Another Conversation Stopper

There are several phrases commonly used to shut down discussions surrounding gender issues in the LDS church.  My co-bloggers have already discussed several including: “If you only understood your role as a woman, you would be happy.” and “Admit it. What you really want is the priesthood.”  One that I have been thinking about a lot recently is the phrase, “Men and women are just different.”  This phrase is often used to justify any differential treatment of men and women within the LDS church.  However, I find it a pretty poor justification for this differential treatment for several key reasons.

First of all, there is often no explanation of what those differences are.  The few examples of differences that I hear most often are: women are more nurturing then men, and men are less righteous/spiritual than woman (feel free to add any additional ones in the comments section).  However, it is hard to say whether these differences are really part of our doctrine (I honestly hope not), or if they merely are apologetic justifications for differential treatment within the church.

Secondly, there is almost no explanation of how the differential treatment is tailored to the inherent differences between men and women. Maybe the statement, “Men need the priesthood because they are more sinful and selfish than women” would fit in this category.  However, explaining how the differential treatment is tailored to inherent differences tends to be the exception rather then the rule.  For example, have you heard any doctrinally based explanations for any of the following questions?  Why do men and women meet in separate classes during the third hour of church when they are being taught the same lesson?   Why do women have both home and visiting teachers assigned to visit them whereas men only have home teachers?  Why do cub scouts meet every week with a larger budget while the same-age girls only meet every other week with a smaller budget?  Why does God talk mostly to and about men in the scriptures?  Why are certain callings given only to men or only to women?  In my experience, most of these questions remain unanswered beyond the response “because men and women are different.”

Third, by creating differential treatment along sex/gender lines, we ignore the variability among different women and among different men and, thus, unnecessarily limit people’s options.  For example, let’s imagine that you conducted a research experiment and you found a difference between how men and women learn.  Say that you found that men learn better when they presented information visually and women learn better when they were presented information auditorily.  Would it make sense for you to try to create separate learning experiences for men and women that are tailored to these learning styles?  For example, would you create a male and female version of the same college class?  The answer is, probably not, and here is why.  It is extremely rare to find a large, striking difference between men and women on almost any psychological trait.  When differences are found, the effect size (how much the groups differ from each other) is usually relatively small and there is a lot of overlap between the two groups.  So, you may find that as a group, men learn slightly better than women when they are presented information visually.  However, there would be plenty of women who learn better when presented information visually and plenty of men who learn better when presented information auditorily.  This inevitable overlap creates a problem when you don’t give people options.  So, if you did create two separate classes, wouldn’t it make the most sense to allow people to choose which class to attend?  Wouldn’t there also be advantages to teaching one class in which you encorporate both teaching styles?  One the big problems with differential treatment and opportunity within the LDS church is we limit people’s options and, thus, we don’t know if things would be different/better if people were given those options.  Additionally, because of the inevitable (and, in my opinion, wonderful) variability among human beings, the system may work just fine for a majority of people, but there will always be people who the system doesn’t serve very well.  Is there a justafiable reason why we are limiting their options?

Overall, we need to take a good hard look at how we structure experiences and opportunities for men and women and whether that differential treatment is actually beneficial.  In the comments, feel free to discuss why you think specific structural differences that fall along sex/gender lines are beneficial or not to members of the church.


1-I find the argument that “it is just easier to leave things the way they are” a poor justification for structural differences.  Change is hard, but should we keep traditions and structures in place that are not serving people’s needs?  And likewise, is it really easier to have different structures in place for men and women?  In many ways, it would be easier to treat men and women more similarly within a church context.

2-I don’t think structural differences are justified when they benefit one group and harm the other.  So the argument that “men would all leave the church if they couldn’t be in charge” is a poor justification for limiting women’s leadership opportunities.

3-One could make the argument that there are some opportunities that cannot cross sex/gender lines (e.g. pregnancy and breastfeeding).  While that is absolutely true, there are relatively few examples that fit in this category.  Furthermore, just because these opportunities cannot be equalized, is it justifiable to not equalize other opportunities?  Especially given that not all women will have the opportunity to be pregnant and/or breastfeed, and given that different women experience pregnancy and breastfeeding so differently?  (“You don’t get to have certain opportunities because you get to be pregnant” is not comforting to a woman who will never be pregnant or to a woman whose pregnancy was difficult and/or painful).


  1. Separate but equal did not pass the Supremem Court on Brown vs. The Board of Education. I don’t think the argument passes in the context of gender issues, either.

  2. Excellent refutation of the argument, Beatrice. I suspect most people who use it don’t process it with any depth at all. It’s just a post hoc explanation, or vague gesture at an explanation. I particularly like your point about no connection being established between any purported difference and the actual differential treatment. Given that this piece is missing, there’s no reason the “men and women are different” argument couldn’t be used to support any kind of differential treatment. “Why do men get to drive to church while women have to walk?” “Oh, because men and women are different.” “Why do men pay 15% tithing and women only pay 2%?” “Oh, because men and women are different.”

    That absurd possibilities like these could be equally well supported by the argument highlights (I hope) how weak a support the argument offers.

  3. Whenever I hear someone explain how important are the differences between men and women, I wonder how come gender differences aren’t significant when we search in the scriptures and revelations to learn the nature of God. Everything we are given to know about God has to do with male deity, and about female deity we know nothing beyond Her existence. Male deity is assumed to serve as template enough for women too. If gender is eternal, and eternally meaningful, what are the differences in the eternities?

  4. First time commenting here:

    I was happy to learn when we moved here to ohio that activity days and cubs both only meet twice a month. The difference in other wards always bothered my girls and I had no explanation for the difference.

    I think there is too much emphasis on the “difference” between men and women. Actually in the Parenting guide that the church puts out it even says that men and women are more alike than different. I wish more people in the church would read that.

    I just had a baby boy after having 3 girls. People keep asking more if having a boy is different. And I have to say no because besides the obvious differences when I change his diaper there is nothing else. I imagine that as he gets older most differences I will see in him will just be due to him being a different person not a different sex. After all my 3 girls are all very different from each other.

    I also wonder how much of the general stereotypical differences between men and women is due to nature vs nurture. I remember this report I saw on 20/20 years ago about how from infancy parents interact differently with their sons than their daughters. I thought of this the other day as I was bathing my son and his towel said “tough guy” on it. You would be hard pressed to find girl clothes that say “tough girl”.

  5. Welcome, Heather! I’m glad you were lured out of lurkdom!

    Actually in the Parenting guide that the church puts out it even says that men and women are more alike than different. I wish more people in the church would read that.

    Interesting! I didn’t realize that. It’s a great point. Maybe we can hope the idea will filter out.

  6. Love this post! I get so tired of hearing this line, as if any perceived differences between men and women justifies any differential treatment.

  7. And even if it’s true that men and women are different, how much of that is because of the different experiences they have the opportunity to participate in? I, personally, don’t have negative experiences with an all-male priesthood, but, sure, I would absolutely like for women to also have the priesthood. I think, though, that “change is hard” is a pretty accurate reason for things staying the same, as far as practical concerns go. Revelation is answers to questions, and if the question isn’t “could women please have the priesthood now?”, things probably won’t change.

    But, you know, even when it does change (which, I almost certainly think it will, and hope it does in my lifetime), there are things that I like about our church structure. Even when things are organised along gender-based lines.

    I like that Sunday School is organised by age-group and then YW/YM and Priesthood/RS is organised by gender. We get an opportunity to discuss things of the gospel with different peer-groups. I am currently in YSA, but I have spent time in Gospel Doctrine (which I loved) and Gospel Essentials (which I hated). I enjoy different interactions in YSA than I do in RS, and I love both. YSA is more social and RS is more spiritual. And I have always been told that I am “allowed” to attend a priesthood meeting if I so desired (I know women in my ward who have when they wanted, my mother being among them), but I honestly feel a connection with my fellow sisters that I don’t with the men in my ward, and I’ve never been interested enough to miss out on that.

    I do think that the way men and women experience the world is different, that the way they frame spiritual experience is often different, but I don’t think that means that either is more important, or that it is reason enough to explain why women don’t have the priesthood, or positions of ecclesiastical authority. (I could go on another 5 paragraphs if I talk about cub scouts and callings for men and women, so I’ll refrain for now).

    TL;DR – Yes, perhaps men and women are different. But, we can’t pinpoint exactly why, and more importantly: so what?

  8. I actually do think that there are differences between men and women, and that those differences impact the way we see and interact with others. But to me, that strengthens the argument for including women in more of the administration of the church.

    Whether the differences between men and women are inherent or culturally taught, shouldn’t women be represented? Why would we choose an all-male leadership if their experience is so different than half the people they lead? Why would men be good at making decisions for women, but women not capable of making decisions for men?

  9. Excellent points.

    Your first paragraph reminded me of another shut-down line I’ve encountered lately re gender issues: “Can’t you just ignore it?”

    Sigh. Anyway, sorry to sidetrack.

  10. “There are several phrases commonly used to shut down discussions surrounding gender issues in the LDS church.”

    I am not sure that this one is always used as a “shut down.” Quite often it is merely an observation. The hearer may choose to shut down, but that may not be how the phrase is used.

    One consideration is that our bodies were designed and created by God. I can imagine a world in which gender is not an issue, having read Ursula LeGuin’s excellent The Left Hand of Darkness. Why didn’t we get a world like that, instead of this dichotomy? Is God just a sadistic jerk? Is there something we need to learn from this experience?

    “Actually in the Parenting guide that the church puts out it even says that men and women are more alike than different.”

    This is also stressed in the marriage class manual that was introduced a few years back. It should also be noted that the “current needs” pamphlet for senior missionaries is gender neutral. It is clear that in cases where one person has a needed skill (health care, engineering) the spouse handles appointments and paperwork. We’ve known couples to go on missions where it was the wife who was the qualified health care provider or auditor, and the husband was in the supportive role.

    “One could make the argument that there are some opportunities that cannot cross sex/gender lines (e.g. pregnancy and breastfeeding). While that is absolutely true, there are relatively few examples that fit in this category.”

    This sounds rather dismissive of the profound impact that those few opportunities can have on a woman’s life. For me, I was so sick during pregnancy, then struggled with hypoglycemia during lactation, that it was really two years out of my life per baby. Or 10 years. And like many women, I had long-term health consequences from the pregnancies resulting in two surgeries and years of misery. I was very grateful for the church teachings that husbands were to provide for the family, and grateful that mine was able to do that.

    Absolutely, I benefitted from the church’s teachings in that way.

    I have always looked at LDS gender divisions more positively since learning about the struggles that other churches have to keep dads in the pews. I had a classmate in grad school who was a baptist minister, and I’ve met quaker women who feel that the men don’t do enough work of the meeting.

    It is also interesting that ours is one of the few religions which views the family, not a congregation, as the basic unit of the church. This really took me a lot of effort to wrap by brain around when I joined. And I think it is wonderful that wives are equal partners over the basic unit of the church.

    A lot of LDS families view the real work of the gospel as going on at home, and men supporting that goal, but recognizing that the critical part is played by the woman who is willing to have her body invaded by a parasite and risk her life in delivery. And that contribution is seen as making as important contribution to building the church as any calling or assignment.

    The questions raised in the OP, when taken to the extreme, could be used as justification to get rid of any all-female undertakings. The American Association of University Women is still a very popular group, and all-woman gyms attract women who wouldn’t go to a coed facility.

    I don’t have any answers, I don’t judge those with lots of questions, but I can see some benefits and I trust that eventually we’ll understand more.

  11. Ziff-Great point.

    Olea-Yes, I agree that many people enjoy having all female or all male spaces in which to engage. I find it really interesting that in your ward you have been told that you are allowed to attend Priesthood. Have you heard of other people having that experience as well? I have always really wanted to attend Priesthood meetings occasionally just to see if there are any differences in how material is discussed. But I have always got the impression that that would be a very taboo thing to do.

    Kristina-Yes, whichever side you fall on this discussion, it doesn’t justify excluding women from leadership positions.

    Ellie-I think this is one of the most frustrating conversation stoppers of all. I wish that saying “This issue causes me legitimate pain” was enough to get other people to listen.

    Certainly, my intention was not to be dismissive of the experiences of pregnancy and breastfeeding. Instead, it was to highlight that these experiences affect women in different ways, and they have different needs while pregnant.

    Also, I am not advocating getting rid of any solely female or male spaces. Instead I am advocating thinking carefully about whether creating these spaces is beneficial to people, and mostly looking at whether we are only giving people the option to engage in these gender segregated spaces and not giving them other options.

  12. In THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS Genly Ai told Ursula K. Le Guin that the truth was a matter of the imagination. Can we as children of God ever imagine our ways to sincere conversations and interactions without conversation stoppers? I imagine so.

  13. Beatrice, this is such a great dissection of such a problematic statement, and the way it’s used pragmatically and rhetorically.

    Reading through this, and the foregoing comments, I can’t help but think that the really sneaky thing about dropping this statement into a discussion of gender policy is that it forces a change in the terms of the argument — rather than addressing the policy itself, suddenly you have to back off to a much broader and more abstract meta-discussion of how and whether “men and women are just different.” Making this move carries with it the implicit demand that before you can ask for change of any policy, habit, or tradition (even relatively small things, like the gender of who prays in Conference, or whether women should leave public spaces to breastfeed), you have to redefine a whole huge ideology, determine exactly what’s different and what’s not about men and women, and then, finally, you’ll be allowed to express an opinion. If you ever get there, which you won’t.

    It looks to me like a way of sending practical concerns on a wild goose chase after huge ideological absolutes, as a way of making sure the practical concerns never have to be taken seriously.

  14. @ Beatrice in 12. Elders Quorum in my ward consists of reading the entire lesson, one paragraph at a time, in order, with no discussion. (Think family scripture study). You’re not missing out.

    OTOH, some of the most thought provoking lessons of my life have been held in priesthood (gender segregated) classes, as the men (in this case, young fathers) could discuss how to apply Gospel principles to the specific challenges and trials of that stage of life.

    Similarly, my wife reports that in RS, women feel freer to make comments and have discussions that would never occur with men in the room.

    As to the other differential treatment mentioned, it’s harder to justify.

  15. There may be some benefits to the separate meetings (see above), but as to why they are separate, at least part of the segregation is an artifact of a system of instruction instituted about 170 years ago.


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