Field of Science

Gender, religion, and volunteering

Here's a quick one on a study of volunteering among older people. It's well known that religious people do more formal voluntary work, on average, than the non-religious. What's less well understood is why that should be.

Well, one other thing that's notable about religion in the USA is that it's more popular with women. And women also tend to volunteer more (well, both those 'facts' are more or less true depending on which study you look at).

In this new study, Lydia Manning of Miami University, analysed data from the Health and Retirement Study which, since 1992, has been tracking a group of over 12,000 retired people across the USA.Manning's analysis looked at the original 1992 survey, focusing on the 6,000-odd people who reported doing over 100 hours of voluntary work a year.

What she found was that women were much more likely to be volunteers - 15 times more likely, in fact. Once she took this into account, however, there was no relationship between religiosity and volunteering.

Now, there are a few deficiencies in this study - most notably that religion was only measured as affiliation (are you a Catholic, Protestant or whatever). Previous studies have shown that religious service attendance is, unsurprisingly, a better predictor of volunteering.

But Manning's study does reinforce a general point about these sorts of correctional studies. Religious and non-religious people are different for all sorts of reasons. You have to be very careful before assuming that religion is the cause of any differences you see.

ResearchBlogging.orgManning LK (2010). Gender and religious differences associated with volunteering in later life. Journal of women & aging, 22 (2), 125-35 PMID: 20408033

Creative Commons License This article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.


  1. They should also have looked at the lifestyle of the people.
    In 19th c. Europe, volunteering was a way to do something meaningful for middle and upper class women who were not allowed to pursue a professional carreer.
    I would guess that women in religious settings with a more "traditional" labour division (ie housewifes, stay-at-home moms, or ex-stay-at-home moms still at home) do more volunteer work than working mothers.

  2. I have heard (can't remember sources) that the great the role of the welfare state, the greater the decrease in volunteerism. Likewise, the greater role of the welfare state, the greater the drop in religion. I wonder if these are all connected.

  3. It's an interesting possibility. It seems plausible that people volunteer because being involved in social networks brings security - and a Church network might be the most powerful. I also suspect that the breakdown of social networks caused by people moving around will mean less traditional volunteering. On the other hand, I think that new forms of volunteering will spring up - since that will be an important way to establish new social networks.

  4. Interesting post. Thanks!

    I do object to your usage of the word 'facts' followed they being true or not. Facts exist or they don't. A fact in itself is supposed to be true, if it's false then it's not a fact.

    Also, in the study, did they balance out the factor that men work more hours (professionally) than women?

  5. @Akshat Rathi,

    The study looked at retired people. I wonder if the difference is partly due to women's longer average life spans and thus longer healthy retired years to spend on activities such as volunteer work.


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