Talking About Gender Differences

This guest post comes to us from Beatrice.

In our society, we like to talk about the differences between men and women. It is the stuff upon which great novels and films are built. It can be used as a source of bonding with our same-sex peers “Oh, my husband does that too,” or it can be used to explain our relationship struggles “I just don’t understand why women do that.” Talking about the differences between men and women adds a certain richness to our lives and resonates with the way that we think about the world. There is something so appealing about the idea that “Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus.” In church settings, there is an added layer to all of this. We like to talk about gender differences because it is an essential part of our doctrine. Women always were women and will always be women. Men always were men and will always be men. These inherent, divinely organized differences are the reason why men and women should play different roles in the church organization and in society.

It is interesting to compare how we talk about these differences in church settings and how we talk about them in our general society. In many cases, general perceptions about these differences (based on pop psychology, the mass media etc.) often play prominent roles in our gospel discussions about eternal differences. However, we forget that many of these perceptions have no doctrinal basis. In some cases church members will go so far as to use any study that finds differences between men and women as support for the doctrine that gender is eternal. However, this is faulty logic. First of all, any single research study doesn’t give strong enough evidence that a specific difference exists on a universal scale or even that it exists at all. And secondly, evidence for a gender difference that we exhibit in our current society doesn’t tell us anything about whether that gender difference is part of our eternal natures.

It is interesting to note that while we talk a lot about the importance of gender differences at church, official church doctrine actually has little to say about how men and women differ from each other. Most of this discussion centers on a single doctrine; women are naturally more nurturing than men. Often when this comes up in gospel settings I want to raise my hand and ask, “Yes, but what are men naturally better at?” We probably never discuss men’s natural strengths because it is not politically correct to suggest that men are better than women at anything. However, if gender is eternal there must be many inherent strengths and weakness of each gender, not just this one. Sure, there are a few other differences that are discussed regularly in gospel settings. For example, men are constantly warned about the evils of pornography. However, I don’t know that I would classify “Men are more likely to look at pornography” as part of our official doctrine as it describes a behavior rather than an eternal trait. Overall, the doctrine that women are more nurturing than men stands at the proud center of any discussion about the differences between men and women. For example, the justification for the Proclamation on the Family roles seems to hang primarily on the doctrine that women are better nurturers than men. You would literally see draws drop if you ever suggested in church that men were better at providing or presiding than women.

In addition to how men and women are different it is also interesting to ask why men and women are different from a doctrinal standpoint. At first glance this seems like a question with an obvious answer. In the great nature vs. nurture debate, the LDS church stands firmly on the side of nature. Men and women are different because that is how God made us. However, on second glance I would say that the LDS church also puts quite a bit of weight on nurture as well. If men and women were different only by nature then no amount of environmental experiences could change the way that they are. However, there is a lot of emphasis in the LDS church on the importance of teaching individuals about gender roles and fostering gender specific traits. Boys and girls are separated into YM and YW classes in which they are taught about their gender roles. It is important that children have a mother and a father in their home because they need to learn appropriate gender roles. Thus, differences between men and women won’t always be there. They must be fostered and maintained in order for us to reach our divine potential.

While it is fascinating to talk about the differences between men and women, I think we need to be careful about a couple of pitfalls to focusing on these differences too much. First of all, an overemphasis on gender differences can lead us to ignore differences within gender. Obviously, not all women are equal nurturers and we don’t believe that all men are carbon copies of one another either. Sometimes we can’t see the trees for the forest. We focus so much on group differences we ignore individual differences. Thus, when we look at an individual we should try to observe and appreciate their natural talents and abilities instead of assuming that we already know what they are.

A second pitfall is to ignore other factors (besides gender) that make us the people that we are. Imagine that you are a 30-something-year-old woman at church somewhere in the U.S. and you introduce yourself to a visitor that you noticed in the RS room. You find out that this visitor is a 70-year-old woman from Uganda. Now, here is a thought question for you. Who are you more similar to: this woman or your own brother? Obviously, there are a lot of factors that make you who you are: your cultural background, your past experiences, the way you where brought up, your social class, your educational experiences, etc, etc. Even though our doctrine suggests that in some ways you are more similar to this woman than you are to your own brother, you shouldn’t discredit all the differences between you and her. These differences make you a unique individual in the church and in society. Yes, we like to talk about gender differences, but ultimately we are all individuals with a unique contribution to make.


  1. Thanks for the insightful post. I do wonder about this statement, though:

    You would literally see draws drop if you ever suggested in church that men were better at providing or presiding than women.

    Would you also see jaws drop if someone suggested in church that men were better at protecting than women? I’d be willing to bet that such a statement could be made in my ward (married student ward in Provo), and no one would even think twice about it. Actually, I don’t think anyone would even think twice about it if a teacher/speaker suggested that men are better at providing or presiding than women.

  2. Interesting comment Christopher. You are right that the response to comment like this would vary based on ward or region of the country. My comment stems from the fact that we often equate “provide” with having a job and providing the family with money (although it can mean a lot of other things). In our current society it is not politically correct to suggest that men are better at paid jobs than women, and in fact overall women preform similarly to men in most professions.

    I was also thinking recently about the idea of men being better protectors than women. This seems to come from the idea that men are in general physically stronger than women are. However, in our current society is physical strength the most important asset needed to be a good protector? Are their other things that men are generally better at besides physical strength that make them better protectors?

  3. Great post. I loved the idea of “what are men better at?” I have never felt myself to be a natural nurturing, so I never quite understand what they are trying to get at with these statements about what women are good at. To me it was always a call to add one more thing to my list to do better on. I couldn’t help wonder why all men and women wouldn’t be constantly taught to be the best nurturers they could be so our communities can thrive. Why was I the one getting the “talk” all the time and why wouldn’t we want that skill taught to all. I have to learn it why not all those not so similarly uninclined.

  4. Beatrice,

    Thank you for this interesting and thoughtful post.

    I agree with you, there is something appealing about explaining observable differences in terms of Mars and Venus, but I think, ultimately, that approach obscures as much as it reveals. And because the Mars/Venus model is so widely accepted, it no doubt influences the very behaviors it seeks to describe.

    One of my frustrations with our discourse regarding gender originates in the heavy stress we place upon gender differences combined with the complete lack of detail concerning those differences. If anybody could give me even 3 or 4 character attributes for men and the same number for women which hold true across time and cultures, and which do not occur in the other sex, I would be ecstatic. In the meantime, I think it is best to think of our doctrine of gendered spirits as something which still needs a lot of fleshing out.

    It has been interesting for me to observe how the way we talk about nurturing has changed, even in my lifetime. Thirty years ago, you never saw a man bring a small child into priesthood meeting. Now you see it all the time. It is my belief that the church is now strongly encouraging fathers to be involved in the lives of their children and participate in their care, even at a very young age.

  5. Beatrice, I’m sorry I wasn’t clearer in my comment. I was not suggesting that men are inherently or naturally better at providing or protecting or anything else. I do not believe they are. I should have qualified my statement that if such a statement were made in my ward, no one would have blinked an eye except me (and probably my wife). Rather, I was merely commenting that LDS culture is very patriarchal and still quite traditional and that as a result, many men (and probably a lot of women) honestly and sincerely believe that men are inherently better at providing and protecting.

    In our current society it is not politically correct to suggest that men are better at paid jobs than women, and in fact overall women preform similarly to men in most professions.

    Sure, but the membership of the church at large doesn’t seem to care much for what is politically correct; only what they see as being right in the sight of God. If that means outdated and politically incorrect gender roles, it doesn’t seem to faze them much.

  6. Kudos for raising the issue of the simultaneous centrality and vagueness of gender division in the church. This is something I’ve wrestled with a lot lately. (Including when a ten year old boy asked in primary yesterday why it is that women don’t hold the priesthood.)

    Two further thoughts:

    First, I think there’s a significant description/proscription divide in parallel with gender discussions in the church. For women, there seems to be a lot of emphasis on natural talents being brought to bear (‘women are given the role of motherhood because they are more nurturing’). For men, there seems to be a lot of emphasis on the need for growth (‘men need the priesthood in order to develop talents and tenancies of service which they don’t naturally possess’). Without simultaneously addressing that divide I don’t think we’re likely to get far in addressing gender in the church.

    Second, a small quibble about what you site as evidence of a “nurture” approach to gender. I think an equally compelling argument could be made that the YM/YW divide is an attempt to address youth in terms of their natural/eternal gender roles rather than an attempt to reinforce those potentially fragile roles? Personally, I’d suggest that both outcomes are likely, but I expect the latter is more in line with the thinking of those responsible for such programs.

    Similarly, I have rarely heard the learning of gender roles held up as a prime argument for the need for two parent households. When the issue is raised, the discussion focuses on the need for positive role models so youth can learn the best characteristics of their gender. I don’t think challenging us to be the best men or best women we can be undercuts a ‘nature’ argument about eternal gender qualities, especially in a church so focused on the ideal of progression.

  7. Very interesting post. I thought maybe the main reason why ” there is a lot of emphasis in the LDS church on the importance of teaching individuals about gender roles and fostering gender specific traits,” might be because the worldly culture around us now often seems to be trying to erase or at least downplay those things.

    I agree with Mark Brown that our doctrine of gendered spirits is rather vague. I expect some of our ideas about the subject are pretty far off base; and we are probably on surer ground if we don’t try to come up with reasons and justifications for the basic statements in the Proclamation on the Family.

    I also agree with Guest that we need to beware of some worldly “evidences” of gender differences. Theories are a dime a dozen, and statistics can be deceiving.

    One of the reasons why I like the Proclamation so much is that it essentially “tells it like it is.” It explains that men and women have a divine nature and destiny, that we will be blessed if we live God’s commandments, and then it gives us fair warning about the dire consequences that will befall us as individuals and nations if we ignore God’s words. No apologies for anything that may not be politically correct, or not a part of current scientific thinking, or not in agreement with the latest pop psychology theories.

    Re: physical strength and protection. I think most women believe that their husbands are stronger and that this is very comforting, especially when thinking about possible situations where physical strength might save lives.

    Re: providing, Christopher, you may well be right about the people you know. I know a lot of very traditional LDS men and women, and they all seem to realize that women can do many jobs as well as men. However, they also see great value in men taking on the roles of primary provider and protector when feasible.

    Re: men nurturing. Most mothers are probably as glad as I am that men in the Church now usually see helping with all aspects of the care of their children as being Christlike, rather than as “women’s work.” 🙂

  8. This is an occasional but recurring topic of discussion in my family. I have little to add to Beatrice’s excellent treatment, other than to note that I frequently hear presiding and nurturing spoken of as if they were the defining or central characteristics of the sexes. I might not be troubled by this if I could ever discover what it means to preside.

    I recognize that the John Gray-style school of thought is completely overdone, but there still seem to be fundamental differences between men and women. It’s just extremely difficult to articulate exactly what those differences are, and I’m not sure why something so natural or fundamental should be so indescribable.

  9. You would literally see draws drop if you ever suggested in church that men were better at providing or presiding than women.

    Threadjack (sorry, couldn’t resist): I’ve been contemplating how the meaning changes when “draws drop” is either “drawers drop” or “jaws drop.”

  10. Thanks for the comments everyone! A couple of specific responses.

    Christopher-No worries. I understood your comment. I just wasn’t clear in my response :). Now that I reflect about it more, it would be hard to predict exactly how general members of the church would respond to comments about men being better at some things. However, I guess my overall point is that, for whatever reason, we don’t talk very much about what men are naturally better at. Why is that? We talk a lot about women being better at nurturing, but we don’t talk any other gender difference to the same degree.

    A note about being politically correct-While I agree that the leaders of the church feel confident in saying things that are not politically correct, I do think they care about how the church is perceived in our society. They are careful with their word choice and generally how they talk about the principles of the gospel because they don’t want to cause unnecessary PR nightmares. For example, the idea that men and women are inherently different is not politically correct in some people’s minds, but the church leaders freely talk about these differences. However, a lot of the talks about gender differences focus on how women are not inferior to men and the doctrine that women are better nurturers than men. These talks don’t focus on the idea that men lead at church because they are naturally better leaders or even what men are better at in general You can speculate about why that is, but I think that it is partially because it is more acceptable to say that women are better than men at X, but it is less acceptable to say that men are better than women at X.

  11. Jason L-

    Good comments about the nature/nurture issue. What I was trying to say was that I used to think that the church was 100% nature, but what is the point of trying to teach and model appropriate gender roles if the environment has no influence on gender? I still think that the church is strongly on the nature side of the argument, but I think there is an element of the importance of nurture. Most of the discussion about these issues is about fostering and /maintaining inherent differences. So the idea is that those differences are inherently there, but it is also important to have an environment that encourages us to develop in gender specific ways.

  12. RoAnn,
    I really appreciate your perspective and comments.

    Being a psychologist myself I could go on and on about why psychology is important, but any good psychologist knows that scientific findings are limited and always have weaknesses (as you pointed out). Even if we used the best psychological methods in the world and found a difference between men and women in X we would still have no idea whether that difference is an eternal difference or if it is based in our current culture. Cultures vary a lot in which traits they view as being inherently male or inherently female. Thus, it is possible that when foster gender specific traits in church members, we are actually fostering traits that are valued in our current culture/context and are not eternal differences. The solution to this problem would be to focus on fostering culture-free eternal differences however we don’t have much direction about what they are.

  13. I was struck by Brigham Young’s sermons on how the one thing that men were better at than women was physical labor. Women, he said, were just as good at being lawyers, accountants, shop keepers and doctors, but not so good as ditch diggers.

    That stuck with me.

  14. What interesting comments have been made since I was last here!

    Stephen M (Ethesis), thanks for that tidbit from Brigham Young. In our concern to be politically correct and avoid offending, I hope we can recognize that although some individual women may have the upper body strength of a good male ditch-digger, there really are biological differences that make some occupations less suitable for females in general. ?

    Beatrice, after re-reading your original post and your follow-up comments more carefully today, I saw even more things that I wished to reflect upon because they struck me as profound and valuable insights that fit very well with my basic outlook on this issue. Your views on the value, as well as the limitations of psychology, your comments on the concern of the Brethren for “how the church is perceived in our society,” and how the “nature vs. nurture” question is approached, your advice to “try to observe and appreciate [an individual’s] natural talents and abilities instead of assuming that we already know what they are,” etc.—each of these points resonated with my personal experiences and opinions.

    I started to comment on each of the points I agreed with, and realized that it was quite unrealistic to try to chime in with supporting comments for, and possible implications of almost every point you made!

    So I’ll just thank you again for a superb post that has given me much food for thought, plus and a desire to post on this subject on my personal blog.

    And thank you, Zelophehad’s Daughters, for giving Beatrice this opportunity to post as a guest!

  15. Good discussion, especially the following attitude:
    “men need the priesthood in order to develop talents and tenancies of service which they don’t naturally possess”
    This is an interesting approach. It is what women are told when they are barred from acceptance to a desired class or job. It is the attitude that “men” are favored in society, so women must step back when less qualified men are chosen for a leadership position or a work position.
    Many women have had the experience of training a less qualified man for a job position that a long time employed woman was working toward. It is the country club attitude, that he has the right “image” or the right “antecedents” (meaning ancestors) for patrician jobs excuse that was common in the 1960’s. If you don’t look like one of us (wrong color, wrong gender, wrong university) you cannot take this desired role, even though your qualifications are superior to our desired applicant.
    I’ll refer you back, to the “driving the bus” example, where the bus driver was always the white male in pre-1954 Alabama, and Rosa Parks and anyone who looked like her, sat in the back of the bus.
    Jesus treated women as equal souls, sometimes going against the Jewish traditions of how to treat women.
    Thank you for all of your comments. It has been interesting to see how very entrenched gender roles impact how religious groups distribute privilege.
    I enjoyed your discussion of why women, based on their gender role, cannot drive the bus in religion.
    I still don’t agree with this established attitude, as women can drive the bus in the field of education.
    The answer given here, by many of our bloggers, is that women should be home, nurturing. Isn’t nurturing what we do when we take on a position of leadership with any group?
    The German language has a saying for this:
    “Children, church and kitchen.” So it seems that “where” we are allowed to nurture is limited.
    Thank you for the various discussions of why social injustice works for our church and our society.


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