Doctrine vs culture: Supporting women’s choices in the workplace, education

Accounting professor Melissa Western mentors her students during a meeting. Western has experienced firsthand how Church culture sometimes poses challenges to women in education and business. (BYU Photo)

Women in Utah often face unique challenges entering the workforce or seeking higher education because of the prevalence of certain cultural attitudes within The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Part of the Church’s culture heavily focuses on the doctrine of the family structure and clearly defined roles for men and women. The religion’s statement on these roles, “The Family: A Proclamation to the World,” says mothers “are primarily responsible for the nurture of their children” while fathers are “responsible to provide the necessities of life and protection” for their families.

Because of this, there is an assumption among some members that all women should be stay-at-home mothers. Often this leads to members prematurely judging other women’s choices to work outside the home or further their education.

“A lot of people don’t separate culture and doctrine,” said Utah Women and Leadership Project Director Susan Madsen, who has been studying the role of women in society for decades.

Regarding families, Madsen said sometimes members choose to judge other’s personal family choices thinking if a family isn’t a certain way, then they aren’t following the doctrine of the Church.

“Judging each other is actually contrary to the Church’s doctrines and teachings, yet it’s alive and well in the state of Utah,” Madsen said.

Church historian Matthew Grow said “obviously, women have been central since the very beginning days” of the Church, but published history has not reflected that. Church history has long been a male enterprise that historically forgot or pushed aside women’s stories, he said.

Now the Church is actively working on improving the representation of women in Church history, he said. As one of the writers for the “Saints” books, he said the team has been trying to include a wider diversity of stories to more completely represent the history of the Church.

Besides more accurately depicting history, Grow said the Church has improved over time by allowing women to take a more public role in participating in the “vital” work of the Church.

Thousands of female missionaries, more tightly integrating Relief Society and Young Women’s organizations into the structure of the Church, public speeches by female authorities and the inclusion of female leaders in Church leadership executive councils all contribute to the Church’s increasing reliance on women’s voices and influence in decision making, Grow said.

While the Church supports and encourages women to seek community leadership positions, further their education and participate in public policymaking, the culture of the Church sometimes opposes its teachings, Madsen said.

Women’s choice to work

Utah State professor and director of Utah Women and Leadership Project Susan Madsen gives a speech at Utah Valley University on Jan. 20, 2019. She is one of the the state’s leading researchers and educators on women’s leadership in business and education. (Photo provided by Kylie Downs)

Madsen said some people take the separation of male and female roles to the extreme, believing that all women should do one thing while all men should do another. She said this leads to an either/or mentality where people assume there are only two options for women: work outside the home or have a family.

“It doesn’t have to be all or nothing. It’s not you can do this or this, but it’s and,” she said. As a mother and Utah State University professor, Madsen said having a baby does not mean a woman needs to quit college or not work.

Both options are possible and women have been doing “and” throughout time, Madsen said. “We raise our kids and we work in the yard and we clean the kitchen and we go help get the right to vote.”

BYU accounting professor Melissa Western said she loves the Church doctrine that says women have a divine role. She said the Church values her as a woman and doesn’t require her to be a man to have value, but too often, Church culture gets in the way.

The Church has “a cultural view that mixes personal family decisions and defines them as what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ,” she said.

The biggest challenge is when people in the Church feel like women working outside the home is considered outside of the gospel, Western said.

People assume that because she works outside the home, Western is neglecting her role as a mother. She said raising her children is “absolutely essential” and it’s “the most important thing” she does. She joked that the only thing she neglects to do is the laundry.

For Western, her job is her way of serving and building Zion by mentoring and teaching students. “If we believe in the gospel, we have to care about other people, and part of how I demonstrate that is I help other people’s children to find their way.”

Western said she won’t ever judge someone for choosing to work outside the home or not. She said all that matters is each person listens to God to find their own path, no matter how different it is from the “standard.”

“There are lots of nonstandard paths that people take because they are able to receive (direction from) the Spirit,” she said, referencing both Jesus Christ and Joseph Smith as examples of those who followed a nonstandard path.

Instead of judging women’s choices in their careers, Madsen said women’s choices should be valued. Whether they choose to stay at home, enter the workforce or increase their education, Madsen said girls need to know the options they have in life.

“If she believes that she only has limited choices, then I would say she really doesn’t have a choice,” Madsen said.

Department chair of BYU’s Romney Institute of Public Services and Ethics Lori Wadsworth said when she was younger she was told her only career options were nurse, secretary or teacher. But today, women have a much wider range of education, family and work choices available to them.

“I don’t believe everyone needs to have a career,” Wadsworth said. But as women, “I do believe we need to be a force for good in the world.”

Being a force for goodwill looks different for everyone, she said, which is why she thinks personal revelation is so important.

Every person has a “different responsibility, a different calling, a different work we can do” to make a difference in the world like the Church hopes all members do, Wadsworth said.

Having worked at BYU in business and leadership for over 30 years as a faculty member and administrative employee, Wadsworth said she is thrilled to see the door opening and changes being made to increase women’s opportunities.

Challenges women face

Public management professor Eva Witesman said one of the greatest challenges facing women who are navigating life choices is the cultural tendency to interpret Church hierarchy in a worldly way.

The world commonly interprets power as domination, supremacy and superiority, but the Church’s hierarchy is based on a prophet who serves with compassion and love and seeks to help others with God’s priesthood power, she said.

“By interpreting power in a worldly way, we conflate inappropriate dominating attitudes or actions with religious authority. And this is weaponized against women, whether intentionally or not,” Witesman said. If people more truly understood priesthood power, she said, then they would elevate women rather than put them down.

Both Witesman and Wadsworth said there aren’t enough women exemplars or role models for girls to look up to in business and education. Witesman said it can make women feel directionless or worry they are using their talents wrong, and not having role models makes it harder for women to see themselves in positions of authority.

Until recently, Witesman said the only female exemplar she had was her mother. But now, the dean and department chair of her program are women as well as the Faculty Advisory Council co-chair and the associate academic vice president.

“It is difficult to express what an overwhelming relief it has been to witness their leadership,” she said. “I no longer question whether I can or should lead and can instead focus on the unique ways in which I might be able to contribute.”

Increasing numbers of women in government positions have caused girls to be more interested in politics, Madsen said.

“You can’t be what you don’t see,” Madsen said. With the recent election of Vice President Kamala Harris, Utah Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson and the campaign of Aimee Winder Newton for Utah governor, young women and girls have examples of women in politics to look up to and see themselves in.

In higher education and the workforce, a lack of female leadership can lead to missed perspectives. Bringing in people with diverse backgrounds helps fix problems that might not have been seen before.

Western described a meeting she attended where a BYU faculty member mentioned he doesn’t meet with female students individually because he is highly committed to morality, but he mentors male students individually. She said almost everyone else in the meeting agreed and praised the man’s actions.

As the only female in the meeting, Western said she was scared to speak up, but eventually told her colleague that from her perspective, although he had good intentions, not mentoring female students was disadvantaging them in their education.

“I think our call is to educate Zion. Women are part of Zion,” she said to the other professors. The colleague responded saying he had never thought about it that way and new dialogue was opened up on how to better mentor students.

Another challenge for women is undervaluing or underestimating their own potential, Wadsworth said. Research has shown that women tend to take a safer route when applying to jobs, only applying after they know they reach 100% of the qualifications, she said.

Men, however, will apply for a job if they know they meet at least 60% of the qualifications. She said the men have it right and women should be bolder with applying for jobs. However, Wadsworth said many times women are hesitant because they feel they “need an individual invitation because there is this sense that we don’t measure up.”

By always waiting until they get external validation or confirmation that they are good enough, Wadsworth said women can miss out on potential opportunities and growth.

Importance of education

Witesman gave a BYU devotional in 2017 describing the importance of education for women in the Church. She said the Church was always encouraging women to further their education. “Yet when I heard some people talk about why education might be so important for women, they usually made it sound like education for women was nothing more than a backup plan.”

Her devotional focused on telling students, mainly women, that gaining an education is important because it is a commandment from God to increase in knowledge.

Wadsworth echoed the same idea and said everyone is put on Earth to gain wisdom, knowledge, experience and intellect. For her, one of the most obvious ways to accomplish that is through education.

She said while formal education isn’t for everyone, she still thinks each person should be learning and growing in their own ways and not “sit on the sidelines” or undervalue themselves. She said God wants his children to grow, improve and reach their potential.

The Church values self-reliance in its members. “True self-reliance is the adults in the house have their education,” Madsen said.

In addition, parenting benefits increase when both parents are educated, Madsen said. Educated parents help children grow, learn and contribute to society just as the Church encourages.

“We can serve and we can contribute more in the world in so many ways when we are educated,” Madsen said.

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