data.” Perhaps you’d like to offer other examples?

  2. My experience as an active LDS woman differs from some of your assumptions in your last post, “The Puzzling Mormon Gender Gap.”

    You wrote, “At the very least, it should be a wake-up call to those LDS feminists who depict LDS women as some sort of oppressed underclass in a patriarchal institution. The data tell the opposite story: the women are quite happy while the men are voting with their feet. What LDS feminists need to explain is why women are so happy with the LDS Church.”

    In most Christian churches, women tend to be more active than men. I have not read the studies that show this gap is larger in the LDS Church, but if this is the case, that does not infer that women are happy within the Church.

    Women carry a heavy burden of Church assignments and responsibilities in the LDS Church. Although men assume most of the administrative load, the real work in the Church, including teaching, compassionate service, and ministering, is performed most often by women. They do this work under the scrutiny and sometimes micromanaging of men. This can be a frustrating experience at best and a demoralizing experience at worst. Too often men treat female leaders in the Church as servants rather than equals.

    Perhaps some women stay because they want their children raised with the spiritual and moral values of the Church. Perhaps others stay because they value the social network the Church provides. Others stay because of their testimonies and faith. The same reasons could be given for why men stay as well.

    Since pornography addiction is a struggle for both men and women, speakers at General Conference and other Church meeting would be wise to make this addiction issue a non-gender specific issue. Both men and women need be reminded that both fathers and mothers need to nurture their children, and Church leaders should not delegate that responsibility to mothers only. Female leaders in the Church deserve to be respected and heard in Church councils and in Church meetings.

    I could write many more paragraphs about ways the Church can make the meetings and experience more meaningful to both men and women. I could also suggest many ways that Church policy needs to change so that women are valued as equal members and not second-class citizens.
    The patriachial culture in the Church silences women, disenfranchised them in many ways, and minimalized their efforts and their contributions. I believe the Savior’s example of valuing women is not being followed by Church leadership and needs to change.

  3. Speaking of denying data: maybe you can point us to the part of the thread where the feminists deny data about the gander gap in Mormonism?

  4. To my knowledge, no one has demonstrated correlation between a religion’s treatment of women and the ratios of women participating. It’s a phenomenon that has been baffling sociologists for some time now. Most religions have greater participation from women than men, and female participation does not seem to decline when a religion treats women harshly or poorly; women seem to stick it out no matter what. For some discussion of this, see the following article from Slate:

    Why Do More Women Than Men Still Believe in God? — Especially Considering How God Treats Them

    As I see it, not many LDS feminists are participating in this conversation because this data is not harmful to anything that they’re arguing. Yes, you’ll occasionally encounter a naive LDS feminist who believes a mass exodus of women from the church is imminent due to the status of women in the church, but most of them know better. Most of them are making their cases based on what is right, not on whether women would like it or how well treating women as equals will keep them in the pews.

    If anything, it’s the hierarchists who should be addressing this data and explaining to us why the male-only priesthood system is doing such a poor job of keeping the men in the pews. Since it seems that women are going to be around no matter what, it’s unlikely that trying something different could do much damage at this point.

    BTW, several defenders of the LDS patriarchy have tried to argue to me that the male-only priesthood is doing a better job of keeping the men in the pews than the systems at other churches. I always point out to them that the data simply does not support them in those claims.

  5. The “feminization” of Christianity is a topic that was thoroughly analyzed and discussed in the ’90s and earlier in tha aughts. It is a very real issue in all denominations and led to numerous attempts to make a spiritual life appealing to straight men under the age of 45 (remember the Promise Keepers). Mormonism has faced the same issue as everyone else.

    The feminists in all churches don’t recognize this problem or its negative repercussions in the long run. Modern.Christianity has focused strongly on feminine spiritual traits to the exclusion of masculine ones. And, like the general larger secular society, has placed an unbalanced emphasis on children. Take a look at LDS artwork by Swindle or Dewey to see the dramatic change – every picture must have a child or a feminine looking man included. Deseret Bbok caters only to its female audience or right-wing political conspiratists.

    Men dont receive the respect or identity-9affirming nourishment they need in current Christian culture.

  6. There is some fascinating discussion in Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s _Good Wives_ about how religion provides women with a sort of soft power structure.

    (I have a follow up post about this that I’ve been meaning to write — err, since forever. Let me see if I can hammer it out quickly, it’s too much for a comment.)

  7. (And I also think that the characterization of the ZD conversation is too dismissive — I thought that the discussion was on par with the usual high standards of the blog.)

  8. Other, older studies conclude that the LDS Church has less of a gender gap than mainline protestant churches. I suspect there may be sample set issues.

    Which would skew the discussion.

    Though the issue of why men, in general, are less involved in churches than women is an interesting one.

  9. “What is it about the LDS Church that disproportionately attracts participation by women and (unwittingly) discourages participation by men?”

    In my opinion, because religion in general tells women that they are less than the males, and because culture reinforces this same concept in many ways, many women try to somehow “make up for it” by being good daughters of the church. They really dedicate themselves to it, hoping that this will incline God, the religion, the culture, to acknowledge them in a more equal way. Unfortunately, I think it might just have the opposite effect, since it makes the women so plentiful that they seem almost disposable.

    There is some discussion about this on one of the episodes on the new podcast found at

  10. I think the church does expect more work from men that it does from women. Men hold more of the time-consuming and demanding callings, are responsible for visiting everyone (whereas with visiting teaching, women only visit other sisters), are encouraged (often expected) to serve 2-year missions, etc.

    I think the heavier responsibilities that are placed on the men is one of the reasons so many men leave the church. Allowing women to serve in more leadership positions (ward mission leader, etc.) could change that.

  11. Generally I think more females remain enmeshed with their mothers as they mature than males and more males become psychologically separate from their parents than females so women may find it easier to enmesh with the divine than men.

  12. Thanks for the comments, everyone.

    z (#1), I did compliment the ZD posters and commenters in my second sentence. Kiskilili (#3), I won’t name names, but statements on the ZD thread like “your data doesn’t suggest anything of the sort” and “I’d just remind us all of how very easy it is to manipulate statistics to support an argument” strike me as denying the data.

    Michael (#5), I first saw the feminization of Mormonism discussed in an article by Armand Mauss titled “Feelings, Faith, and Folkways,” in Proving Contraries (Signature, 2005). I’m sure you would enjoy it.

    Kaimi (#7), I endorse your view of the usual high standards of the ZD blog. It is one of my favorites.

    Tim (#10): “I think the heavier responsibilities that are placed on the men is one of the reasons so many men leave the church.” It would be nice if bishops did exit interviews with this demographic to give us some hard data. It certainly makes sense (at least in the rational choice view of religious decisions championed by Rodney Stark) to think that “heavier responsibilities” represent costs that impel some men to make an exit decision. But even Stark turns around and argues that churches that ask nothing of the membership get little in return, while churches that ask a lot of the membership generate higher dedication and investment by those who attend.

  13. They’d strike me as a reasonable critique of the data, Dave, not “denying” it. Might you care to provide any response to the questions raised about sample size and margin of error? Or any other examples of feminists “denying the data”?

    I’m surprised you would toss out these ‘fighting words’ without a more robust set of examples. You’ve got one comment thread that happened to trend elsewhere, and based on that you’re accusing LDS feminists broadly of “denying the data” and, passive-aggressively, of being irrational.

  14. I’m glad you like our blog, Dave!

    I was going to point out that neither of the comments in question was made by a ZD, but then I realized you never suggested they were, or that all LDS feminists deny there’s a gender gap (after all, more than one person in the thread took you to task for putting words feminists’ mouths). As long as those points are clear, and you don’t mean to imply ZD is inhibiting discussion, I have no grievance.

  15. Is there a useful distinction to be made between “denying the data” and “declining to indulge the threadjack”?

  16. I don’t think anything involving religion or spirituality or the church itself has anything to do with this gender gap. I think almost all of it boils down to testosterone.

    According to the first stats I could find, 56% of high school drop outs are men and 93%(!) of prisoners are men. One explanation for all of this is that, while men and women are equally likely to take on attitudes of rebellion or antagonism towards social structures, men are more likely to act out on those feelings, whereas with women those attitudes are more likely to simply take the form of negative emotions. Men’s higher rate of anti-social behavior in general society can easily be correlated with their higher rate of inactivity in the religious sphere.

    Why would that rate be higher in the LDS church than other churches? To me that seems obvious: a higher standard of behavioral expectations within the church means that the effects of acting out on rebellious inclinations is going to be more pronounced.

  17. How do the participation rates correlate with age and life expectancy? As I understand it, there is a general trend of women out-living men. Mormons tend to be especially long lived, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see mormon women significantly out-living their male counterparts. Anecdotally, I look at my ward and I see a jillion elderly widows, where all the other age groups are fairly well balanced.

    I’m also curious how the participation rates correlate with child custody. What I see happening is churches offering a sense of community and aid to single parents. Since women are most likely to be custodial parents, we would see more women seeking out churches for this purpose than men.

  18. Can some simplyfy the results?
    And why is it that most missionaries are male and not female?

    Hooray – Osama Bin Laden is finally dead!

  19. janeannechovey, sounds like you are suggesting I threadjacked Lynnette’s post. I made one comment, then two responses to commenters (Ziff and Brianj) who asked questions. Then I came over here and ran my own post on this interesting issue.

  20. “How do the participation rates correlate with age and life expectancy?”

    I imagine that we first see a big difference in the numbers at the age of 15 or 16, when the prospect of an expected full-time mission looms large in a boys mind, and where rebellion is the norm.

    Our ward has one active young man, and about ten active young women. We’ve had two young men stop coming to church in the past year. The boys go less active sometime in high school. Two of them have come back in the last few years, but they were old enough when they came back that no one’s expecting them to serve a mission any more.

  21. I believe it is entirely cultural. And by that, I mean American culture, not LDS culture.

    Women are taught from the time they are young girls to take responsibility, care for and nurture others, and behave modestly.

    Men are taught to drink beer, play video games, take unnecessary risks, and expect their food, clothing, and housing needs to be taken care of by a woman- mother, girlfriend, wife, etc.

    (Where is my dinner? Where are my clothes? Why is this house such a mess?)

    When the Church asks men to zip up their pants, decide what it is they actually believe in, and take some responsibility for their own lives and for blessing the lives of those around them, there is some natural kick-back.

  22. Anecdotal experience leads me to believe that LDS Church culture has been more and more feminized (not feminist-ized) for many years now. Just look at the catalogs from any LDS-themed bookstore, the advertising style and the products for sale (books, scrapbooks, music, etc). Were we to think of church and church culture as a pastime, it is by and large a woman’s pastime.

  23. i don’t really care about the argument, but having gone and read the discussion thread you linked to i just want to point out that you are seriously mischaracterizing the exchange that occured there.

    there were not any irrational feminist-not-as-a-pejoritive commenters there who “simply denied the data.” a single commenter, BrianJ, challenged the *conclusions you drew* from the data, not the data itself. another, X2 Dora, challenged your derogatory generalization about mormon feminists.

    the really weird thing is that in your very first post on that thread you were already making a preemptory accusation, the same accusation you’re now trying to sell here: “…the facts suggest the opposite. The only people I see repeating the argument are LDS feminists — it doesn’t fit the facts, but it fits their preconceptions.”


  24. Dave #19:

    wait, now it was just two commenters asking questions? i thought that “the ZD discussants (generally a fairly rational bunch) simply denied the data.”?

    btw, here’s one of the “bunch”, Ziff, denying the data:
    I thought women were overrepresented among active Mormons, but less so than compared with in other churches in general (at least in the US)…. but I realize you’re much more conversant with the literature on religiosity.

    wow, how can you even talk to someone who just flat out denies the facts like that?

  25. I thought Starfoxy raised some crucial points in #17. Along the same lines, it should be noted that the high number of conversions in our church may make a difference.

    If so, the question is not so much, “What is pushing men away from participation in the LDS Church?” but rather “What is causing women to join our church at a higher rate?”

    I feel really guilty, because I downloaded the Pew dataset and haven’t gotten around to crunching any numbers.

  26. Palerobber, I agree that Starfoxy’s comments are interesting. I suspect longer lives for Mormons would be fairly balanced between women and men, but it is an idea for further consideration.

    When I noted questions posed by Brianj and Ziff, I was responding to janeannechovey’s suggestion that I threadjacked the discussion at ZD. In the body of the post, I was giving the context for the post. Obviously, I wasn’t suggesting every single ZD commenter took issue with the data.

    You said, “I really don’t care about the argument.” That’s too bad. I would rather hear your comments on the argument than your comments about me. The argument is much more interesting than I am.

  27. Anyone that is a member of a ward is a aware of the gender gap. It is painfully and unfortunately obvious by looking around.

    I can’t tell you why men don’t participate as much as women but I can tell you why women do.

    The concept of eternal families is a huge draw for women. Being with their children forever (and their spouse second) is a huge incentive for women. Listen to a recent woman convert’s testimony and she will almost always mention this.

    Men I can only guess at. But not all men are cut out to be leaders and most (not all) male positions include leadership. I think feelings of inadequacey and expectation turn men away.

  28. @ Michelle B:
    I am sorry you say for women ” Being with their children forever is a huge incentive for women”.
    You will have “your children”, only for a short time on earth__then they will become adults with their own children. My “children” have been gone for a long time. My joy now comes from my grandchildren.

  29. @ Bob:
    You misunderstand me. I don’t think that women are under the illusion that their children will be under the age of eighteen again. Perhaps posterity is a better word. And I didn’t claim it to be a rational incentive.

    The idea of eternal families is attractive to women and is unique to the LDS Church.

  30. @ Michelle B,
    I do not think kinship being carried into the post-world is “unique to the LDS Church”. Maybe that there will be children there is.

  31. I think the church can operate much like a co-op for women and I think this promotes a feeling of ownership that can survive the annoyances of a patriarchal institution. This is especially important for female run households. If more men are leaving I would wonder if they aren’t feeling that same sense of ownership.

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