By Landon Schnabel
Despite men holding most religious leadership positions, on any given Sunday there are typically more women than men in U.S. churches. Twenty seven percent of women but only 19 percent of men say they attend religious services at least once a week. Women also pray more frequently than men, with 66 percent of women and only 43 percent of men reporting that they pray daily. The gender gap in religion is so strong that U.S. religious congregations are getting creative in their attempts to attract more men, from changing décor and musical styles to hosting mixed martial arts fights in churches as depicted in the 2014 “Fight Church” documentary.
Are There Gender Differences among U.S. Elites?
Some scholars have argued that hormones make females more religious than males. They used a 17th century theological argument, Pascal’s Wager, to claim that being irreligious is risky. Then they said that because males have more testosterone, they are more likely to engage in risky behavior—such as violent crime and not going to church. But feminist scholars have consistently demonstrated that most gender differences are the result of social (i.e., gender), rather than biological (i.e., sex), factors, and that all women and all men are not the same. In this article, I use the case of U.S. elites to consider how gendered social experiences can make people more or less religious. On average, women are more religious than men, but are high-earning women (those who make more than $100,000 a year) more religious than high-earning men?
Among high earners, women are no more religious than men. High-earning men are just as likely as high-earning women to be religiously affiliated, to pray daily, to identify as a strong member of their religion, and to attend religious services weekly. This convergence occurs because the relationship between earnings and religiosity operates differently for women and men. High-earning women are consistently less religious than low-earning women, and high-earning men are consistently more religious than low-earning men.
Why Are There No Gender Differences among U.S. Elites?
So, why are high-earning women less religious and high-earning men more religious? And, therefore, why are there no gender differences in religiosity among high earners when there are consistent differences among women and men who make less money? There are several possibilities. One likely explanation is the gendered norms around work and family in family-centric congregations. Previous research has shown that even progressive congregations still value and provide services around the assumption of a 1950s family with a bread-winning father and a stay-at-home mother. Therefore, high-earning men may receive positive validation from family-centric religious congregations and identities because they are fulfilling their “proper” role as providers for their family (and are seen as important congregation members with leadership potential). High-earning women, however, may receive less validation than women who are perceived as less career oriented and more family oriented. In fact, women with high-powered careers may feel marginalized when many “women’s activities” are centered on homemaking and scheduled during the work day.
Although scholars have come up with complex explanations for why women are more religious than men, the difference may simply be due to social expectations and social benefits. People may expect women, who are also expected to fill caring roles in their family and in society, to be more religious. These expectations could be especially strong in Christian contexts where religion is associated with family-centrism and sympathy (gender gaps in religiosity are usually smaller or non-existent in non-Christian religions). Relatedly, it is possible that the average woman simply gets more out of Christianity than the average man (e.g., opportunities to socialize outside the home, existential security, etc.). Among high earners, however, women may no longer get more out of religion than men.
Regardless of exactly why earning more money means something different depending on whether you’re a man or woman, there are no gender differences in religiosity among high earners, and differences among women and men are just as large as the average differences between them. Therefore, gender differences in religiosity shouldn’t be reduced to sex categories and hormones. Hopefully, future research will explore whether women and men get different social rewards or penalties for being more or less religious and shed further light on why some women are more religious than some men.
Landon Schnabel is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Sociology at Indiana University. He uses survey and experimental methods to explore how beliefs, values, and identities influence politics, stratification, and well-being. Most of his current research examines public opinion at the intersection of gender, sexualities, and religion. His article “The Gender Pray Gap: Wage Labor and the Religiosity of High-Earning Women and Men” can be found in the August 2016 30 (4) issue of Gender & Society.