Or, What The Media Doesn’t Mention About Mormons in Business
The Economist recently published an article about the prevalence of Mormons among successful businesspeople, and it’s certainly not the first publication to do so; there’s an entire book dedicated to the so-called “Mormon Way of Doing Business.” (Are we, as a people, really so prevalent in the top echelons of business? And here I thought Mormons were all lawyers, dentists, and podiatrists!) These articles have all noticed a peculiar correlation out there in the wild world of business, one that goes a little bit like this:
Step 1: Be Mormon
Step 2: ???
And, of course, the articles want to explain that damned, elusive Step 2: what makes Mormons such perfect CEOs? The hypotheses generally floated–and repeated in this Economist piece–are usually that Mormons are so great in business, as entrepreneurs and salarymen alike, because a. they grow up taking part in an organization, often in leadership roles, and b. they go on missions.
That’s a fine hypothesis, probably true in part (though I can think of other factors that might contribute), but I think there’s something major missing here. Let’s consider these statements from The Economist:
The Mormons have produced a striking number of successful businesspeople
Some examples in the article? Mitt Romney, Jon Huntsman senior, David Neeleman, Ralph Atkin, Eric Varvel, Harris Simmons, Allan O’Bryant, J.W. Marriott, Jeremy Andrus, Clayton Christensen, and Stephen Covey. No need to use a gender-neutral word there: I think those are all successful businessmen.
The Marriott School at Brigham Young University provides among the best value for money of any business school in America
Church members begin to perform in public at the age of three. They become “deacons” at 12 and are given more demanding jobs as they grow older.
“Perform in public” can honestly take a subject of “church members,” but can “become deacons”?
The fiercest crucible for young Mormons is the mission. Mormon men serve as missionaries for two years when they turn 19; women for 18 months when they turn 21.
All perfectly true…but missing any mention of what dramatically different experiences men and women may have on their missions, both in terms of the social obligation to go and the in terms of the leadership they exercise while there.
Note that I don’t entirely blame The Economist for this; they’ve got very strict word limits and the article was a brief introduction to the Church’s organizational structure, not the inequalities of that structure. Also, props to the Business Week and Buzzfeed articles for acknowledging, at least a little bit, that they were talking primarily about men.
So if I don’t blame The Economist and Business Week and Buzzfeed both did a decent job, why am I writing about this? I’ve sat on this post for weeks, wondering if I even have anything more to say beyond, “Hey, wait! All those people are men! No fair!” But I think what’s really nagging me about these pieces, and the whole “God’s MBAs/Mormons ? Business” meme in general, is the way that women are essentially erased from the “Mormon” label: this experience of the Mormon church–organization, missions–may be normative for (some? many?) men, but it’s not for most women.
And there are two parts to this that bother me: first, there are specific women being ignored, or at least unacknowledged: what about the wives of those businesspeople The Economist mentioned? They put as much work into their husbands’ successes as the men did (usually by maintaining the home front so their husbands could successfully focus on their careers), and yet their contributions, if mentioned at all, are never attributed to them; instead, as The Economist puts it, the business men “have large families, stable marriages and a three-month supply of food in the larder in case of Armageddon.” I’d be willing to bet most of those things are a result of far more work from their wives than from them, and yet this feminine work, as usual, goes undervalued and undermentioned.
(As an aside, did anyone read that profile in The New Yorker recently about Clayton Christensen? I was pleased to see that it talked about his wife Christine and her contributions to their family and his success.)
That’s part one. Part two is just that this experience of being Mormon–leadership opportunities, committee meetings, missionary hierarchies, the whole process of working within and fitting into an organization, all of the experiences that make Mormons supposedly so prominent at the top of the business world–is alien to me. I didn’t serve a mission, and until the past year my only calling that involved any sort of committee meeting was my brief tenure as a YW class president. (I went to roughly four or five youth council meetings before I asked why the leaders even bothered to invite me if they were never going to listen to my suggestions. I was released shortly thereafter.) Even my calling now, which should theoretically involve committee meetings, leadership, and decision-making, all things that could enable later corporate career success, has mostly given me (yet more) practice at avoiding emails and executing decisions made by men in suits in meetings I’m not in.
Now, I’m a Mormon in business, and I’m fully aware that most office jobs in most companies in most parts of the world are pretty much just what I described; I certainly avoid my fair share of emails at work every day. (Hint: blogging helps.) But that’s what you do when you’re at the bottom of the hierarchy, which I am, and my life as a Mormon has made me great at it; it’s made me an excellent follower, not an excellent leader. That’s not necessarily a bad thing–I’m naturally pretty bossy, and it’s probably been good for me to get some practice deferring to authority; I’m sure my current manager appreciates it–but that’s not the Mormon experience being described in these articles. (Kim Clark says about missionary work, “a lot of people come out with the capacity to lead,” for example.)
So maybe I’m just a narcissist who’s irritated that this portrait of Mormonism in the media doesn’t depict me personally, but I don’t think so: I read plenty of articles about how conservative Mormons are without ever feeling left out. I’m irritated on behalf of all those faithful Mormon women out there getting ignored in these descriptions of Mormonism. I doubt I’m the only woman whose primary experience with the Church and its teachings has been following, not leading, and, moreover, whose primary experience of a mission, if at all, was following, not leading. (Or, if you’ll allow me to be some wordplay, whose primary experience is Primary.) Obviously, I’m not trying to make blanket statements, since many Mormon men don’t serve missions or ever have leadership callings, while some Mormon women do serve missions and receive leadership callings, but as a whole men and women often have very different experiences in the Church, whether for good or ill, and when we forget that and talk about “Mormons in business” or “Mormons and leadership experience,” we tend to gloss over Mormon women, both individually and as a group.
So please, to everyone out there: when you’re tempted to make some sweeping statements about “Mormons are X” or “Mormons are Y,” can you please keep in mind that you might just be talking about XY Mormons?