Research Quick Take: When Religion Hurts: Structural Sexism and Health in Religious Congregations

Sociologists Homan and Burdette are concerned with understanding how gender inequality operates in society. Their study focuses on how structural sexism affects the health of women in religious institutions. Religious congregations are a novel way of examining sexism. They represent a meso-level in between other scales of sexism that have been studied, such as state-level institutions on one hand and individual marriages on the other.

            Homan and Burdette characterize gender as a multilevel social structure or system, and describe how gender can lead to structural sexism with a variety of consequences that impact women’s health and wellbeing. Many studies have shown how religious involvement tends to favor health and longevity across the life course. This study indicates that these health benefits do not always apply to the female members of religious congregations.

            The authors review existing scholarship on the historical and cultural relationship between religion and gender in the United States. Researchers have described the denial of leadership roles to women in some religious organizations, such as conservative Protestant, Orthodox Jewish and Mormon denominations, while other organizations, mostly in the mainline Protestant tradition, commonly feature women leaders. Conservative Christian traditions often rely on biblical justifications to subordinate women. Some conservative congregations support complementarianism, the belief that men and women have fundamentally different capabilities. In this view, the family, the church, and society in general can only function properly when the genders take on separate but mutually beneficial social roles. These roles tend to specify men as leaders and women as helpers and supporters of men. Even outside of evangelical Protestantism and other conservative religious circles, persistent beliefs in gender essentialism may still temper mainstream Americans’ egalitarian ideas about gender.

The authors find that women involved in more egalitarian congregations tend to enjoy a similar health benefit to men compared to non-attenders. On the other hand, women in conservative congregations tend to rate themselves as less healthy than male members, and at a more comparable level to non-attenders. The authors suggest that the health benefits of religious participation are related to agency within religious institutions, and opportunities for leadership in particular. They discuss the application of an intersectional approach to their analysis of religion to account for differences between religious congregations based on how their institutional and social settings fit into the larger social hierarchy.

Dr. Patricia Homan is an Assistant Professor of Sociology and the Associate Director of the Public Health Program at Florida State University.

Dr. Amy Burdette is the Director of the Public Health Program and a Professor in the Department of Sociology.

This post is a summary of Dr. Homan and Dr. Burdette’s recent piece, “When Religion Hurts: Structural Sexism and Health in Religious Congregations,” summarized by COSSPP blog researcher, Jesse Fried.

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