Pew Research survey on global religious gender gap deserves far more coverage

Years ago while living in northern Virginia, I was a mentor to a Muslim family that had been forced out of Iraqi Kurdistan. One of the things I noticed about them is they were rarely at the mosque. The women (and there were four daughters in this family) never went, except when they needed a marriage contract signed. The father occasionally attended.

Now, I’ve sat in the women’s sections of certain mosques and it’s not a great experience. You can’t see or hear a thing, it’s unbelievably crowded and there are small children racing around. No wonder my Kurdish female friends never went. Compare that to most churches I’ve visited where the majority of worshipers were women.

There's a story there.

So I was not surprised to read about this gender difference in a Religion News Service piece chronicling Pew survey data on the phenomenon. Here’s what it said:

(RNS) Fewer men than women show up in U.S. churches, and women are markedly more likely to pray and to hold up religion as important.
But in Muslim nations, it’s the women who are missing in action at the mosque -- and yet they’re on par with men in upholding almost all the Muslim pillars of faith.
Those are among the top findings in a new Pew Research study of the gender gap in religion, drawn from data in 192 nations, released Tuesday (March 22).
The overall conclusion: Women, particularly Christian, are generally more religious than men worldwide. An estimated 83 percent of women around the world identify with a faith group, compared with 80 percent of men, according to the report.

Now that 3.5 percent percentage point gap may not seem like much, but it means that 97 million more women than men worldwide identify with a faith group.

The report, if you read it here, next talks about how women around the world poll out as more observant than men in their daily prayer practices. The largest gender gap exists between Christian men and women, with the latter polling out as being more religious than men by larger margins than other religions. Some of the biggest gender gaps are in this country.

This fact is not huge news to some of us who’ve spent a lifetime in churches where women are the majority but it’s nice to see this imbalance quantified in a reputable survey.

The report is quite long and brings up some really interesting points, such how in Muslim countries, the gender gap in mosque attendance is 28 points. That is, 70 percent of the men vs. 42 percent of the women attend Friday services, which explains why my Muslim friends rarely darkened the place. 

And 28 countries show a significant gender gap between male and female church attendance and 25 other countries show little gap but there is no country where more men attend church than women. I found this quite amazing and wish the article had mentioned this. Instead, it branched off into another direction: That as women join the labor force and become more prosperous, their religious practice drops.

That angle wasn’t a major feature of the report; indeed, it’s not explored in depth until page eight. But the article latches onto remarks by two scholars who hypothesize that women with full-time, well-paying jobs lose interest in church because they’re not affirmed there. Instead, it’s the stay-at-home mom who is held up as an example of Christian womanhood.

One scholar quoted remarked that women who get equity in the workplace have a huge disconnect when they show up in church where all the leaders are men and instead of being able to teach or lead, they’re asked to help in the nursery. Their daughters, she added, aren’t even engaging with such churches. In other words:

 Theology may undergird the differences between men and women in Christianity, said Linda Woodhead, professor in the department of politics, philosophy and religion at Lancaster University.
“Christianity is a highly feminized religion: Jesus is not at all macho, unlike Muhammad,” said Woodhead, who sees this as “a problem for men” that other major religions do not share.
But as Christian women move out of traditional support roles in the home and in the church and insist on equity in society, the problem will grow for churches that “defend male leadership, the nuclear family and traditional gender roles,” she said, looking at her research in the United Kingdom.

I agree with those quotes, as that’s what I’ve been experiencing in various churches for at least 20 years. Women are the backbone of the typical church but once they’ve seen Paree, many are not returning to the farm. 

I found it interesting that the article would concentrate on what was a minor point in the report. One reason why may be because the RNS team did a story a year ago about how women are increasingly distancing themselves from church.

I surveyed some other media reports on the Pew survey, such as this one from Catholic News Service, this one from the Mormon magazine Meridian, this one from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency and this one from the Baptist Standard.

The RNS story was by far the most detailed of them all. I would have liked to have seen a bit more connecting of the dots. The survey says male religious participation is higher than that of women in Muslim-majority countries and in Israel, where the men work and women are expected to stay at home. So why, in the United States, where more women are working and outside the home, are the statistics going in the opposite direction? 

Since it's mainly been the religious wire services that have jumped on this story in the first day since its release, I'm hoping other reporters can explore its many permutations as well. There is enough in here for a week's worth of articles.

Please respect our Commenting Policy