Religious influence in a community might be strong enough to affect whether or not a woman works, regardless of her own religious leanings, a new study suggests.
The study, from Baylor University, came from examining of the role of women in the workforce. The researchers, Aaron Franzen and Jenna Griebel, used recently released data from the Association of Religion Data Archives to map various concentrations of religions across the United States. By comparing the religious communities to census data on working women, the researchers were able to determine whether there is a strong correlation between the predominant religion of a community and the number of women in that community who work outside the home.
"Women today are faced with increasing demands from both family and work, leading to high levels of work–family conflict for many," the researchers wrote. "Faced with these demands, many women are decreasing the amount they work or exiting the labor force altogether. The strategies women employ when faced with these work-family conflicts are not chosen in isolation."
While much research has been done on the effect of religious beliefs on individual choices about family life and employment, Griebel, a doctoral candidate in sociology, and Franzen are among the first to analyze the relationship between “moral communities,” or communities shaped by a specific belief set, and the work-family balance.
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“Communities come to have a feeling all their own, and that sense of what makes one community different than another comes from the collective beliefs, values and expectations of all members of that community,” said Franzen, an assistant professor of sociology at Hope College and a former Baylor sociology researcher, in a press release.
The researchers found that married women between the ages of 18 and 65 are more likely to work outside the home in communities that are predominantly mainline Protestant and black Protestant. Communities that are predominantly Mormon, Jewish or evangelical Protestant tend to have more women who stay home.
“My speculation is that the message that is more common in mainline Protestant religions is that the ideal family is more egalitarian,” Franzen said. “The husband and the wife share workloads, both in terms of employment and taking care of the kids and housework.”
Mormons, on the other hand, tend to adhere to specific gender roles. In a Pew Research Center report, 58 percent of Mormons say that the ideal marriage is one in which the husband is the main provider and the wife is the caretaker. Among the general public, only 30 percent of Americans share this view.
Utah, where nearly 60 percent of the population belong to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, is the state with the highest number of stay-at-home wives in the country. Forty-two percent of married women in Utah do not work outside the home, according to data from the Utah state website.
The researchers didn’t interview individual women to see how the religious beliefs of their communities affect their personal choices, but the strong correlation suggests that even women who do not share the prevailing beliefs feel some pressure to conform to the community’s views of work and family life.
Brittany Graham is a young Mormon stay-at-home mother who recently moved to Washington, D.C. The city is primarily mainline Protestant and black Protestant, and she has met few other women who share her lifestyle.
“Here, there are many very highly educated people, and lots of professionals,” she said. “I was surprised in our first few weeks here to realize that there were more nannies than mothers at the park.”
While Graham hasn’t felt pressured by other mothers to seek employment outside the home, she has felt pressure to pursue more education and professional experience.
She said she knows women who didn’t want to return to work after having a child, but felt it was necessary.
Graham recognizes that some situations necessitate two parents working, but she said she has noticed “people get sucked up into the culture around them, thinking that they have to live this way or be that way.”
Another aspect of the research that wasn’t addressed in the paper, Franzen said, is the effect one community can have over a neighboring community. The study suggests that even if one community doesn’t hold a specific set of traditions that would encourage or dissuade women from working outside the home, strong traditions in a contiguous community are powerful enough to affect the way women choose to work in the first community.
It is clear that there is a link between popular religions and women in the workforce, but the study has raised more questions about the extent to which the prominent religion of a community affects families. To get a more accurate picture of the effect and development of moral communities, further studies would have to be done examining the choices of individual women in various religious communities.
“Family and religion are very heavily associated, but they haven’t been looked at in-depth at this point,” Franzen said.
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