Update 1: As of February 11, 2022, it seems the Church has reversed this decision. They will be having Women’s Session during the April 2022 conference. I do still feel that there needs to be more women speaking in general sessions of Conference.
Update 2: The October 2022 General Conference sessions are to include five sessions. The Saturday evening session will be held as a general session, as opposed to a gendered session. See the Conclusions section for more discussion on this change.
There were a few errors in the data, so I fixed graphs and results to reflect the data more accurately. I also added data for sessions that hadn’t occurred at the time of the original post. Neither of these has affected the overall interpretation of the data.
In June of 2021, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) announced changes to its semi-annual General Conference. Conference sessions would be limited to the four general sessions, rather than including a gendered fifth session. The reason given “is because all sessions of general conference are now available to anyone who desires to watch or listen.”
Many have felt that the number of women speaking in Conference has been inadequate. Eliminating one of the sessions—especially one that focuses primarily on women—would decrease the percentage of women that speak.
While historical data may not predict the future of Conference, I felt it would be helpful to look at the trends of women speaking in Conference.
I used the General Conference talks currently available on the LDS Church’s website. These encompassed fifty years of talks from April of 1971 to April of 2021.
I was able to scrape the session and speaker names directly from the website. This gave me a list of which speakers spoke in which session of a particular Conference. My goal was to break the speakers down into four categories: members of the First Presidency, members of the Quorum of the Twelve, female speakers, and other male speakers.
I used Wikipedia’s chronology of the First Presidency and chronology of the Quorum of the Twelve to determine who were the members of those groups in each session of Conference. I then went through the remaining speaker names and separated the female speakers into a separate list. From here, I was able to break down each session’s speaker data into totals for the groups.
I then manually marked the data in a spreadsheet, classifying sessions as either “general,” “men,” or “women.” Women’s sessions include General Relief Society sessions, General Women’s Sessions, and General Young Women’s sessions. There was one Children’s session that I grouped with “women,” as the majority of the speakers were women.
Women make up 0% of the speakers in general sessions between 1971 and April 1988. There was a brief moment in April 1984 when four women spoke across the general sessions. Since October 1988, women make up an average of 7% of the speakers in general sessions of conference. This excludes the General Welfare and Finance sessions.
Historically, women were more likely to speak in General Welfare and General Financial sessions. These sessions focused on the temporal needs of members. Including those sessions raises the average percentage of women from 0% to 3%, before returning to 0% in 1985.
Across all sessions, the data looks marginally better. However, since April 1988, the average percentage of women speaking is still only 12.7%.
Prior to October 1997, the percentage of women speaking in women only sessions fluctuated significantly. Women made up as little as 40% of the speakers in October 1983 and 1984; in April 1996 and 1997 they made up 86%. Members of the Quorum of the Twelve spoke in women’s sessions during the early years. During that time, they took up as much as 35% of the session.
Mary Ellen Smoot was called as the General Relief Society president in April of 1997. From October of 1997 until October 2018, women made up 75% of the speakers. The pattern was a single First Presidency member speaking alongside three other women. Following changes presumably made by President Nelson in October 2018, the other two members of the First Presidency began speaking in women’s sessions. This decreased the overall percentage of women speaking in women’s sessions to 50%.
It’s too soon to determine whether there are going to be any significant changes in this pattern. It’s possible that April 2022’s Women’s Session was an anomaly.
Over the course of fifty years (from 1971 to April 2021), only 81 unique women have spoken in Conference. 334 unique men have spoken. (As a more fun fact, half of those women share their name with at least one other woman.)
This data doesn’t account for the amount of speaking time. Anecdotally, members of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve speak for around fifteen to twenty minutes. Other General Authorities tend to speak for five to ten minutes, depending on their particular position. A single female speaker in a 120 minute session only takes up 4-8% of the time. This is despite her making up 14% of the number of speakers.
Increasing Female Speakers
Conference sessions have an average of seven speakers per session. In the past, all members of the Quorum of the Twelve have given a talk. The First Presidency generally gives at least one talk each (if not more).
The current Church leadership page (at time of writing) lists nine women and 107 men. This includes the auxiliary presidencies, the presiding bishopric, and General Authority Seventies. It does not include Area Authorities or the Quorum of the Twelve and First Presidency.
The Church added “international area organization advisors” in 2021. These fifty women currently serve under Area Presidencies, but are not listed on the leadership page. It doesn’t seem likely that they would be added to the roster of potential speakers.
If we assume that the advisors are not added, the ratio of men to women eligible for non-First Presidency/Quorum of the Twelve speakers spots works out to:
- Five sessions with 20 slots gives 2 to women (rounded up), and 18 to men (rounded down).
- Four sessions with 13 slots gives 1 to women and 12 to men.
The only positive from these numbers is that women are actually speaking more often in general sessions than the statistical breakdown would suggest. The current highest number of women speaking in general sessions is four.
The ideal gender breakdown of Conference speakers would be a 50% split. Unfortunately, the dearth of women in leadership positions precludes this. The Sunday School presidency is not inherently a priesthood calling. Calling women to that presidency only raises the official number of general female officers to twelve. Adding general board members to the roster also adds more men to the list of possible speakers.
Gendered Sessions and Potential Adjustments
Until the leadership of women becomes more equal to that of men, there are other reasons to keep gender-focused sessions.
While anyone has the opportunity to listen in on any given session, that doesn’t diminish the value of gender-focused spaces. Women behave differently in women-only spheres. A BYU study points out that “women are likely to identify different things as problems” than men. In politics, “women are more likely to think about, What are the needs of families and children and how do we care for those who have the least in our society?”
Eliminating a woman-majority space also disproportionately affects women. Most sessions of Conference feature only male speakers. Despite the value of men speaking primarily to men, I do think this change will primarily affect women.
Gendered sessions could exclude in-person attendance; all sessions were only available via broadcast from April 2020 through October 2021. The General Priesthood Session could be renamed the General Men’s Session. Men are not required to hold the priesthood to attend, and the opposite of the priesthood is not womanhood.
There are benefits of decreasing “required hours” of Conference. There are also difficulties with availability in international time zones. International members already adapt by watching sessions at later times. A recent change to rotating the audience of the fifth session helped reduce the number of sessions.
We should make an effort to include more women at higher levels of leadership. While the steps currently being made are beneficial, they are ultimately not enough. The LDS Church has historically had trouble integrating women into leadership roles. This is especially visible at the highest levels in General Conference. If the Church wants to increase female leadership at local levels, they need to set an example at the general level. At very least, they need to increase the percentage of female speakers in Conference.
Updated 9/30/2022: Given the return to a fifth general session in the October 2022 conference, it seems that the return of gendered sessions was a limited time event. The April 2022 women’s session may have been held to advise women to avoid speculation about, or praying to, Heavenly Mother.
Before April, Elder Renlund addressed local congregations (at the stake or area level) with concerns of “doctrinal drift.” This included what was acceptable to say regarding Heavenly Mother.
Elder Renlund spoke on the topic in the women’s session. He framed his caution around the little known about her and added that, “Demanding revelation from God is both arrogant and unproductive.” (You can find a detailed commentary on this talk from Katie Ludlow Rich on The Exponent II.)
I will grant that this is speculation, but it does seem that the original reversal for the April conference was specifically to quell further discussion.