When I was a missionary in 1989, there weren’t many sisters serving, usually only about 8-10% of missionaries. We were often an afterthought, if that. We were barred from leadership roles (aside from training other sisters), and our mission president’s wife had no formal calling or role. We were mostly independent, but occasionally treated with derision by sexist elders who resented policies like having to check up on us at night (which we resented too!) or who thought women had no business invading their male space or who considered women so different from men that we were unfathomable to them. Clearly those elders were in the minority, but they made mission service unpleasant at times, and their mission experiences often solidified their sexist views because they had such limited contact with sister missionaries.

I was very excited when the new mission age change was announced in 2012 because it seemed like an ingenious way to create more parity between men and women in the church by encouraging women to serve missions in equal numbers. I envisioned the final death of that old trope in which a young, naive but attractive LDS woman looks up to her RM husband with fawning adoration while he lovingly but condescendingly mansplains the gospel to her. Instead, I anticipated that men who served missions would quickly learn how to respect and work with women as equals, being surrounded by so many talented, smart, independent women serving side by side with them. I had a real excitement when the change was announced thinking here was something truly prophetic: a change nobody was actively clamoring for at the time but that would advance equality in the church and create more respect for women. After all, 19 is currently too young for most people, even Mormons, to consider marriage. I reasoned that this change would create huge downstream impacts:

  • More egalitarian marriages
  • Better communication between the sexes
  • A greater understanding that women and men aren’t so different
  • Awareness by men when women’s voices are absent; no more councils that don’t include women
  • Less disproportionate pressure on men to serve when circumstances make it difficult
  • More women “leaning in” at church
  • Respect for women as leaders and teachers in the church with spiritual gifts and capabilities
  • More women as role models
  • More rock, less talk

Apparently I was born for disappointment. I was very discouraged to see that there are still over twice as many men serving as there are women. Only 28% of missionaries serving are sisters! That’s a big increase, but it’s still not the 50/50 split I envisioned. Why is that? Why aren’t more women serving missions now that the age is lower?

  • Women may still feel missions aren’t encouraged or that going means they aren’t desirable marriage partners.
  • Women are taught to be passive. Missionary work requires being active and outgoing. Many may feel it’s intimidating.
  • Women may feel they have other priorities at age 19, such as pursuing their education and dating.
  • Maybe there’s just a lag and as time goes, more women will serve in parity. This could be a tipping point issue or one in which early adopters are going, but they don’t have a lot of role models or going isn’t the norm or they don’t know what the downstream impacts will be from going.
  • Online connectivity is hard for people to give up, whether men or women.
  • Issues like depression and anxiety are prevalent and may prevent people from self-selecting to serve a mission if there isn’t substantial pressure.
  • Maybe they don’t feel “called” to serve.
  • Young Women’s program doesn’t focus on serving missions, just on marriage and having babies.

As I thought about it, all those reasons could apply equally to the men as to the women, but in the case of the men, there is intense social pressure to serve. Not serving may carry a social stigma for men, so more of them may cave to pressure to go even if they prefer not to go.

  • Are you surprised that men & women don’t serve in equal numbers?
  • Why do you think more women don’t serve?
  • What upcoming shifts in missionary service do you foresee?