The Problem of the Default Male and All-Male Church Leadership

This past weekend I was traveling to another state for my younger brother’s wedding. We had about a 6-hour drive to and from our destination, so during part of the drive we were catching up on some back episodes of one of our favorite podcasts, 99% Invisible. One of those episodes was this one, titled Invisible Women. It was an interview with Caroline Criado Perez, the author of a book also titled Invisible Women, about the problem she calls the Default Male.

The Default Male

The problem of the default male is the tendency that most people have to think of a man when they are thinking of a generic human being. The problem with the default male is that causes researchers to focus on men as they default, when they are collecting data, instead of collecting data relating to both men and women. The reason this is a problem is that data drives design, policy, practices, and procedures in the modern world. One striking example that Criado Perez points to is that for decades, there has been no female crash test dummy. As a result, all the data that designers use to create safety systems in cars have been focused on how the average make body is affected by a crash, and so all the design of safety systems has been geared toward making cars safer for men. But women’s bodies are different, and they are affected in different ways by crashes than men’s bodies are. Even seatbelts are not designed with breasts in mind. The result is that women are less safe driving cars than men are.

Angela gives another great example of the problem of the Default Male in her post this morning: men who don’t shave their legs are unlikely to think about the convenience added to a shower by a foot shelf, and so a shower designed around the Default Male is not going to meet the needs of women as well as one designed with input by women. (Angela and I came up with these posts independently, but they sort of go together. Her post does a really great job of laying out some important ways how this problem comes up in the church. My post is addressed primarily to priesthood leaders, and focuses on some suggestions about what we can do to mitigate the problem.)

Criado Perez makes two important points about this: (1) you don’t have to be consciously misogynist to experience the problem of the Default Male, and (2) there is a solution: collect sex-disaggregated data to drive policy, design, etc. To illustrate these points, consider another example she points to: a small town in Sweden decided to review all its policies for gender equality, and when it came to the policy of the snowplowing schedule, it seemed that gender was not an issue, but it turns out that gender was an issue because men and women use roads differently. Men tend to drive on main arterial roadways to the city center to work and then drive back home. Women, meanwhile, tend more often to string multiple trips together, dropping off kids at school, shopping for groceries, visiting a friend or relative, etc., which means that women use side-streets and backroad more heavily than men. Women also tended to use public transit and walk more often than men. So they decided to change the snow plow schedule, plowing side streets first, and then moving on to the main roads. The result of this change was that ER admissions (which were mostly women) on snowy days dropped dramatically. It turns out that it’s a lot easier and safer to drive through a few inches of snow on main roadways than it is to push a stroller through a few inches of snow on an unplowed side street.

As Criado Perez points out, the old snowplow schedule wasn’t written by a bunch of chauvinists who were out to get women by forcing them to walk through icy roads and fall and break their pelvises; but it was designed by men who thought in terms of the Default Male. And once they were willing to collect sex-disaggregated data on the actual usage of the roadways by men and women they were able to create better policy–policy that was better for women, but that was also better for everyone overall.

The Default Male and All-Male Church Leadership

Yesterday, as I was in an Elders Quorum lesson about the importance of honoring women (based on this talk by President Nelson), I began thinking about the problem of the Default Male and how it applies to church leadership. One thing that struck me is that our belief in gender essentialism makes the problem even more acute. If you are going to retain a commitment to the idea that men and women are not just assigned to different roles, but are fundamentally different on some level, that only makes it all that much more important to know how policies and decisions will affect women and men differently. If men and women are fundamentally different, then the Default Male is an even more spurious basis to make policies and decisions for women.

I have no doubt that we who serve in priesthood callings all have the Default Male problem to some degree or another. I’m sure we could come up with all kinds of examples in the church of the Default Male. Perhaps most famously, Joseph Smith seems to have thought of the issue of tobacco only as it affected the men who smoked and chewed it until his wife Emma alerted him to the ways it affected the women who had to clean up the mess it caused. Once he rid himself of the problem of the Default Male on that issue, he was able to receive the revelation that forms the origin of what we call the Word of Wisdom today. The Default Male was an obstacle to revelation, and being open to receiving sex-disaggregated data allowed Joseph Smith to remove that obstacle. (We stopped to visit the sites in Kirtland on our drive, so this story comes to mind.)

There are a couple features of church leadership that can make the Default Male problem especially troublesome: first, we don’t do a ton of data collection in our leadership callings. The church does some research at the general level, but we don’t very often collect data at the local level. We tend to shoot from the hip, relying on intuition about what feels right. Sometimes we get it wrong, but I do believe that divine inspiration plays a role in these decisions. In my experience, though, better information results in clearer inspiration and better decisions. The problem, though, is that we often don’t have the time or the resources to comprehensively collect data before making church leadership decisions. Second, our leadership councils, both on the local level and at the highest levels, are dominated by men, and that, combined with a lack of sex-disaggregated data can leave us especially vulnerable to the problem of the Default Male.

What can we do?

So what can we do? Short of ordaining women to the priesthood and integrating them into priesthood leadership quorums and presidencies (which at least for the foreseeable future doesn’t seem to be an option) what can we do to overcome the Default Male problem? I have a couple of suggestions:

First, we need to repent and pray to be purged of our biases, including the Default Male bias. God is no respecter of persons. And while we are human and subject to our own biases and faults, I do believe that through the atonement of Christ, the Holy Ghost can purge us of our blindness and our failure to see others that are different from us just as it can sanctify us of any other sin. So we must repent of the Default Male, we must pray to be forgiven, and we must pray for the ability to be purged of the bias of the Default Male.

But faith without works is dead, and such a prayer will be meaningless if it doesn’t come with a sincere commitment to do all we can do to collect sex-disaggregated data to the extent we can. We should consider whether we ought to collect data more, and to make sure, when we do, that we are collecting sex-disaggregated data. And even when we don’t collect data and are relying on intuition and inspiration, it is essential that we include women in our deliberations. Women are sometimes invited to sit in council with the priesthood quorums in governing the church. This is something that Elder Ballard in particular has encouraged for more than two decades, and his counsel about this has now even been incorporated into the handbook (see Handbook 2, 4.6.1). If the ecclesiastical priesthood is to remain male-only, then increasingly moving the governing bodies of the church from gender-segregated quorums to gender-integrated councils is something that has the potential to at least alleviate the problem of the Default Male in church leadership.

Third: we need to tell and listen to the stories of women in our own heritage. At one point in the interview, Criado Perez points out that the Default Male can even be an unconscious bias that women have. If somebody says “doctor” or “lawyer,” or “journalist,” most people, even women, will as a default, picture a man. My daughter, who not that long ago, completed a project for school about Nelly Bly, piped up to say that she pictures a woman when she hears “journalist,” because she spent so much time learning about a woman who was a famous journalist. The stories we hear and tell have the power to shape our thinking and reorient our biases. Our church historiography has been male-dominated for a long time, and I think efforts to unearth and tell more of the stories of women will be a very good thing.

Conclusion

I don’t know if the church will ever ordain women to the priesthood. I do believe it’s possible, but it would seem to require a revelation that I’m in no place to receive. But I do feel confident that in the meantime, if we’re going to have a gender-segregated ecclesiastical priesthood, and if we care about making policies and decisions that are fair to women, then we’re going to have to work hard to try to rid ourselves of the problem of the Default Male.

I’ll end on a hopeful note: I know one Elders Quorum President that has spoken to me about how dramatically increasing counseling with the Relief Society President in his ward has made a huge difference in the ward. Following the change from home teaching/visiting teaching, this Elders Quorum President and Relief Society President got together and decided to make all ministering assignments in consultation with each other. He has explained how the Relief Society Presidency has opened his and his counselors’ eyes to the impacts of certain proposed assignments that they weren’t aware of, and how discussing the assignments with them, they’ve been able to have much better information. He has described the result as a flood of revelation, and told that he feels much more confident that his decisions about assignments are inspired than when he and his counselors made those decisions by themselves.

I’m glad I heard this interview with Criado Perez because it has forced me to think about the ways that I am still stuck with the Default Male in many ways. I am confident that listening to women and integrating women into the governing councils of the church as much as we can will make a significant difference and will result in more divine inspiration.

  • What can we who serve in leadership callings do to better identify when we are falling into the Default Male problem?
  • What can we do mitigate the Default Male problem?

Comments

  1. Kevin Barney says:

    Great post, thx!

  2. Yesterday I met a member of the advisory committee for the new hymn book. I recommended some alterations to the hymns to eliminate the Default Male. Unless specifically referring to God or Jesus nearly every pronoun and generic *man* can be changed to *I* or *we* (with the added benefit of making hymns more personally applicable instead of remote and generic). *Fathers* can be changed to *parents* and *brother* can be changed to *neighbor.* I’ve been doing it for years and it makes me feel much more worshipful and personally obligated.

  3. Can you imagine how different the Word of Wisdom might have been, if Joseph Smith had simply thought to encourage the men to clean up after themselves, and not leave it to the women? No, so much easier to just ban everything!

  4. Even liberal bloggers are afflicted with the Default Male. The very next post on this blog offers poll options asking what we think we will be doing in the Celestial Kingdom. Not one option bears any relation to what I, and every other YW in any ward I was ever in, was taught we would be doing – bearing spirit children (and then decidedly NOT guiding them through mortality). The Default Male isn’t just an issue in the mundane earthly governance of the church. All of our doctrine and all of our teachings from the pulpit about our divine destiny in the eternities revolves around the Default Male.

  5. DJ, absolutely, the Default Male is not limited to old fashioned or conservative people. The whole point is that it’s a blindness, an unconscious bias, which can make it even harder to detect and correct than overt misogyny.

  6. I should not have made that sound like “liberals too!”, which was not my intent (and apparently I missed a relevant poll option, so I was entirely wrong…)

    My point was more that it isn’t just an issue of making policy decisions, or assigning ministering companions, or redesigning garments – any of the administrative things that might be improved with more diverse and better functioning governing councils. The Default Male is embedded right down at the core of our doctrine, in ways that cannot be changed with data collection. When we talk about exaltation as understood in doctrine, we are talking about the fate of men. Until women have actual prophetic authority to pronounce doctrine on our destinies in the eternities, our most sacred doctrines are totally irrelevant to women.

  7. The default male is a real problem. I don’t disagree with anything on your todo list, even though I question the efficacy of some of them. I would add an open and frank grappling with the zero-sum problem, the problem that decision making men have a subconscious (and sometimes conscious and expressed) belief that default male thinking works to the advantage of men generally and using better data will inevitably benefit women and disadvantage men. There can be a reasonable debate about when and where that effect is real, and when and where it matters, but I submit that the *belief* is real and an important impediment to progress in this area.

  8. Sure, DJ, the are significant limits to what we can do without new translation, but I submit that doing what we can to change our outlook will open the door to that kind of revelation. It might never come, or it might, but if it does, it will likely only be after we make the changes that we can make without it.

  9. That’s a great point, Christian. The idea that men would be lazy if women had the authority to perform ordinances, for example.

  10. Kristine A says:

    This post is reminding me of the revisionist history podcast (I know, I know-gladwell) based on research showing that only having one woman in the room decreases said woman’s performance and makes them try to fit in with the men and their opinions than standing their ground. It’s only when there’s more than one woman in the room that real changes began to happen, esp because the women no longer felt the same pressure to conform w the rest or be seen as the voice of all women. I mean (looks at baby-steps progress of putting one woman on committees).

  11. That’s a great point Kristine.

  12. To expand on one of your suggestions – one change that I think would do a great deal of good would be to have a full year of Sunday school focused on the teachings of women. It would be a nice break from the prophet curriculum (seriously, not all prophets can sustain a full year of lessons – although it is probably easier now with the 2-hour schedule). It would do us all some good to spend time seriously researching and listening to women, which would hopefully trickle into decision-making. Plus it would be a chance to geek out about Chieko Okazaki.

    Kristine, I love Revisionist History!

  13. Marian, I thought we were done using the teachings of the presidents of the church series. My understanding is that Sunday School continues to use the 4 year rotating scripture curriculum (OT, NT, BoM, D&C), and that priesthood/ relief society now uses conference talks and topics selected by the president instead of the old teachings of the presidents of the church books.

    That said, I think paying more attention to the women leaders in the church as preachers with a prophetic message and taking them seriously would be a good thing.

  14. thegenaboveme says:

    This is a problem, and I could enumerate with examples ranging from church-wide programs and policies to the way a specific man in my stake came into my home two days ago and scolded me about how I am parenting my recently returned missionary son (which everyone on the room supported him in doing that to me). But I find that if I respond to this in any way (objective mention, use of humor, indirectly responding by sidestepping, reframing the situation), I am either ignored or I get a finger wagging. I also have sat in ward council and made observations that the entire room ignores until 20 minutes later my husband says THE EXACT SAME THING, and the room lights up with, “Oh, how insightful! We need to respond to this. Thank, you Brother.” I don’t want to be sad and mad all the time, so I am (currently) in a space where I am trying to have value to my faith community as an empty nester (well, technically the nest empties on August 23rd), Being an older woman at church further makes me invisible, dismissed. But again, I can’t change the entire system, so I’m exploring ways to interact meaningfully with people at church and to make it their problem for those (even if it’s the majority) refuse to recognize my value, worth, insight, or even my labor of cleaning up messes and caring for kids. *SIGH*

  15. thegenaboveme says:

    PS: I just want to clarify that the man from the stake that criticized my parenting has ZERO ecclesiastical authority over me (not a minister, a bishop, a stake priesthood officer, not the leader of an auxiliary in which I serve). That would still be a gender-based biased problem
    , but he had ZERO authority over me except just being a Church Man (who is younger than I am). But he felt emboldened to repeatedly criticize me (he started in the foyer earlier in the day and convinced my son in front of my to cancel going to the temple with me this week in favor of going to the temple with him and his son who is recently called on a mission, and he was all smiles about how this was a superior activity because it was all priesthood-y instead of mom-son-ish, and I WENT ALONG. Because I want to validate my emerging adult son’s choices), and then he came over with cookies that afternoon–uninvite–and continued to instruct me on how to parent a post-mission emerging adult.) Sorry to go on and on. But this post really speaks to a specific example of the problem, and people (male people) are not HEARING me when I point out that this is an issue. Calmly stating gets zero attention. Emotional stating gets “you are hysterical [intentional word choice by me]” attention. *LE SIGH*

  16. J. Stapley says:

    Jared, this is a great post, and I enjoyed reading it in conjunction with Angela’s. Lot’s of things to think about.

  17. If you look into the history and development of the LDS concept of priesthood, which I have done, you can’t help but conclude that there is no scriptural or historical reason why women should not receive the priesthood and be ordained to priesthood offices. All reasons are cultural or based on precedent, which is mostly cultural. I expect that women will eventually be ordained, but not in my lifetime.

  18. i agree we need more female leaders i was sad to see that the new Dialogue Foundation’s Board of Directors i Taylor Petrey a white male not another woman or a person of color

  19. joshua gram says:

    i wonder would jesus fit the male default

  20. it's a series of tubes says:

    I also have sat in ward council and made observations that the entire room ignores until 20 minutes later my husband says THE EXACT SAME THING, and the room lights up with, “Oh, how insightful! We need to respond to this. Thank, you Brother.”

  21. thegenaboveme, that sounds very frustrating.

  22. Thanks, J.

    Wally, I don’t really want to turn this into a debate about women’s ordination. Full disclosure: I have never seen an argument or explanation why women couldn’t theoretically be ordained to the priesthood that I found convincing. They all seem like post-hoc justifications. I used to believe like you that the church would take that step someday. Now I’m less sure. But you may be right.

    In the meantime, though, the leaders of the church that have the exclusive authority to make that change have said that they don’t feel empowered to make that change–at least not without further revelation directing them to. So whatever we might think about priesthood ordination for women, for the foreseeable future, it doesn’t seem to be an option.

    And it may very well be that true gender equity won’t happen without gender integration in the ecclesiastical priesthood. But even without gender integration in the ecclesiastical priesthood, I think there are realistic steps we could take to bring about more gender integration in church leadership, which, though it has been conflated with the ecclesiastical priesthood, doesn’t have to be. In the earliest years of the church, church leadership was primarily conducted through conferences, and it was only later, as priesthood quorums developed, that quorums took the place of conferences. There’s no reason why a similar shift could occur from quorums to councils. If we can’t integrate quorums, maybe we can increase the leadership power of gender-integrated councils relative to gender-segregated quorums, and expand counsels to include more women to get something approaching parity.

  23. liz, from what little I know about Taylor, he’s well suited for the job, but I sympathize with the desire for more diverse leadership. Of course, Dialogue isn’t run by a all male priesthood, so it’s not exactly the same thing, but I get it.

  24. I’m not sure what you mean, Joshua. Would he be unable to understand women’s needs? I guess if we believe he is perfect, then he would be perfectly able to understand women’s needs and concerns. We priesthood holders, though, are not Jesus, as should go without saying.

  25. bwmwhitney says:

    “Tne thing that struck me is that our belief in gender essentialism makes the problem even more acute.”

    With a theology of embodied, gendered deities, I’m not sure the problem of essentialism will ever go away. The notion of a silent Heavenly Mother whose name isn’t even revealed, but by whom all spirits were born, is also troublesome as it only further serves as a model of the subservient wife whose primary duties are to bear children, let her husband preside, and be a model for eternal heteronormative marriage.

  26. I don’t know why we need gender essentialism for there to be both a Heavenly Father and a Heavenly Mother. When perfected, is Heavenly Father going to be stronger, more assertive, have better leadership qualities? Is Heavenly Mother going to be more nurturing, softer, kinder, gentler? What besides the physical characteristics of male and female will really be different in a being who is perfect?

    All these assumptions that eternal gender is the reason that women have different roles, and no priesthood, and those roles just happen to align with traditional gender roles we currently have on earth is just us projecting how things are on earth on to heaven and failing to imagine how they could be different. Why does there need to be a division of labor in Heaven? Is our Heavenly Father too busy out hunting for food to feed an infant? Is Heavenly Mother too busy breast feeding an infant to talk to her adult children?

    The male/female stereotypes are hardly accurate here on earth. Why project stereotypes onto God and Goddess?

  27. Lauren: I suppose you’ve heard the story that JS banned coffee & tea (the “female vices”) to balance the liquor & tobacco prohibition (the “male vices”). Of course, anybody with a brain can see that there’s a world of difference between these two categories in terms of impacts to health and other people!

    The scriptures are full of the Default Male, and the problem is that we have to make assumptions when the males are really “mankind” (including women) vs. only men. Every scripture about priesthood refers to males, but so do scriptures like “Men are that they might have joy.” We can’t use the former to justify an all-male priesthood without throwing the meaning of the latter into suspicion.

  28. bwmwhitney and Anna: Gender essentialism is certainly problematic, especially to the degree that it just so happens to align with gender stereotypes. And I agree with Anna that gender essentialism doesn’t necessary follow from the idea of embodied, gendered deity; and if it does, it certainly doesn’t follow that it echoes mortal gender stereotypes.

    But I’m not arguing in this post on the merits of gender essentialism, though, I’m just noting that to the extent we embrace it, as we seem to in things like the family proclamation, that makes the problem of the default male more acute, because if men and women really are fundamentally different, that makes it even less likely that a man making policy for the default male will make a policy that’s equitable to women. We don’t have to believe that men and women are so fundamentally different, but if we do, that makes the problem of the Default Male even worse.

    Indeed, Angela. (Though I’m not trying to start a debate about women’s ordination.) The scriptures on priesthood say “men,” but they never say “men only.” That’s an interpretation we’ve put onto them. That interpretation may be right or it may be wrong, but as you note, it’s not very consistent with our insistence that in other cases “men” means “everyone.”

  29. Just some random dude says:

    Jared, serious question, do you believe that God is concerned with redressing mortal social (gender-based or otherwise) inequality? Not talking about the eternities here, just about the inequalities that exist within the church or a given society at any point in human history.

    I think it’s an interesting question worth some thought and discussion. Christ had priorities during his mortal ministry that could be perceived as inequitable. The story of the Canaanite woman in Matthew 15 and Mark 7 comes to mind as an example. Christ also provides hope for eternal (as opposed to mortal) justice to those that may be on the losing end of the inequities of mortality (last shall be first, sermon on the mount, etc.). With that in mind, from a purely religious/eternal, non-secular perspective, should the Church as an institution be in the business of seeking to redress social inequality which, at least to some extent, is subjective and particular to a given society at a given moment in time?

    I don’t provide the above example or ask the questions to suggest that the status quo is precisely the way God intends or that we should not hope for and work toward a more just and equitable church culture / society. But I do think it a reach and a bit unfair to suggest that God is ready and willing to redress all the inequalities pervasive in our culture if only the powers that be would remove their “default” blinders and receive the revelation.

    I don’t know the answer to the original question I posed but I suspect He’s more interested in the heart of the individual. That is, every individual, on all sides of every inequality. I think He’s more interested in the salvation of the individual than the institution. I guess I’m just not convinced that God cares all that much about institutional gender equality.

  30. I’m not Jared and don’t play him on FB, but I’d like to take a stab to responding to Just some random dude: We know that God doesn’t immediate “address all the inequalities pervasive in our culture,” but I think there is reason to believe he is happy when we take steps to do that: We’ve taken steps to expand educational opportunities, to address basic literacy, to provide some level of healthcare in some regions of the world, to provide training and opportunities for the mentally and physically disabled, and so on. I can’t draw a sharp line between mortality and eternity in the sense of telling the disadvantaged to suck it up now (“the heart of the individual”), because there will be pie in the sky bye and bye — if we are ever to become truly a Zion people, if we are to be the sort of people prepared to receive Christ at his Second Coming, then it’s something we have to become through removing those inequalities; I don’t think there is any warrant for believing that Christ will raise his arm in blessing and suddenly, without effort on our part, make us that kind of people. (Not that that’s your belief; I’m only contrasting that with the “we have to do the work ourselves” belief.)

    I suppose we could debate exactly which inequalities should be addressed, which are eternally necessary and which depend on this culture here and now, and we might arrive at different conclusions for specific problems and actions. But I can’t see any doubt that God wants inequalities to be addressed, because that is what Zion is, a people without inequality.

  31. Just some random dude- it isn’t that talking about The Default Man is about thinking that God wants to correct institutional inequity, it is about us as members of the church trying to build his kingdom on earth. What does God want us to be building here? God doesn’t kick us out if our culture says that hitting your wife is ok, instead he expects the gospel to teach us that we don’t deserve to be hit and we shouldn’t hit our spouses. Jesus Christ spoke to the woman at the well. Her culture and upbringing taught her that someone like Jesus wouldn’t stoop so low. The gospel of Jesus Christ and and some aspects American culture has taught me that I am worthy of respect. When men of the church fail to see this I know the Lord wants them to learn to do better.
    I know he cares about MY individual salvation and progression. And men’s too. That’s why he gives us opportunities to learn from our mistakes and do better…..if we choose. We are all works in progress. Some of us are learning to speak up when needed, and some of us are learning we need to listen.

  32. To answer your questions, random dude:

    “Do you believe that God is concerned with redressing mortal social (gender-based or otherwise) inequality?” Yes.

    “Should the Church as an institution be in the business of seeking to redress social inequality which, at least to some extent is subjective and particular to a given society at a given moment in time?”

    Yes, as a general matter I believe the church should stand against oppression and inequity. Of course hat’s not to suggest that that’s the church’s only priority or it’s most important priority, or that the church should be expected to speak directly to every instance of inequity. But I think it’s pretty uncontroversial that standing against oppression and inequity is, as a general proposition, within the church’s mission.

    But more importantly, we’re not just talking about general social inequality, we’re talking about ways that gender inequity directly interferes with the church’s ability to fulfill its mission within the church itself. Whatever arguments we have about which causes, if any, the church ought to speak out on, I don’t see much room for disagreement that it is proper and good for us as church members and leaders to try to fix inequalities within the church itself when we find them.

    I don’t really understand what you mean by the last clause of that second question. In particular, I don’t understand what you mean when you say that gender inequity is “subjective.”

    Re your third paragraph, your first sentence accurately restates the point of the post. Your second sentence seems to be directed at something other than the post.

    I don’t believe that, ultimately, it is possible to cleanly separate individual salvation from institutional equity.

    Beyond that, I agree with everything Ardis and Jks said.

  33. Adding one more thought in response to the random dude:

    All we can do is make our best judgments by the light we have now, today. There are many reasons why our best judgment today might look different from what it was a hundred years ago, or a thousand. Not least of these reasons is that the world constantly changes, presenting brand-new challenges, and our understanding of what is required must change with it. Among myriad other things, our ideas about equality must develop and change. That’s okay; it’s the natural way of things.

    It is a mistake to suppose that God might not hold us (the Church) responsible for addressing systemic inequality. The most fundamental reason for organizing ourselves as a church is that we desire to help each other, together in our common sacred project. If our organization falls short, so will each one of us, because a poor organization prevents us from reaching the full measure of our ability to love and serve each other. The condition of our hearts is inseparable from the work of our hands. It is wonderful that we can discover how to build our church together in ways that more fully give a place and a voice to everyone who belongs in it.

  34. Given that the leaders/authorities on councils are all male, I don’t think just including women in the conversation is enough. The leader should also go out of his way to communicate, both expressly and through action, that the women’s voices carry weight. I personally know a lot of LDS women who won’t push back on things the leadership says, even in private councils, because they assume that the presiding authority is always entitled to more revelation than they are. After all, he’s the one with the stewardship, and he gets to cast all final votes. So if there’s a disagreement between what, say, a Relief Society President thinks and her Bishop thinks, then most LDS women will assume the Bishop carries more weight. Even if it’s an area where the RS President might have more actual knowledge.

  35. I agree with that, Loursat. Sometimes there’s a sense almost that trying to be better is throwing previous prophets or generations under the bus. But it isn’t.

  36. That’s a great point, Rexicorn. Women’s mere presence in meetings isn’t enough if we don’t actually treat women as equal partners.

  37. Just some random dude says:

    Ardis, Jks, Loursat, Jared, I appreciate the responses. I agree with most everything stated to a degree.

    I just wonder to what extent God intends to be an active participant in the process of addressing inequalities. To be clear, I’m referring to the less extreme brands of inequality. The “default male” kind that arise unconsciously, not from intentional systemic oppression.

    For that type of inequality in particular I think it unfair to suggest that, when such unconscious inequality is present in a given ward for example, it follows that the leadership or the ward as a collective group are unfit for or otherwise ignore God’s revelation. Jared, you don’t say that, but your post reminded me of some pretty harsh judgments I have witnessed driven by that sentiment and it led me to wonder about God’s level of interest in eradicating the default male. While I agree that we should strive to be better, I have my doubts that God desires or expects that the default male problem you articulate should weigh on the minds of church leadership.

    I give the example of the Canaanite woman to demonstrate that there is precedent for God having different mortal priorities at different times. After all, an argument could be made that the most pervasive inequality in the “church” existed during Christ’s mortal ministry when little effort was made to minister to the Gentiles. I’m not making that argument or suggesting that it excuses the failures of our time. They exist and should be addressed. I think it is simply interesting to consider that mortal inequality is relative to time and place and may not matter in God’s perspective. To answer your question Jared, that is what I mean by subjective. Another culture/generation (or God) may not agree with our culture/generation’s assessment of what is and what is not gender inequality.

    Culture is powerful. Depressingly so. I think it always wise to exercise caution and take an extra helping of charity vitamins when addressing the unconscious failures that persist in our culture.

  38. “Less extreme brands of inequality” usually look less extreme only to those who aren’t on the receiving end of the inequality.

  39. When my bishop refers to ward members as a whole, he typically uses the phrase “couples in the ward.” This certainly falls into the category of “less extreme brands of inequality” — it doesn’t cause single adults to go hungry or catch measles or be cast out of the next ward social. But when he uses terms that exclude — unconsciously, inadvertently, without meaning to offend — ward members who are not halves of couples, does he also unconsciously fail to pray for us, or consider our spiritual and temporal needs, or think of us when he is considering responsible callings, or even realize that we might be uncomfortable? If single adults feel alienated, even without quite knowing why, does that not matter? It’s just a cultural thing, after all. But why would God NOT want to be actively involved, or give tacit approval to human involvement, in evening up that inequality?

    Instead of asking why he cares, ask why he would NOT care about the well-being of all his children.

  40. Just some random dude says:

    Ardis, you may be right, maybe my thought process and my resulting questions are invalid. I really don’t have a strong stance either way. I don’t intend to condone inequality of any sort, unconscious or otherwise. Just expressing thoughts triggered by my personal experience and the topic of the post. Frankly, your response highlights my underlying concern. I believe that the way in which you perceive the unconscious inequalities of your bishop deserves the same amount caution and reflection that your bishop owes the congregation. I may be wrong in that belief.

  41. Just some dude, I think you are so worried about people or God condemning those who unconsciously exhibit bias, that you are becoming part of the problem. I know you don’t mean to, you are just trying to defend honest mistakes. But consider, if a bishop says something that overlooks singles as if they don’t exist, and the singles in his ward feel like they do not matter to the church, thus they don’t matter much to God and drop out of church, just how accountable is that bishop for lost souls, for his sheep that he allows to wander off just because he forgets to remember they exist. He probably won’t even miss them because he is hardly aware they exist. But he has been given a responsibility to look after all God’s children in his flock. So, whether he means to or not, he has lost some sheep and God is going to hold him accountable as to why he was so careless as to not pay attention to all his sheep. He forgot to look after all 100 sheep and lost some, then probably failed to go looking for those lost sheep because he had not noticed them enough to notice when they went missing. Just how forgiving do you think God is going to be of his “unconscious bias”?

    I think he has a responsibility to overcome his unconscious bias. If he fails it is a sin of omission. Sure it is hard and takes self awareness and thought and getting out of his own world view. But God expects that of us. It is just part of growth and we need to grow if we as individuals are going to grow into godhood. We need to grow as a group if we are going to have a Zion society.

    We can’t do that by excusing everybody from doing the hard growth just because it is part of our society to not see certain people as important. You are saying that God might not care about all the little discriminations, but I know of women, singles, and theirs who have left the church because of these little discriminations and when God’s children get lost, I do think God cares what drove them out of the flock.

  42. Thank you, Anna. I don’t think Just some dude has shown any willingness to consider other points of view, despite his constant assurances that he is doing so. I predict that his response will be to blame anyone who feels excluded as being themselves at fault because they have the ultimate choice to stay or go, and owe a duty of compassion to the bishop.

    One problem with unconscious bias is that its effects can be unconscious on both sides. Someone who becomes discouraged because he feels there is no place for him, or that God doesn’t care, or that he just doesn’t fit into God’s plan because he is single, *may not realize where those feelings of discouragement come from.* He may think it comes from God or from his own failure to connect with the church when it actually comes from subtle cues from others.

  43. A Turtle Named Mack says:

    I’m a bit tired of making excuses for Church leaders (at any level) who are unable to recognize their biases. I concede that overcoming bias is not easy, and takes work. Indeed, even prayer. But, that’s the job – work and prayer. Missteps have very real consequences, and when those missteps can be avoided, any effort required to do so is worthwhile. And, God absolutely does care about inequalities, whether they are cultural products or some eternal disparity (no idea what that would be, though). I’m sure he intervenes in this stuff as much as he intervenes in any other arena. If we don’t see His hand in preventing/minimizing natural disasters or human atrocities, we don’t just assume that it must not be very important to Him. Which is to say, it’s our job to intervene. And this is what it looks like – confronting cultural assumptions that interfere with the well-being of others. If we perpetuate something that systematically marginalizes others and makes them feel “less-than”, God is not happy. I’m not talking about individual slights, or personal offences. This is about an organizational viewpoint that constrains the capacity of large swaths of Church members in their efforts to find peace and participate in His work. Repentance is necessary.

  44. I think it’s important to understand that noticing a problem and asking what we can do in our wards and stakes to fix or lessen it is not the same thing as condemning or judging church leaders for allowing such a problem to exist. I personally believe that God is more merciful than we can imagine, but I don’t think his mercy towards our mistakes and biases equates to apathy or lack of concern for the inequities those biases cause. I think he’s a lot more interested than we are in fixing problems and a lot less interested than we are in apportioning blame.

    Also, the thing about unconscious biases is that they seem less culpable, because they’re not motivated by overt hatred or animus, but regardless of the intent, they can actually be more damaging in the long run because they are harder to detect and fix.

  45. To add to Turtle’s comment, I think it would be more difficult to find a church leader who would defend his or her biases when confronted with their impacts than it would be to find a church member willing to crucify anyone who even hinted that a church leader was ever biased in some way.

  46. Leaders have power so that they can do difficult things. The best way to sustain leaders is by helping them do the hard things, not by excusing their failure to do the hard things.

  47. I periodically rail against the gospel of good intentions. I’m seeing another opportunity. The default male problem is a perfect example. So long as we think good intentions are enough, we will perpetuate the default male. It really is important to keep consequences in mind. To measure our efforts against actual results in this world in real time.

  48. Just some random dude says:

    Judging by the responses I think it safe to assume that one of the (assuredly many) answers to my personal “what lack I yet” is greater sensitivity to the victims of inequality. I can accept that and it is one of the reasons I read BCC on occasion – it offers perspectives that aren’t regularly expressed in my 2-hour block.

    I appreciate the responses. I hope my thoughts and questions did not offend (I was a little surprised by your recent comment Ardis). I don’t have an agenda. My intent is not to undermine efforts to bring about greater equality or rationalize failures. My underlying thoughts and personal queries on the topic of God’s mortal priorities and His mortal expectations of us (collectively and of the church as an institution as opposed to individually) are not limited to or dependent on the subject matter of Jared’s post. For me it’s an interesting query whatever the subject matter. Cheers.

  49. Sometimes I feel I am caught in a time warp. This topic was widely discussed over 30 years ago. Are we just hearing a rehash of problems that were used to promote women’s studies departments on university campuses a generation ago?

  50. A Turtle Named Mack says:

    To be fair, promoting Women’s Studies departments was just a very small piece of what these arguments were trying to address a generation ago. I guess what’s most frustrating isn’t that these continue to be rehashed, but that it continues to be necessary. An entire generation of Church leadership should have made much more progress than we have witnessed.