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Sexism in Churches Hurts Women’s Health

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

A new reason for religious organizations to assign women to leadership positions—female worshippers in places that do not allow women in leadership positions have worse health outcomes.

In fact, organizations that leave out women from opportunities such as preaching impacts women’s health because of the systematic gender inequality within institutions. Women who attend more inclusive organizations self-reported better health than women who attend less inclusive or sexist organizations, according to new and first-of-its-kind research from Florida State University (FSU).

Previous studies associate participation in religious activities to positive health outcomes, but many religious institutions create and reinforce “structural sexism,” according to co-authors Patricia Homan, PhD, assistant professor of sociology, and Amy Burdette, PhD, professor of sociology at FSU.

The researchers compared the health status of the respondents to the type of religious institution––sexist or inclusive––they attended, and found women in inclusive institutions had an average self-reported health score higher than that of women in sexist institutions. Men were not affected by structural sexism in a religious setting.

“We found that women experience a health benefit from religious participation—relative to non-participants—only when they attend religious institutions that are gender inclusive and allow women to hold meaningful leadership roles within the congregation,” Homan said in a statement. “Women who attend sexist congregations have the same health as those who do not attend religious services at all and have worse health than women who attend inclusive churches. These results suggest that the health benefits of religious participation do not extend to groups that are systematically excluded from power and status within their religious institutions.”

Data for the study was collected from two sources—the General Social Survey, which collects demographic information and data on religion and health status, and the National Congregations Survey, which gathers information on religious congregations.

The General Social Survey asked respondents to rate their health status on a scale of 1 to 4, with 1 being “poor” and 4 being “excellent.” As part of the National Congregations Survey, the researchers reviewed respondents’ answers if women could teach a co-ed class, if women could preach at the primary worship service, if women could serve on the institution’s governing board and if they could be the institution’s main leader. If two or more questions were answered in the negative, the congregation was labeled as sexist. At least three questions had to be answered in the affirmative to be labeled as inclusive.

Of the respondents:

  • 59% said they belong to congregations that prohibit women from being the institution’s main leader.

  • 14% said they belong to congregations that prohibit women from serving on the leadership or governing board.

The study was published in American Sociological Review.

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