Nancy Ross

I spoke too soon! Good news from the Mormon Gender Issues Survey

Apparently I'm a glass-half-empty kind of person, or at least I had a pessimistic initial response to the Mormon Gender Issues Survey that was released last month.

I wrote about what I saw as 5 depressing findings from the survey -- most notably that the percentages of Mormons who support women's ordination have not budged at all despite increased visibility given to the topic in the last two years.

And that's one way to interpret the quantitative data, but researcher Nancy Ross says that when you drill down into the "qualitative" results -- the off-the-cuff written reactions of people who respond at length beyond the basic survey -- a more complicated and hopeful picture emerges. Here's what Nancy has to say about these findings.

Nancy Ross

Nancy Ross

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A guest post by Nancy Ross

When CNN reported the results of the Mormon Gender Issues Survey last month, Jana wrote on this blog that she felt that someone had cancelled Christmas.

The new survey data shows that Mormons have not changed their minds about women and ordination in recent years. Indeed, that is depressing news.

But that particular result is just a small part of the story of the Mormon Gender Issues Survey. As the report makes clear,

“The data tells a story that is not reflected in the polarized discussions you might hear in Sunday church meetings in the American West. It is not reflected in conservative or progressive Mormon blog posts on the internet. It is not echoed in General Conference talks. The data analysis reveals a substantial and previously unrecognized middle ground on the subject of gender.”*

I was part of the survey group and I worked with a handful of scholars to analyze and write up the results for the qualitative data. We collected more than 50,000 responses, but did not have the resources necessary to analyze all of it. Instead, we examined a random subset of 500 responses to three open-ended questions:

  1. Men and women are treated differently in the Church.  Some of these differences are considered cultural, others doctrinal. Please describe these differences and why you feel they are beneficial or not beneficial.
  2. If women were to serve in more administrative and leadership roles in the LDS Church, how would that affect your religious/spiritual life? Please comment in as much detail as possible.
  3. What changes related to women, if any, do you hope the Church will implement over the next ten or twenty years? Describe these changes in as much detail as possible. Why do you believe these changes are important?

I was most interested in the answers to the first question and expected that most respondents would say that the way in which men and women are treated in the church is both doctrinal and beneficial.

I was wrong. Here’s what actually happened:

  • 17% of respondents reported that different treatment of men and women by the Church stemmed from doctrine, and 23% reported that it stemmed from culture.
  • The largest group of respondents, 47%, believed that different treatment of men and women in the Church was rooted in both doctrine and culture.
  • 32% felt that different treatment by gender was beneficial, but almost as many—28%—thought it was not beneficial.

To me, the most striking number was the 47% that felt that different treatment of men and women came from both doctrine and culture.

This reveals a substantial category of people with mixed feelings on the way that men and women are treated in the church. I feel that this is the single most hopeful-for-change statistic from the survey.

I would say that the majority of these answers followed a particular pattern. First, the respondents reiterated some elements of church teaching on gender and stated that they were both doctrinal and beneficial. Then came the “but,” as in “but X thing happened to me/my wife/my sister, which was terrible, and that thing is definitely cultural and not beneficial.”

Throughout the survey, when people believed that gendered treatment stemmed from doctrine, they were more likely to see this treatment as beneficial, while gendered treatment stemming from culture correlated with feelings that this treatment was harmful. There was also little agreement on what constituted doctrine as opposed to culture, although 28% thought that doctrine involved priesthood in some way.

This means that while sitting in Sunday school in any given ward, there is going to be a huge variety of opinions about what constitutes doctrine on gender. Likewise, there may be big differences in views on this issue within the same family. It is likely that everyone in Sunday school and your family is sure that their understanding of doctrine is the correct one. I hope that someday soon we can give public voice to the full range of views that Mormons hold on this issue and understand the important role of individual experience in forming these views.

I have never in my life seen so many Mormons engage questions of gender in such a nuanced and thoughtful way. If anything gives me hope for change in the church, it is this.


Nancy Ross describes herself as an “art historian by day, sociologist of religion by night.” She teaches at Dixie State University.


* All quotations come from Nancy Ross, Jessica Finnigan, Heather K. Olson Beal, Kristy Money, Amber Choruby Whiteley, and Caitlin Carroll,“Finding the Middle Ground: Negotiating Mormonism and Gender,” in Voices for Equality: Ordain Women and Resurgent Feminism, edited by G. Shepherd, L. F. Anderson, and G. Shepherd ( Draper, UT: Greg Kofford Books, 2015),  319–334.


  1. Nancy, thanks for the follow up. I remember from your presentation that there was a surprising middle ground that multiple choice surveys can’t/haven’t been able to uncover. Funny how drawing a line in the sand polarizes us but when we’re asked to describe our positions we’re actually much closer together in opinion than we think.

  2. “It is likely that everyone in Sunday school and your family is sure that their understanding of doctrine is the correct one.”

    This baffles me. It’s not a conclusion I would draw from reading the article.

  3. She didn’t supply conclusive data, but it’s the sort of ballpark statement which would apply just as well to conservative Catholics, Southern Baptists, Wisconsin Evangelical Lutherans, and other legalistic church bodies. I suppose she didn’t say it because it goes without saying.

  4. I think just like the official anti-African-American doctrines which were abolished in 1978, the LDS are moving slowly but surely toward greater respect for women as well as LGBTs. Because so much of LDS is cultural and entrepreneurial (ask a Mormon what “MLM” stands for), they’ll see the anti-woman and anti-LGBT stuff is harming their brand and change accordingly.

  5. I mentioned previously that I asked Elder Oaks at a stake conference why women can’t be Sunday School presidents since Sunday School presidents exercise no line authority over men nor exercise priesthood as part of the calling. he said that he didn’t know why it was like that…that it’s just the way things always have been. How is a Sunday School president different than a primary president who likewise have men teaching in their orgs?

    I’d have NO problem with women being in callings where no line authority is required nor priesthood needing to be exercised as part of the calling – Sunday School Presidents, Ward Mission Leaders, Ward Clerks (including membership and finance), Ward Executive Secretaries, PFRs, Employment Specialists, etc…(that last two MAY be open to women, but I’ve never seen it).

    Why stick to the “wicked traditions of our fathers” if they are harming women?

  6. I don’t think it helps move change along very well when you refer to the way things are currently structured in the Church as “wicked traditions”, there is nothing sinful about it.

    As for the callings you listed, for most, there would be no issue with calling women instead of men, if the handbooks were changed to allow for it. The only exception being Executive Secretary (either Ward or Stake), as that would result in opposite gender being frequently alone together during interviewing periods, and would be very unwise.

    Do things need to change to make things more equal between men and women? Absolutely! In our ward there were complaints when it was suggested by the Cubmaster to have the Activity Day Girls also race cars during the Pinewood Derby. But after further discussions, the change was made! Minor, but a positive change! Hopefully the day will come when suggestions like that are made, and there are no complaints!

  7. I totally agree. Where there is not a direct need for priesthood authority or keys, give it to whomever ever is willing to do the job. Heck in the scouting program you don’t even need to be a member or get set apart you just need to say yes.

  8. “wicked traditions” may have been a bit harsh, but a tradition that keeps people from fully serving can’t be righteous.

    Having been an Executive Secretary, I don’t recall being alone with the bishop or any other bishopric member. Sure, 2 clerks are there counting money and at other times, but leaving a door open should address your concerns. Besides, bishopric members are frequently alone with women issuing callings and doing recommend interviews. Should a chaperon be present there as well?

    I think my suggestions would be a great start/compromise and do not in any way violate official doctrine, just tradition/policy. Further changes would require the confirmation of the Priesthood and that won’t come without revelation and a sustaining via Common Consent.

  9. One of the really big challenges we have as mortal human beings is that we try to interpret celestial things from a mortal perspective, things that are time-less from the time we are in. Hence, there is a tendency to judge the church by the current worldly norms.

    People see men in the church as having the priesthood and the prominence of leadership positions and think, as the time-stuck current world view has conditioned them to think – that this is unfair to women. And from that vector, it is difficult to understand why so many women in the church are happy with it.

    One should not confuse equality with sameness. A pound of gold is smaller than a pound of silver – and yet it’s value is much greater. The weight is equal – the silver appears bigger and therefore more important to one not knowing it’s relative worth.

    Women who are truly in tune with who they are eternally are not hung up on the fleeting world views of today. They know and appreciate their true value.

  10. We worry too much about what man wants and too little on what the Lord wants. This is why the LDS Church hasn’t had a new revelation for so long – and Kimball’s giving “blacks” the priesthood wasn’t revelation ,it was inspiration to stop a man made rule. The LDS Church is just another break off from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints started by Joseph Smith Jr. They are no better than any of the other 50+ Mormon churches, they are just the largest. If you don’t like their brand of Mormonism, find a better one. The options are growing.

  11. Regarding your comment: “Besides, bishopric members are frequently alone with women issuing callings and doing recommend interviews. Should a chaperon be present there as well?”

    A chaperone is present. When I visit with my bishop, the door always remains open a crack and the executive secretary or ward clerk is always nearby, usually in the next room.

  12. No one would refute the idea that women and men are of equal worth to God, but your response does in no way address any justification for denying callings that in no way need the priesthood.

  13. Leaving the door open a crack is a good practice, but it is not a universal one. I doubt it is even common. The handbook does not require or suggest it. It is required that someone else be in the building during these meetings, but that does not always necessarily protect women.

  14. Are you suggesting that the true source of inspiration for Church leaders is public opinion?

  15. As i have followed and participated in the discussion of equality and ordination more and more i get the feeling that we haven’t got an answer yet because we’re asking the wrong questions.

    To illustrate, in the last three months my wife has begun working toward a degree in Nursing and one of the things we have learned is how the profession of Nursing works with, but at right angles to the profession of Medicine. Your Nurse is frequently more responsible for your good health and healing than your Doctor. But, nurses are extremely undervalued, and while having more women Doctors is good it doesn’t address the issue of that undervaluation. One that seems endemic to any job whose description has “care” in it (see Anne-Marie Slaughters’ “Unfinished Business” for an extended treatment

    I feel that simply ordaining women would likewise completely miss…

  16. The care-giving fields are often underpaid because there is an oversupply of people, overwhelmingly women, wanting to work there and will take a lower salary to do so. Since many of these women live with men making more money, they can afford to do so. It’s simply supply/demand.

    In most wards, there are more women than men and since women can’t have the priesthood, they have a limited number of callings available to them. Giving them the priesthood would allow them to expand their horizons and be considered (mostly by others outside of the church) as valuable. I think that the women feel that they have enough on their plates as it is and don’t need the demands of a big calling and therefore don’t want or care about getting the priesthood.

  17. Why should any church seek the approval of materialist-marxists?

    They shouldn’t.

    Being a believer in God means to go against the societal grain – especially in this age of moral relativism, feminism and general sewer culture attitudes towards just about everything.

  18. What kind of revelation are you waiting for out of SLC? What do you think you’re missing?

    Do new temple sites, missions, stakes, etc, not count?

  19. there seems to be an assumption by some above that the motivation for those who seek the priesthood for women is some outside/worldly influence.

    There is good reason to expect that women will be treated equally priesthood wise in the celestial kingdom. Scriptures like “all are alike unto God, male ane female”, which is now quoted in the preamble to Declaration 2on the priesthood. Along with women wearing the robes of the priesthood, so they can officiate in the ordinances.

    The motivation is to encourage the leaders to overcome worldly traditions and move toward Gods will, which is how I see it.

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