Image: A white woman is in the foreground of the image, her eyes closed and face resting against her clasped hands as if in prayer. Image via pixabay, Pixabay License.

Belonging to a sexist religious community can negatively impact women’s health and well-being. Despite advancements in representation and inclusion across religious groups and denominations in recent years, many places of worship still maintain policies that exclude women from positions of authority. A recent study finds women who are members of sexist congregations report worse self-rated health when compared to women who are involved at more inclusive congregations. 

For decades, social scientists have demonstrated the positive effects of religious belief and affiliation on health and well-being. But, considering past research alongside self-rated health, Patricia Homan and Amy Burdette discover women in “sexist congregations” – congregations that bar women from serving as deacons, clergy, and on boards – report overall worse health outcomes than those in “inclusive” congregations, ones that allow women into leadership positions.

Strikingly, it is only the women within these sexist congregations who report worse health. Men in both sexist and inclusive congregations experience no such health effects while women attending inclusive congregations report no such negative health outcomes. While more research is needed to understand specifically how congregations that discriminate against women negatively impact women’s health, the authors hypothesize the psychological stress women face, alongside structural sexism in other facets of society, leads to worse health outcomes. 

As many religious communities grapple with harmful cultures of abuse and exploitation among sexual minorities and women, this investigation offers welcome insight into the real, bodily toll of gender discrimination. While religious participation has positive health benefits, these benefits are severely limited by the systematic exclusion of women.