UN Women has released a series of adverts highlighting the reality of global sexism. They searched for phrases using ‘women must…’, ‘women should…’, ‘women deserve…’ and recorded the auto-complete suggestions that were generated based on the real searches that people have done. The results can be seen here and include such phrases as ‘women shouldn’t drive’, ‘women should be slaves’, ‘women need to know their place’. They reflect the beliefs that people have about women around the world and it’s particularly depressing to see the number that relate to the church context, as shown by the picture above.
I recently re-read Maggi Dawn’s book Like the Wideness of the Sea which is her response to the Church of England’s failure last year to make progress towards appointing women as bishops. Maggi deliberately chose to leave the Church of England when her previous role as a chaplain in Cambridge came to an end because the church was so unwelcoming of women and their contribution, and she is now Dean of Chapel and Professor of Theology at Yale Divinity School in the USA. She writes movingly of the rudeness and naked sexism that she endured for many years in the UK because she is a woman and a priest. She says about her move to Yale, ‘I never anticipated what an absolutely transforming experience it would be to be treated automatically as an equal. It makes a huge difference on a personal level – heart, soul, mind and strength – to work in an environment where I am never treated with suspicion just because I am a woman.’ She goes on to say, ‘What I would love my colleagues in the Church of England to know is this: I achieve twice as much in a working week as I did before. Why? Simply for this reason: none of my mental energy is wasted justifying my existence, surviving bullies, fending off harassment or anticipating sexist behaviour.‘ From my experience of advocating for the equality of women in the church, she is not alone. And even if we’re not experiencing the kind of direct sexism that she did, I think we need to be aware of the effect that our environment has on us.
Dave Brailsford is the performance director of British Cycling and the manager of the Team Sky cycling team. Over the last few years he has achieved phenomenal success with his cyclists winning gold medals at several Olympics, and with Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome winning the last two Tours de France. Part of his secret is to make the most of every possibility for legitimate improvement in his team’s performance, however tiny it is. He calls this the aggregation of marginal gains. So Victoria Pendleton and Chris Hoy wore heated cycling shorts in the velodrome during the 2012 Olympics to ensure that their muscles stayed warmed up while they waited to compete. The British team kept the wheels of their bikes in cases to keep them completely clean, leading the French to accuse them of having ‘magic wheels’. Team Sky take their own bedding with them when they travel to races, having found that cyclists sleep better when they have a familiar pillow. Bradley Wiggins and others on the team cycle with an asymmetric chain ring which eliminates the deadspot in every rotation and makes their cycling more efficient. Brailsford’s philosophy is that if each of these small adjustments makes even a tenth of a per cent of difference in his cyclists’ performance then together they will give them the two or three per cent advantage which will mean victory.
I think that what Maggi identifies and what many women experience is a parallel aggregation of marginal losses, the accumulation of all the prejudice, sexism and discrimination that’s in the air that we breathe. Women are all too aware of a lack of role models and of visible women leaders that we can learn from. We have the experience of saying something in a meeting to little response, only to hear it repeated by a man to great acclaim. We see conference after conference hosting mainly male speakers and we wonder where the competent women are. Many of us have a savage inner critic and a touch of perfectionism that makes us hard on ourselves and unable to receive praise. We see women who dare to stand up for equality being subjected to rape threats. We have a nagging doubt about our theology and wonder if we’re really allowed to do what we do. We encounter men in the church who put paranoid boundaries around their interactions with women, and we see male leaders promoting a form of masculinity that depends on belittling women. We carry the weight of responsibility for the home as well as going out to work, whether that’s through our own choice or our partner’s expectations and we end up exhausted, with little capacity for play and creativity. We see women celebrated in the media for what they look like over and above what they do. We read these UN adverts and realise that there’s still a long way to go before we have anything like equality for women across the globe. We know that we’re paid less for work of equal value, and that women are bearing the brunt of the recession. The list could go on. The effect of any one of these might not be that significant, but together they combine to diminish our ability to be all that we could be.
I’m not suggesting that we should store these marginal losses up, or use them to feel victimised. And I don’t think all women are affected by all those I have listed; some women are in very egalitarian environments where they can just get on with what they are good at. But I do think we need to be savvy about what’s going on and we need to be intentional about counteracting these marginal losses. If it’s worth taking your bedding with you when you compete in the Tour de France, it’s worth taking the time to identify how you’re affected and what you can do about it.