Magazine article Sojourners Magazine

Where the Boys Aren't: Why Do So Many More Women Than Men Enter Voluntary Service?

Magazine article Sojourners Magazine

Where the Boys Aren't: Why Do So Many More Women Than Men Enter Voluntary Service?

Article excerpt

PEOPLE WHO DEDICATE a period of their lives to voluntary service usually have a lot in common. They're nurturing, generous with their time and energy, and eager to help make another person's life better.

They are also usually women.

Since the founding of this country, women have given their time to voluntary service, often church-related, mainly because--until only a few short decades ago--they had limited options to develop a career, and unpaid volunteerism is conducive to family life and time spent in the home. In recent years, however, national initiatives like AmeriCorps and America's Promise have led more and more young Americans to dedicate a part of their lives to the service of others. This leaves many wondering: Why do so many of these volunteers continue to be women? It might be added that the overwhelming majority of volunteers is also white; people of color have never represented a significant percentage of the full-time volunteer corps.

Women give more of their time for a number of reasons, which tend to boil down to two major trends. First, despite a general acceptance of feminism and women's equality in this country, social justice activists feel that women are more naturally drawn to service roles that require a nurturing, empathetic manner. Secondly, there is enormous socioeconomic pressure on men to immediately earn a salary after college.

By the numbers. Several major religious social service umbrella organizations report a largely female population of volunteers, paralleling the trend of women being more active in religious life in general. Both the Lutheran Volunteer Corps (LVC) and the Jesuit Volunteer Corps (JVC), two groups that recruit volunteers to live in communities-in-need across the country, report disproportionate female-to-male ratios. The LVC reports a ratio of 80-to-20 women to men; the JVC is between 70 and 75 percent women.

Even the closest-to-equal ratios are still well above 50-50. The Mennonite Voluntary Service (MVS), a network of volunteer programs around the world, is about 60 percent women. MVS staff members say this is actually a closer ratio than most religious service groups because of a 50-year tradition of social service in the church.

"Within the Mennonite church there has been a long history of men participating in voluntary service as an alternative to military conscription," said Del Hershberger, assistant director of the service, learning, and discipleship department at the Mennonite Mission Network. Additionally, MVS has had an influx of male volunteers over recent years because of an increase in the number of German Mennonites who must do voluntary service in order to be granted conscientious objector status by their government.

The American Jewish World Service (AJWS), an international organization that sends volunteers around the world to communities that need skilled workers, also reports a 60-40 ratio. AJWS leaders attribute the higher number of women to a Jewish precept that assigns a moral leadership role to women.

"There's always been this belief that even though men are the providers, it's women who determine the moral character of a family and a community," said Seth Appel, program director of the Jewish Volunteer Corps, a program of the AJWS.

The money matter. The traditional definition of volunteering involves work done solely out of the goodness of the volunteer's heart. AmeriCorps changed all that in 1993, when the Clinton administration allocated funding to the Corporation for National and Community Service to provide substantial grants to help pay back student loans or fund future education in return for 10-to-12 months of work in a service position.

Most religious and faith-based voluntary service organizations also provide housing and a food allowance to volunteers. They live a simple existence, to be sure, but basic life expenses are often taken care of by the sponsoring organization, with some even offering a small extra stipend. …

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