A Thought on Gender Inequality
Since a friend mentioned it on Facebook, I have been thinking about Gender Inequality in the church. I've decided I don't love the term because it's more emotionally charged than precise--we all know inequality is bad, but we can't seem to agree on which practices might be "unequal" in the negatively charged sense. I worry that talking about "gender inequality" in the church is going to end up counter-productive because the term itself switches us straight from discussion mode to impassioned reaction mode. That is: if you think a certain practice is promoting inequality, you are probably going to bring a certain righteous indignation to any discussion of it. And if you think a certain practice is being unfairly labeled as promoting inequality, you're likely to bring a very defensive mindset to any discussion.
So what if we threw the term out altogether? Would we have more room to talk about the differences between male and female experiences in the church if we simply acknowledged that they are different, but withheld judgments about equality and talked instead about what each gender needs to increase the quality of its average experience?
For this post, I've prepared a list of four gender-related differences in church experience I've noticed. I'm not trying to be comprehensive. I just want to offer a few talking points to test this kind of discussion.
1) Relationships of children with opposite-gender adults
In general, I think LDS boys are far more likely to have multiple positive relationships with adult women and more feelings of trust toward adult women than LDS girls are to have positive relationships and general feelings of trust toward adult men.
Part of this comes from parenting: the number of mothers who are physically or emotionally absent is rising, but remains low relative to the number of physically or emotionally absent fathers. And even in cases where both mother and father are highly involved in the family, I would imagine that statistically, boys tend to feel closer to their mothers than girls to their fathers.
Part of this comes from the community: while many girls will have positive associations with the Priesthood, girls' childhood relationships with priesthood holders are likely to be more distant than young boys' relationships with a Primary President, Primary Chorister (who may be one of the key charismatic figures in many children's ward experience), and a majority of Primary teachers. Sisters in the ward in general are probably also more likely to give positive attention and signals of approachability to boys than brothers in the ward in general are likely to give positive attention and signals of approachability to girls.
Part of this also comes from the broader society and media: while there are periodic news stories of female teachers sexting or otherwise harassing male students, people don't tend to internalize them and warn their boys about female predators. There are far more stories in the news of male predators, and many parents have internalized them and overtly or implicitly trained girls to act with caution and fear toward unfamiliar men. Beyond the news, there are probably far more fictional media portrayals of aggressive, overbearing, and dangerous men than of women who pose a danger to children.
For all these reasons, I suspect that boys will have an easier time bonding and feeling safe with women than girls with men.
2) Degree of Scripted Life Expectations for Youth (Mission and Marriage)
Thirty years or so ago, there may not have been as much of a gender gap here, but in today's church culture young men have a much more standardized script of expectations for their early adulthood while young women are left with a somewhat more open story of what to expect from their future.
LDS young men are typically trained to expect to serve a full-time mission as a rite of passage, while young LDS women are taught to seek individual inspiration as to whether they should serve as full-time missionaries. Recent changes in the age of missionary service will make it easier for women to fit full-time missionary service into their lives, but were not accompanied by strengthened calls for young women to consider missionary service as a rite of passage. Probably, the position of missionary work as normative for young men and a matter of choice for young women will continue.
Because marriage is a central religious value, both LDS young men and young women are taught to prepare for marriage. But there's significantly more discussion for young women about how preparation for marriage does not always result in marriage: most young women are taught to consider the possibilities of not finding a spouse or of losing a spouse to death or divorce. Perhaps because most cultures still expect men to initiate relationships, there seems to be less sympathetic attention to the possibility of young men failing to find a spouse. Possibly because of higher remarriage rates for men, there also seems to be less attention to encouraging men to prepare to function effectively as a single parent in the event of a spouse's death or divorce.
LDS young men are also expected to prepare to serve their families as economic providers in addition to their emotional roles as husbands and fathers. Young women are counseled to obtain as much education as possible, but with more varied expectations as to how that education might serve them as individuals, as mothers, as citizens and community volunteers, and as economic providers as circumstances require.
In general, I think young LDS men are raised with more fixed or rigid expectations for the next steps in their lives, while young LDS women are raised with more conditional counsel and circumstance-based caveats as far as their expectations for adulthood.
One small area where my wife and I have noticed what seems to be a gender difference is in volunteer sign-ups within the church. While the calling system seems to work in similar ways for most men and women, Relief Society sisters seem (anecdotally) far more likely to volunteer to fulfill individual assignments than their male counterparts--especially than the younger adult men in Elders' Quorum. Specifically, my wife has noted that volunteer assignments in Relief Society seem to be filled more evenly by members of the group, while Elders' Quorum volunteer assignments seem to be filled disproportionately by a few quorum members.
It's hard to say what exactly is happening here. It may be that the higher percentage of men than women with full time employment is the explanation, though I suspect that women who work full time are still more likely to volunteer than men who work full time. I've noticed that many married men in Elders' Quorums I've served in don't feel comfortable volunteering for something without checking with their wives first--and then often forget to check. My wife has not noticed the same pattern among women--most sign up without waiting for a discussion with their spouse.
Maybe women on average feel more emotionally invested in the lives of other ward members, and are therefore more quick to contribute. Maybe men on average feel less mentally prepared to handle variations from their standard schedules. Maybe Relief Societies, drawing on larger numbers of women, tend to be better organized than the smaller separated Elders' Quorums and High Priests' groups.
Assuming that there are broad differences in volunteering culture between men and women throughout much of the church, and not just in wards where I've served, it suggests a different gender-based experience of how small task volunteer sign-ups are perceived and received.
4) Adult intra-gender relationships, especially across generations
In theory, the Church provides great structures for both brotherhood and sisterhood. But in practice, I suspect that there is slightly more tension and distance on average in a ward or branch's relationships between men than between women--especially across generations.
My sense is that there's a higher chance of annoyance or tension in relationships between men than between women in the church. This is especially clear if you look at inter-generational relationships: most younger women seem to deeply enjoy having older women in Relief Society with them, while many younger men seem a little more susceptible to annoyance or resentment toward some older men and vice-versa.
There are many theories, of course, as to why women may got along with each other better than men. At least in some cultures, men tend to make slightly more rapid and action-oriented decisions about how to handle problems while women tend to take more time, pay more attention to relationships, and work more to build consensus. Women's slightly different average patterns of focus may make it easier for them to manage relationships in a larger group. Conflicts for power between generations of men may be more deeply ingrained throughout our culture than conflicts for power between generations of women, leaving women's relationships with each other a little less complicated by the general baggage of culture.
I chose the examples above because they seem important, but I don't know how they relate to the idea of equality.
It seems like girls deserve better relationships with adult men, but I'm sort of hesitant to call that an equality issue. Maybe that's because our society typically uses "equality" in contrast to active oppression and I just don't see an oppressor here. Maybe it's because our culture typically treats greater roles for women as the answer to gender inequality, while in this case, better quality seems to require more active roles for men.
While I see a clear difference in how our culture treats life expectations for young men and women, I honestly have no idea which gender gets it better. If we think that equality means treating everyone the same, should we make young men's expectations more open, or young women's more concrete? If we're OK with treating young men and young women differently so long as we're treating them all in the best way we can imagine, then are more concrete expectations good for young men? And are more flexible expectations good for young women? Why?
Volunteer sign-ups seem to be set up basically the same way in both Priesthood and Relief Society classes. So why does there seem to be a disparity in how they're received? Would it be better if men in Elders' Quorums had a different system for small task volunteering than their female counterparts? Why or why not?
And if it's true that women have stronger intra-gender relationships on average, does that mean there's plenty of room for men to improve? Should we be talking about closing a relationship gap? How different are male and female ways of building relationships--and could men be learning something applicable from women on this issue?
We do have trouble talking about gender inequality in the church. But can we talk about gender differences in experience in a way that's more productive, a way that can ultimately increase the quality of experience for men and women in the church?