Step 1: Be Mormon…and Male

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: ???

Step 3: Profit

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

The Marriott School’s 2011 MBA class was 12% female, about a third of HBS’s 35%.

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?


  1. Great stuff! I attended a fireside with the author and several CEOs in the Mormon Way of Doing Business. The lack of even awareness that their descriptions of the benefits of Mormonism for enhancing their business careers were only available to men was shocking.

  2. Good point. (And I did read the New Yorker piece, which was brought to my attention by my Jewish senior partner, and it was truly excellent; highly recommended.)

  3. Great insights. For a while I lived in a ward that included a lot of (male) students in a hospital administration program. I was talking a woman in the ward about this and she mentioned that the program really liked to accept LDS students because these students had already had leadership experiences on their missions. As she said this, I felt a little sadness that I had served a mission, but didn’t have any of these clearly beneficial leadership experiences. It also made me wonder about other people’s perceptions of Mormons and their capabilities. If I applied to this hospital administration program and the administrators found out that I was LDS, would they also assume that I had had leadership experiences? What if I told them that I had served a mission? There was clearly an assumption made about these men’s capabilities based on their religious backgrounds, but I was not sure if the same assumptions would extend to me in a similiarly beneficial way. It seems that in cases like this one, perceptions of Mormon women (they are really dedicated to their families and are probably not seeking a long-term career) would hurt me rather than help me. I wonder if there is a general perception that it is not worth investing in Mormon women because they will probably not be around for the long haul.

  4. Here’s an interesting story, not to counter the author’s argument but to provide a counter-example that many likely are not aware of:

    The other day in my ward (in priesthood session), one of the Aaronic Priesthood leaders announced an activity in which the young men were meeting with the dean of the business school. I imagined a good ol’ boys meeting that stereotyped Mormon men being all about business. (In hindsight, it’s possible that the meeting was for all the youth, I’m not sure.) But the following week, when one of the boys was giving a report about the meeting, he said that SHE gave them lots of good advice and quoted from President Hinckley about the importance of education. Well, that perked my ears — the dean is not only a woman but also likely LDS.

    I looked it up, and sure enough, Alison Davis-Blake is newly appointed as the first female dean of the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan — and a Mormon. See

  5. Dennis,

    Ah but were the YW invited to meet with the female Mormon business school dean and if not I hope she made sure to note the absence to the leaders….

  6. Great post, Petra. Interesting that the Economist piece used gender inclusive language when writing about an organization that is openly so focused on gender differentiation.

    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.

    Amen to this.

    In terms of how many men serve – the recent Pew survey said 43% of men serve, but I’ve read other stats that say it’s more like 1/3.

    My own mission experience left me with the impression that it isn’t leadership skills per se that mission culture instills in men, but learning how to be a dedicated team player. I often felt like I was busting in on a frat when I went to zone conference. This might be hairsplitting (leadership skills v team player skills), but I got the feeling that a lot of these guys weren’t necessarily great leaders, but they developed a lot of organizational loyalty, both to the church and to their brothers, through their mission experience. I can see that being a big asset in the business world.

  7. I have rarely been in traditional leadership positions. I have been in a number of positions that did require me to lead in some fashion or another all be it under the direction of someone or other. I think that serving a mission helped me in many ways that relate to leadership. Being a senior companion relates to leadership. How many APs are there anyway. Most missionaries get to be a senior companion. You can learn a lot from the experience. I didn’t know how shy I was until I got home and my family was astounded at how much I had changed. I am curious about how many women are successful on the order of those mentioned in the article. Do you have an idea?

  8. Don’t forget that boys and girls have equal public speaking opportunities growing up, and about equal chance at youth leadership in Presidency meetings, which trains many youth for leadership even if as adults they don’t serve in a Presidency.

  9. Nope. It’s be Mormon, STRAIGHT and male. I just finished listening to Benji Schwimmer’s coming out story and could not be more convinced.

  10. I’ve noticed that there is a pressure for men to preside and to PROVIDE for their family. In fact, I think some men measure they’re righteousness as a good mormon man in their ability to do so. Add some competition and a sense of entitlement, and you’ve got a recipe for a driven businessman.

  11. Beatrice — my mission had both elders and sisters as APs. Not everyone served in those callings (I did not). Was your mission different?

    Dennis — that was interesting.

  12. Admin, yep, it is the “Ethesis” ID that is triggering the filter, not my ISP.

    I’m hoping that is an accident, but I’ve had every post a “Ethesis” spam blocked out for over a month, if you are curious why I had not been posting. I’ve been trying, just not succeeding.

  13. A note on the first point that bothered you: it’s been years since I read The Mormon Way of Doing Business, and I only read about 3/4 of it, but IIRC it talks a halfway decent amount about the contributions the wives of the business leaders made. Mostly about how the men spent _very long_ hours gone in order to get where they were, and their wives kept house, raised their children, etc, largely by themselves.

  14. Stephen, the vast majority of missions do not allow women to serve as APs.

    That is a shame. It worked well in our mission in the 1970s, it is too bad more missions do not have that.

  15. .

    Fwiw, I happen to know someone’s working on a new version of The Mormon Way of Doing Business focused on female CEOs.

  16. @ Stephen ( #13) – Beatrice and I served in the same mission. The leadership opportunities we had are detailed in a post linked about a third of the way through Petra’s OP above (linked from the words “the leadership they exercise while there”).

  17. Well writ. Thank you.

    “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 statement about women and the LDS church can stand alone about much more than MBA/Mormons. . .

  18. I read a Newsweek article a few years ago that was very similar (I’d link but I can’t find it so I assume it’s archived). It annoyed me that the article was so dismissive of women’s efforts in business–if I remember correctly, it said something like, “Mormon women are expected to stay home with their children because of the Proclamation.” (The Proclamation doesn’t say that, but that ‘s another issue). The article completely ignored the fact that Mormon women work in nearly equal numbers to the rest of the nation. The one redeeming point was a brief sidebar profile of Whitney Johnson.
    As for mission leadership experience, in my mind, the leadership comes from how missionaries deal with ward members and investigators, not from running meetings. Maybe I’m just saying this because aside from praying or speaking in mission meetings, I didn’t do much leading of other missionaries as a sister, so that much is true. But I dealt with lots of sticky situations and helped resolve plenty of conflicts. My mission helped me develop social skills, negotiation skills, empathy, etc. It helped me learn when to speak up and when to keep my mouth shut, when to suggest things and when to let people figure things out for themselves. Some business people call those “soft” skills, but they’re becoming increasingly valued.
    So yes, articles that ignore the contributions of women, whether in the home or in the working world are obnoxious, to say the least. At least in church we hear about the value of women’s work as wives and mothers.
    But to pretend that men are able to get where they are solely because of their missions ignores the reality that most CEOs have a stay-at-home wife, without whom they would not be where they are. It ignores the business model that means reaching the top is rare unless you rarely want to see your family. It ignores the efforts of Mormon women who work in business by assuming that of course they are at home. It also ignores the hours and dedication and sacrifice that so many SAHMs put into their families.


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