Fun with Numbers: Is the Church Appealing to Women?

Commenting on Seraphine’s Healing the Breach post at Times and Seasons, bbell asked this question:

If as you claim the LDS church is so alienating for women then why does it seem from all I have ever read that there are more active women then men? It would seem to me that men are being more alienated.

This seems like a reasonable point. My experience, anyway, agrees with it. It seems like there are more women than men in the Church, most obviously when you look at singles wards. And there are data to back this up. In his article titled “Vital Statistics” in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism, Tim Heaton said (based on 1981 data) that there are about 95 men for every 100 women in the Church (in the US; all discussion below is based on US data). As a woman to man sex ratio, that’s about 1.05:1.

So does the Church appeal more to women than to men? Is that why there are more women? Actually, Heaton pointed out that this sex ratio was in line with the sex ratio in the population, where there are more women than men. For example, according to the 2000 census, there were about 108 million women and 101 million men in the US, a sex ratio of 1.07:1.

Given the sex ratio in the population, then, is it fair to say that the Church appeals equally to women and men? I don’t think so. Surveys consistently find that women are more spiritual and more believing than are men.

Spirituality or belief question
Women Men W:M ratio Source
Pray daily or more often 70% 45% 1.56:1 GSS 2004
Prayed in last week 89% 79% 1.13:1 Barna Group, 2006
Believe in an afterlife 77% 67% 1.13:1 GSS 2004
Believe the Bible is inspired/word of God 84% 76% 1.12:1 GSS 2004
Believe God is all-powerful creator 78% 64% 1.22:1 Barna Group, 2006
Consider yourself deeply spiritual 68% 55% 1.24:1 Barna Group, 2006
Consider religious faith very important 75%
Barna Group, 2000
Pew Research, 2001
Set spiritual goals 41% 29% 1.41:1 Barna Group, 2000

Given women’s greater belief, churches in general should find it easier to draw women than men. The figures in the table above suggest that a 1.20:1 or higher ratio wouldn’t be unreasonable. And in fact, this is what survey data shows about women’s church attendance as well.

Attendance question
Women Men W:M ratio Source
Attend church at least weekly, age 30-49
Attend church at least weekly, age 50+
Pew Research, 2001
Attended church service past week 50%
Barna Group, 2006
Barna Group, 2000
Attended Sunday School past week 27%
Barna Group, 2006
Barna Group, 2000
Median congregation adult sex ratio 1.50:1 National Congregations Study, 1998 [item 305]

The National Congregations Study is worth a little more examination. Congregations were asked to report the percentage of their regularly attending adults that were men. In only 49 of 1159 that responded (4%!) did men outnumber women. In 22%, the percentage was estimated at 50/50. So in the large majority of congregations, women outnumbered men. As noted in the table above, the median percentage of men was 40% (60/40=1.50). Even adjusting this for the population sex ratio noted above (1.07) leaves a ratio of 1.40, which suggests substantially more regular church attendance by women than by men.

Women are more believing and spiritual than men. They attend church more than men do, substantially more. Women are more religious all around. While I hesitate to draw firm conclusions from survey data, and I would like to have more recent LDS sex ratio data, these results certainly suggest that the LDS Church is not doing a good job of appealing to women. Merely keeping up with the population sex ratio is a pretty poor showing given women’s overall greater religiosity.


  1. Ziff,

    I don’t think there’s any reason to be leery of these survey data. They come from multiple sources, provide a univocal result, and closely track what the historical literature has been claiming about American religion during the period since at least the Second Great Awakening.

    So, summing up your results, at an absolute level, the Mormon church is appealing to more men than women. But, of the people missionaries find, women are only equally likely to accept the church as men. Furthermore, of the people that missionaries find who are inclined by temperament or circumstance toward religion, fewer women accept the church than men.

  2. Let me get this straight. If the Church were equally appealing to men and women, active women would outnumber active men by between 20 and 40 percent and this would be a good thing?

    To sustain that kind of ratio, the Church would have to virtually eliminate the whole eternal marriage thing. Not very appealing to women who would have no prospect of achieving it in this life. Of course there is another solution, but I won’t go there.

  3. Ahhh, so perhaps God strategically designed his Church to be unappealing to large numbers of women, hoping there would then be enough husbands to go around.

    I wonder whether God considered running a cost-benifit analysis. 😉

  4. Last Lemming, remember that the data here are about people on the church rolls, not people active in church participation. Eternal families are a component of the missionary message, and therefore a component of the decision to join the church. But that theme isn’t anything like a large component of the missionary process, which instead emphasizes Joseph Smith, the Book of Mormon, and the restoration narrative regarding authority and institutions.

    The fact that religiously-inclined women don’t choose to join the church in proportion to their numbers in the general population reflects that this initial message (which doesn’t usually place major emphasis on family themes) is somewhat less appealing to them, on average, than to men.

  5. If we are only talking about people on the church rolls (as opposed to in the pews), I don’t see why this is even an interesting question.

  6. Last Lemming, but shouldn’t some of the most interesting and spiritually vital questions we can possibly ask as members of the Church have to do with the experiences and needs of those who are on the rolls but not in the pews? They are, arguably, the people we should be most concerned about and most eager to understand.

    I don’t think Ziff is arguing that a greater gender imbalance in the Church would be either positive or negative (it would likely be both); as I read him, he’s arguing only that given certain gendered patterns of religious conversion and practice, we should expect the Church to exhibit greater gender imbalance, were it appealing equally to men and to women.

  7. Thanks for the historical perspective, RoastedTomatoes. I agree that the data seem to be saying the same thing, but I always worry a little that a common methodological problem could influence all the surveys together. For example, people in general attend church less often than they claim to. If women felt more pressure to overreport their religious behavior than men, this might skew the results. If these results are consistent with historical trends, though, this gives me more confidence in them.

    I’m not sure about whether the data Heaton was discussing were “on the rolls” or “in the pews.” My impression is that they were the latter because I recall he mentioned the Church Membership Survey. If he had just been interested in members on the rolls, I’m sure he could have just looked at counts of member records.

    Here’s a little more data that suggests that Heaton was talking about participating members. In the 2001 American Religious Identification Survey, Mormons were found to be pretty middle of the road in being 54% women (1.17:1, Exhibit 11). Of course this is religious identification and not participation. The overall woman to man ratio is 1.06:1, which is dramatically different from the figures in my second table. (Note that the 52% = 1.08:1 figure at the bottom of Exhibit 11 is for the whole adult population, not the sum of the people identifying with a particular denomination.) So men may identify with a religion nearly as often as do women. Men just don’t attend and participate nearly as much.

  8. Thanks, Eve. That’s exactly what I’m saying. I’m not advocating that the Church try to achive a particular sex ratio. I’m just saying that it looks like, given women’s generally greater religiosity, the Church is more appealing to men than it is to women. I think this is worth mentioning because it flies in the face of the fact, as noted by bbell, that there are more active women than men in the Church. That’s all.

  9. I’ve seen in several places that the Church in Africa has way, way more men than women. I find this fascinating and I wonder how that would play in to what you’ve done here–what factors in African culture(s) would make the Church even more appealing to men than to women?

  10. Ziff, #7

    Men just don’t attend and participate nearly as much.

    You’re right. This just goes to show how difficult it is to understand what conclusions we can safely draw from data.

    People get onto the records of the LDS church not only by joining it, but also by being born into it. Our numbers are more likely to track the overall male/female population breakdown because we do a better job of tracking our members from birth. Consequently, activity rates are more revealing than the number of men and women on the rolls.

    People also join churches for non-religious reasons. I know a woman who became a Methodist because the church ran a pre-school near her work, and they offered reduced fees to members.

  11. Great question, Julie. Unfortunately, I have no idea how to even begin to answer it. I don’t even have a well-formed theory about why the Church appears to appeal more to men in the US. I don’t even have a beginning of an inkling of a theory about why the difference would be even greater in Africa.

  12. Hi all,

    Good discussion. My comment was based on Activity as measured by my personal experience with Church records and activity in about 5 different units. Here in the US it seems to me that Women ARE more active then men on average. The men seem more alienated to me.

    As for Africa. Julie has repeated this claim that Men are more active then women in Africa. In my 2 year mission in South Africa and Namibia this was really not the case. We had entire branches of women and children with a sprinkling of men. This pattern was consistent in tribal dominated units across SA and Namibia. The only place where it was not true was in White wards and branches.

    In the tribal areas we would tract with a specific goal. A married couple with children and a job, car, phone, etc. Often a branch of 50-100 actives would only have one or two couples like this. I do understand from missionaries that served later then I did that they were starting to baptize and retain more men and complete families.

  13. I understand the ratio of active women to men in the LDS faith is 3 women to every 1man, also the percentage of temple worthy is 7 women to every 1 man. Has anyone else heard this? I have heard this from numerous bishops and even from a stake president. Guess this is why the Lord once had plural marriages at one time.


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