This is a chapter from Women at Church: Magnifying LDS Women’s Local Impact.

The most essential people connections in any ward are those of the ward council. Elder Ballard has observed that congregations tend to reflect the attitudes and relationships of the ward council, and he has spent much of his ecclesiastical focus on empowering ward councils to be places of positive growth and innovation. He has also repeatedly stressed the importance of women in ward councils. He has warned,

It is easy to understand why many sisters are frustrated when they sit in council with priesthood leaders and are not invited to make substantive contributions to the council. . . . Perhaps the Lord had in mind the arrogant priesthood leaders who would ignore or dismiss the wisdom of any council member when He gave this warning to the Prophet Joseph Smith: “When we undertake to cover our sins, or to gratify our pride, our vain ambition, or to exercise control or dominion or compulsion upon the souls of the children of men, in any degree of unrighteousness, behold, the heavens withdraw themselves; the Spirit of the Lord is grieved; and when it is withdrawn, Amen to the priesthood or the authority of that man.” (D&C 121:37)

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As much as we hope every person attends to that warning, there are factors at play in ward councils that challenge even the most humble men and women among us. Becoming aware of those factors will help us overcome them and allow ward councils to be the hubs of “empowerment” and “innovation” Elder Ballard hopes they will be.

Parity in the representation of voices is simply not found in the central counseling bodies of local Church governance. Though nine men attend both ward council and priesthood executive committee meeting (PEC), only three women attend ward council, and no women are required participants in PEC (the Relief Society president may be invited at the bishop’s discretion).

The sparseness of their numbers puts great responsibility on the female leaders to represent their large stewardship while considerably outnumbered by men with smaller quantitative stewardships. There is also great responsibility on the bishopric to spend as much focus and time on the three women’s stewardships as they do on the other six men’s. Even in the best of circumstances, the numerical disparity means those three women’s voices must carry outsized weight and be particularly magnified. One bishop I interviewed has addressed the disparity of numbers by inviting the female auxiliary presidents’ councilors also to join ward council meetings so that the gender ratio is more balanced. A practice mentioned to me by several bishops is to form a “women’s council” of the Relief Society, Young Women and Primary presidents, who meet monthly with a member of the bishopric to discuss the needs of the women in the ward in more depth than they in ward council meetings.

One stake president meets with his bishops’ wives every six months to expand his vision of what’s happening with the women in the stake and to gauge the spiritual well being of the women from other sources. Other bishops made of point of telling me that they tried to “avoid” rooms full of male leaders, trying to avoid the “awkwardness” of exclusively male voices. A stake presidency in Northern California counsels every bishop to treat his Relief Society president as an additional counselor, not as the assistant or peripheral contributor that the “auxiliary” designation might connote. As part of this vision, the Relief Society presidents in this stake attend bishopric meetings, and each meets individually with her bishop as well. In these ways, this stake presidency is attempting to balance out what one member of the presidency called the “mathematical decree” of male-to-female ratio that determines the makeup of a ward council.

In a 2006 study in the wake of the Enron and WorldCom scandals, researchers set out to answer new questions about corporate governance: Does it matter to corporate governance whether women serve on a board? If so, does it make a difference how many women serve? Is there a critical mass that can bring significant change to the boardroom and improve corporate governance?

The researchers concluded that having a critical mass of three or more women on corporate boards enhances governance. The report states,

Women bring a collaborative leadership style that benefits boardroom dynamics by increasing the amount of listening, social support, and win-win problem-solving. Although women are often collaborative leaders, they do not shy away from controversial issues. Many of our informants believe that women are more likely than men to ask tough questions and demand direct and detailed answers. Women also bring new issues and perspectives to the table, broadening the content of boardroom discussions to include the perspectives of multiple stakeholders.

Their findings have resonance for our ward council settings, where we happily have three women regularly participating. If we dig deeper into the report, we can gain a greater appreciation for why this critical mass of female representation is crucial for a productive meeting culture.

How Many Women Constitute a Critical Mass on a Corporate Board?

The number of women on a board makes a difference. While a lone woman can and often does make substantial contributions, and two women are generally more powerful than one, increasing the number of women to three or more enhances the likelihood that women’s voices and ideas are heard and that boardroom dynamics change substantially. Women who have served alone and those who have observed the situation report experiences of lone women not being listened to, being excluded from socializing and even from some decision-making discussions, being made to feel their views represent a “woman’s point of view,” and being subject to inappropriate behaviors that indicate male directors notice their gender more than their individual contributions.

Adding a second woman clearly helps. When two women sit on a board, they tend to feel more comfortable than one does alone. Each woman can assure that the other is heard, not always by agreeing with her, but rather, by picking up on the topics she raises and encouraging the group to process them fully. Two women together can develop strategies for raising difficult and controversial issues in a way that makes other board members pay attention. But with two women, women and men are still aware of gender in ways that can keep the women from working together as effectively as they might, and the men from benefiting from their contributions.

The magic seems to occur when three or more women serve on a board together. Suddenly having women in the room becomes a normal state of affairs. No longer does any one woman represent the “woman’s point of view,” because the women express different views and often disagree with each other. Women start being treated as individuals with different personalities, styles, and interests. Women’s tendencies to be more collaborative but also to be more active in asking questions and raising different issues start to become the boardroom norm. We find that having three or more women on a board can create a critical mass where women are no longer seen as outsiders and are able to influence the content and process of board discussions more substantially.

Impact on Corporate Governance

Having a critical mass of women directors is good for corporate governance in at least three ways.

  • The content of boardroom discussion is more likely to include the perspectives of the multiple stakeholders who affect and are affected by company performance, not only shareholders but also employees, customers, suppliers, and the community at large.
  • Difficult issues and problems are considerably less likely to be ignored or brushed aside, which results in better decision-making.
  • The boardroom dynamic is more open and collaborative, which helps management hear the board’s concerns and take them to heart without defensiveness.

If we replace “corporate board” with “ward council” in the conclusions above, we can appreciate the ward council structure even more and be especially attuned to gender imbalances when a Church decision-making body does not include such ideal representation. We can also take comfort in the fact that we in the Church are not the only ones discussing female institutional representation!

In appreciating the presence of women in councils, one stake president went even farther and explained that the greatest efficacy of the women came when they weren’t sitting together. “I actively ask the women in my councils to sit apart from each other,” he told me. “I think the women in my meetings all sit together for a feeling of comfort and security, but I need them spread around. They are like a sugar cube. I need them to dissolve among all of us so that their influence can be felt among the whole group, and not just in a clump amongst themselves.”

Another hurdle to the functioning of the ward council is the intrinsic difference in the communication styles of men and women. Men and women can come away from the same conversation with entirely different interpretations of what happened, entirely different analyses of the power plays at work, and entirely different conclusions about their emotional connection. The groundbreaking work of linguistics professor Deborah Tannen has illuminated what many of us already know: men and women generally communicate differently. Tannen goes so far as to characterize cross-gender conversations as “cross-cultural” interactions, requiring the same sensitivity and navigation as a conversation with someone whose culture and traditions may feel alien. Analyzing the verbal communication differences between men and women has made Tannen’s work immensely popular and helpful to those struggling to understand why communication with the opposite sex might be hitting a wall. Among other insights in her best-selling book You Just Don’t Understand, Tannen uncovers the contrasts between men’s “report-talk” and women’s “rapport-talk.”

For most women, the language of conversation is primarily a language of rapport: a way of establishing connections and negotiating relationships. Emphasis is placed on displaying similarities and matching experiences. From childhood, girls criticize peers who try to stand out or appear better than others.

From childhood, men learn to use talking as a way to get and keep attention. So they are more comfortable speaking in larger groups made up of people they know less well—in the broadest sense, “public speaking.” But even the most private situations can be approached like public speaking, more like giving a report than establishing rapport.

Tannen notably recalls a conversation that took place between a couple in their car. The woman asked, “Would you like to stop for a drink?” The husband answered, truthfully, “No,” and they didn’t stop. Tannen explains:

[The husband] was later frustrated to learn that his wife was annoyed because she had wanted to stop for a drink. He wondered, “Why didn’t she just say what she wanted? Why did she play games with me?” The wife, I explained, was annoyed not because she had not gotten her way, but because her preference had not been considered. From her point of view, she had shown concern for her husband’s wishes [rapport-talk], but he had shown no concern for hers [report-talk]. . . . The husband and wife in this example had different but equally valid styles.

Tannen has thus generally found that women focus on relationships, often setting aside their own direct requests in sensitivity to others. Men focus on delivering the facts, sometimes with indifference to interpersonal effects. Differences in gendered styles of communicating such as the one described here can be exacerbated in a church setting where a woman may not have extensive experience communicating with men in a professional, non-familial way. Additionally, the men’s priesthood authority gives their voices the perception of added weight.

Having a “good relationship” with a male or female leader does not necessarily mean that ideas are being heard, respected and acted upon in a way that both parties feel accomplish their goals. Men and women may “get along”, but simply being free of conflict doesn’t guarantee that communication is thorough, productive, and consensus building. Some of these communication barriers may become of less concern as more and more Mormon women gain professional or volunteer experience working alongside men and thus become comfortable with and adapt to men’s communication style. The fact that we, as a people, are still to some degree embedded in a mid-century culture where men and women don’t interact outside of familial ties was brought home to me recently when a young newly married friend of mine deleted all of her male contacts out of her phone. While she might have perceived it as a romantic gesture of commitment to her new husband, and it’s probably not wise to have old boyfriends on speed dial, for me, as a woman who works overwhelmingly with men and enjoys many male friends, the action was completely foreign and extreme.

Similarly, men are becoming more comfortable with and adapting to women’s communication styles as they work side by side with them in professional settings. As modern American workplaces approach gendered balance, there will be fewer men likely to patronize a woman’s input and fewer women likely to cower at a working partnership with a man or accept a token or silent partner role without question. As one bishop told me, “I try to interact with women at church in a way roughly similar to how I interact with them at work. I assume them to be equally as capable/incapable, outspoken/reserved, intelligent/notsomuch as their male counterparts. I suspect that some women (and men) are disappointed with this evenhanded treatment, but that’s mere conjecture.” Although this bishop apologized to me for not being “more sensitive” to gender issues in his ward, I actually think his attitude reflects a healthy modernism in the way professional men are viewing their female partners at church. (There are still opportunities for improvement, though: as one professional woman wrote to me, “If the men at church treated me the way the men at work do, I would weep for joy.”) It also demands that the women who work with this bishop rise up to his professional expectations of women as real collaborators and contributors.

Despite these challenges, ward councils still provide the richest opportunity for men and women to work cooperatively at the ward level to benefit those under their stewardship. Even though numerical representation might not achieve parity, Elder Ballard has made the point both in his book and in the 2012 worldwide leadership training that every member of the council is entitled to inspiration and revelation, not just in their own sphere but for all matters relating to ward members. One former bishop shared with me his impressions of this insight. “Taking the training to its logical end, it would be perfectly normal and acceptable for a Primary president to opine on the most effective use of Home Teaching resources, for example, or how to help a struggling brother who is out of work. On the rare occasions where this manifested itself in practice [when I was bishop], it was pretty glorious.”

Thus even though representation may be gendered, stewardships are not. The commitment to this principle is being modeled by our general leadership, most recently at the April 2014 General Conference, where women’s auxiliary leaders talked about issues like pornography that affect a gender-neutral, age-neutral audience. Understanding the commitment to this principle may help us expand our understanding of how women can most effectively impact the ward council experience.

I personally have appreciated the opportunity to learn, through interviews and by studying the Handbook, about how ward councils should ideally function. I have served in presidencies, but never as a Relief Society, Primary, or Young Women’s president, and so I have never personally sat in a ward council and participated in the cooperative ministry so many described to me. I’ve lived my whole life in the church, and yet I have learned a tremendous amount in this process about the inner workings of wards. I am not unusual: it is statistically more likely that a woman in the Church will never sit in a ward council and thus will be unfamiliar with how these relationships work and what they achieve.

This is a critical point when we are considering how well women of the ward feel represented and heard: if they do not know who their leaders are, if they do not understand how those leaders are representing them, if they do not understand the time and concern leaders spend thinking about them, and if they have no insight into what those leaders are accomplishing, they will inevitably feel disenfranchised.

Because so many more men participate in ward leadership throughout the course of their lives, starting very young when they join older brethren for priesthood meetings, there is a subculture among Mormon men that tacitly understands why we have meetings and what good they do. But women do not magically understand or appreciate the work that takes place in a ward council unless it is communicated to them. I believe that some feelings of detachment and voicelessness could be relieved if more women in our wards know who their leaders are and understand the extent of the work those leaders do on their behalf.

A Primary president expressed her own surprise when she started participating in ward councils: “I’ve realized that ward councils are where the rubber meets the road. Until I served as a president, I didn’t see many of the complementary workings of men and women in the ward because they weren’t overtly spoken of or visible. Now it’s like being privy to the inner workings of a clock. One of my efforts is to share these examples in my presidency meetings and in regular conversations with members so good examples are known and hopefully perpetuated.” I was surprised myself recently when I had to think hard about who the Relief Society president is in my own ward. I’ve been in the Primary for several years and I honestly have little awareness of how my female leaders might be working towards the greater good of the women in my ward in a council situation.