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Fact: More women go to church than men

A major new Australia-wide survey reveals an ongoing trend among the pews

In the 2016 National Church Life Survey, 60 per cent of church attenders are women. This figure has been constant since 2006, and this gender imbalance continues the pattern found across 25 years of the NCLS.

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It also is the same pattern as in a wide-ranging study by Pew Research, which found that, globally, women are more devout than men across different religions (by several standard measures of religious commitment). Specifically, Christian women are more religious than Christian men across the world.

In every denomination, in every age grouping, women outnumber men.

The gender imbalance among Christian church attenders partly can be attributed to the fact that some churches have an older age profile and women, on average, live longer than men. However, although differing life expectancies do play a part, they are not the only reason for the gender skew. In every denomination, in every age grouping, women outnumber men.

The gender imbalance among church attenders is a long-standing issue, and many theories have been developed in an attempt to explain it. These theories, which need to be tested against the evidence at different points in time, include the following observations:

• Differences in the ways boys and girls are socialised affect their church involvement. This theory suggests that boys are taught independence and self-reliance, while girls are taught interdependence, obedience and responsibility for others. Consequently, girls are more predisposed to church involvement which features such behaviour.

• Australian men are more likely to reject authority structures such as the church. They prefer more egalitarian forms of relationship with others, based around the concept of “mateship.”

• Men are more emotionally inhibited than women. This theory would suggest that men are daunted by structures in church life that promote intimacy (for example, small Bible study groups).

The religious gender gap probably stems from a confluence of multiple factors.

• Women are more likely to seek to instil moral values in their children as part of their role as child-rearers. Women not only look to the church to provide religious education for their children but also attend church in order to be good role models.

• Women get social status in church that is denied elsewhere. Some social theorists argue that men and women without power or status in the community are more likely to turn to religion as a form of compensation.

• Men are more likely to be in full-time work and to get their self-esteem from work. Work provides an alternative sense of purpose, community, identity and interests.

• More controversially, some have theorised that the gender gap in religion is biological in nature, possibly stemming from higher levels of testosterone in men or other physical and genetic differences between the sexes.

In recent years there has been a growing consensus among sociologists that the religious gender gap probably stems from a confluence of multiple factors.

While there is still no agreement about which factors are most important, it has been suggested that social and cultural factors, such as religious traditions and workforce participation, rather than biological factors, play an important role.

Ruth Powell is Director of NCLS Research. References: NCLS Research, (1999). Taking Stock. Pew Forum, (2016). The Gender Gap in Religion Around the World. 

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