SALT LAKE CITY – Women who work at Mormon headquarters in Salt Lake City will be allowed to wear pantsuits and dress slacks instead of only skirts or dresses, the church announced Wednesday in a move that one Mormon women's group called a step in the right direction.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints sent employees a memo Wednesday about several changes that also include expanded maternity leave and allowing men to remove their suit coats in hot weather.
The religion's leaders made the decision about women's clothing to help employees feel more comfortable, said church spokesman Doug Anderson. He declined to say how many people, or women, the church employs, saying only it's in the thousands.
The church last year began allowing female missionaries to wear dress pants in parts of the world with mosquito-borne diseases.
The role of women in the conservative religion has been an ongoing debate for years with some members of the faith pushing for more equality and increased visibility and prominence for women.
Women hold leadership positions in the Mormon church but aren't allowed to be bishops of local congregations or presidents of stakes, which are geographic areas similar to Catholic dioceses. The church's highest leaders, including the president and his support group called the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, includes only men.
Debra Jenson, executive board member of the Mormon women's group Ordain Women, called the clothing change a small step toward breaking down rigid gender roles. She said she's heard complaints for years from women who work for the church.
"Gendered dress expectations are one piece of a culture that views women as different or differently capable," said Jenson, of Ogden, Utah. "So when we can break down those symbolic requirements it gets us closer to actual substantive change."
The push for equality by Mormon women's' groups has escalated in recent years, fueled by growing online and social media communities that allow women from around the country and world to unite and discuss the causes they want to champion.
In 2012, a women's group urged women to wear pants to church to draw attention to what they perceived as inequality. Women aren't barred from wearing pants to Sunday services, but in some areas it can send ripples of surprise and raised eyebrows, Jenson said.
The church doesn't appear close to allowing women into the lay clergy or highest leadership posts, but religious leaders have made some concessions in recent years.
A 2012 rule change lowering the minimum age for missionaries, from 21 to 19 for women, opened the door for many more young women to fit 1 ½ year missions in before they start careers or get married and start families.
In 2015, the church for the first time appointed women to three high-level church councils previously reserved only for men. In April 2013, history was made when a woman led the opening prayer at the faith's semiannual general conference in Salt Lake City.
Since October of that year, a church conference session that had previously been limited to men has broadcast live for all to watch. That stopped shorts of allowing women in, a move Ordain Women has been advocating to have happen for years.
"We're hoping this is a sign post on the road to larger progress," Jenson said. "We watch for any small movement."