May 13, 2016

Gender gap in religious service attendance has narrowed in U.S.

U.S. gender gap in religious service attendance narrowed as smaller share of women attend at least once a weekThere are many different kinds of gender gaps, including one in religion. In the U.S., for instance, women are more likely than men to say they attend worship services regularly – a trend consistent with many predominantly Christian countries around the world.

But the U.S. gap in church attendance has been narrowing in recent decades as the share of women attending weekly has declined. Indeed, a Pew Research Center analysis of data from the General Social Survey (GSS) finds that between 1972 and 1974, an average of 36% of women and 26% of men reported attending religious services at least once a week – a 10-percentage-point gap. After initially widening to 13 points in the mid-1980s, the gap began to shrink in the late 1980s through the 1990s.

During this period, weekly attendance at religious services declined among all Americans, but it declined more among women than men. As a result, by the early 2010s, the gender gap in attendance had narrowed to just 6 points, with 28% of women and 22% of men saying they attend religious services at least weekly.

Why is this happening? There are several theories that have been advanced to explain this trend, although they don’t always square with available data.

Since the 1970s, the share of women working full time has increased as the share working in the home has declinedOne theory is that the decline in women’s attendance at services – and subsequent narrowing of the attendance gender gap – is connected to changes in women’s labor force participation. In the mid-1970s, three-in-ten U.S. women ages 25 to 64 were working full time in the labor force. Today, just over half of women in that age group work full time, compared with around 70% of men.

Scholars have found that in the U.S. and other predominantly Christian countries, women working in the labor force attend religious services less often than women outside the labor force and show a smaller gender gap with men. However, it should be noted that the fastest increase in women’s full-time employment during this period occurred in the late 1970s and early 1980s, during which time the gender gap on religious service attendance actually widened somewhat.

In the following years (mid 1980s through the late 1990s), the share of women working full time continued to increase and women’s worship attendance declined – but it did so for women inside and outside the labor force, and across occupational categories including managers, professionals and retail and service workers.

Another theory that might explain religious service attendance trends points to the large gains in women’s educational attainment in recent decades. But college-educated and less-educated women attended religious services at similar rates and both experienced declines in recent decades.

U.S. attendance patterns among religiously affiliated women and men One factor that does play into the trends in religious attendance is the difference between those Americans who are affiliated with a religion and those who are not. Since the 1990s, the share of religiously unaffiliated adults, or religious “nones,” has more than doubled, growing from 8% in 1990 to 21% in 2014, according to GSS data. (Pew Research Center surveys have found slightly different figures, but the same general trend.) Although men are more likely than women to say they have no religious affiliation, the rate of growth in the unaffiliated has been slightly more rapid for women than men. This has helped narrow the gender gap in weekly attendance.

But a more important factor in the narrowing attendance gap is found on the other side of the equation, among those adults who are affiliated with a religion.

While affiliated women are less likely to attend services weekly in recent years (33%) than they were in the mid-1980s (40%), affiliated men’s attendance patterns have been much more stable over time. If anything, affiliated men have recently become more likely to say they attend services weekly; 24% of affiliated men said this in the mid-1990s compared with 28% in the current decade.

Topics: Gender, Religion and Society, Religious Affiliation

  1. Photo of David McClendon

    is a research associate focusing on religion research at Pew Research Center.

9 Comments

  1. Anonymous7 months ago

    If you look at the websites of many churches on the pages that list the people who operate the church, you are met with a full frontal assault of men’s faces.

    When you go to a church service, chances are you will only hear men’s voices.

    When you listen to information presented at most churches (sermons, etc), you will hear it exclusively from a man’s perspective.

    When such sermons address people in terms of their gender, you will hear explanations about women and requirements for women all from a man’s perspective.

    Aside from these things being uncomfortable, unpleasant, and insulting, the small-mindedness of it all is extremely disappointing. It is hard to have respect for such places.

  2. Cornelia Cree7 months ago

    I am a single widow. Almost every woman I know does not go to church anymore. We are routinely treated badly. My 2 daughters who both graduated from Oral Roberts U do not attend but my son does. Men are applauded and often elevated to positions for which they are not qualified. Women may be accepted if they are old and have money. Otherwise they are treated as a burden. I believe Pew will find in a few years house churches springing up silently everywhere.

    1. Anonymous7 months ago

      I agree, churches are definitely NOT there for widows. I am a senior widow, cannot get emotional support, spiritual help or help with home maintenance from any church. I go to church, sit by myself, no one ever speaks to me, no one greets me, I fill out a visitors card, there ia no contact….so why fill them out. I have been talked about, gossiped about and put down by “Christians” that I thought were my friends. I am about 1 step from completely giving up on churches.

  3. Delfinogrande Crescenzo7 months ago

    The percentage are women because they are the ones that if they do not have grandchildren to care for, or other commitment to the family, go into depression if they are non-binding. The man is less cognitive, in comparison to the woman. This is the reason.

  4. Romansroad Guy7 months ago

    As churches are less depended on as social functions only the faithful are attending of both sexes. I see it as a honest and powerful trend.

  5. Anonymous7 months ago

    There may be some congruence between the level of need for help or support that certain groups feel and their attendance at religious services. The high attendance rate for black women in the U.S. would be an example. Perhaps with the shifts in status some men seem to be experiencing as women’s roles expand and men’s purchase in the economy shrinks, men are seeking support by attending religious services.

  6. Anonymous7 months ago

    Who’s surprised? Churches, liberal ones too, valorize conventional femininity. They reward traditional women for tasks they do thanklessly in the home and, more importantly, value traditionally feminine character traits and behaviors: niceness, compassion, sentimentality, etc. Great for traditional women; lousy for non-traditional women–like me.

  7. Mandy Cat7 months ago

    Well, here’s one possible explanation: women are beginning to understand that religion is a powerful tool to keep them in their traditional role of second-class citizens. You know, “graciously submissive” as the Southern Baptists phrased it.

    1. Sabrina M Messenger7 months ago

      Just because someone goes to church, it doesn’t mean they are Stepford wives.