Photographed by Jendella

There’s a conversation going on about the lack of women being invited to speak at Christian conferences. Rachel Held-Evans highlighted the tiny minority of women speaking at one event, a US blogger Jonathan Merritt collated some stats on US conferences and now @god_loves_women has done something similar for UK conferences.

There is far more to creating an environment of equality where both women and men can thrive than having more women on platforms, but it does send a powerful signal of inclusion. The dominance of men in the public sphere of the church helps to perpetuate the feeling of living in a man’s world. When girls and women fail to see themselves represented, their own worlds become smaller with fewer opportunities. So it really does matter.

People who say ‘forget about gender, just pick the best person for the task’ show a stunning lack of awareness of firstly, male privilege, and secondly, how Christian conferences are put together. People tend to invite who they know, who they’ve heard recently, who has published a book, who their friends recommend/blog about/are reading, who has spoken at a similar event. If you want to change the status quo, you need to be aware of the imbalance and you need to be intentional about changing it.

Over the years I have often challenged events or churches that have few women as speakers. Invariably the response is that they just don’t know any gifted women. It’s a vicious circle – women don’t get invited because they don’t have experience or aren’t known, and they aren’t known and have less experience because they aren’t given opportunities.

There is a lot that can be done to change the status quo. I’d like to pick up on just one of the things that needs addressing and that is the irrational fear of women that excludes them from circles of influence. A friend of mine is a vicar and when she arrived in her latest parish, she made an effort to build relationships with other church leaders, to find out what they were doing and whether there were opportunities to work together. She contacted the local Baptist minister and asked to visit him. He said that he couldn’t meet her on her own on principle, because she is a woman, and insisted that his wife was at the meeting as well. My friend agreed and his wife sat in the corner like a Victorian chaperone, knitting while they talked.

He is not alone in believing it is inappropriate for a Christian man and woman to meet without someone else being there. High profile male Christian leaders, particularly in the States, are very public about the boundaries they set to protect their marriage such as making sure the office door is open or someone is in earshot when they meet with a woman, not traveling alone with a woman and not eating alone with a woman. A number of male Christian leaders provide an opportunity for a young adult to spend a period of time with them as a kind of intern, learning from their leadership and helping out with tasks such as driving. These opportunities are only open to young men because of the potential for the relationship to go wrong if the opportunity were open to women, or for others to project their own values and assumptions onto it. One leader that I spoke to about it said it would look totally wrong if he were to turn up at a church to preach with a young woman; ‘what would people think?!’

Are these safeguards wise, or overcautious, or justified, or extreme? I can understand the thinking behind them and it is devastating when people have affairs. However, I believe the type of boundaries that say it is unsafe for a man and woman to meet in a work context unless the door is open or someone else is around are excessive, discriminatory and they disadvantage both women and men. They treat women as a problem and make it more difficult for women and men to interact because extra arrangements have to be made.

They imply that men have very little self-control or professional boundaries, or that there is little trust between husband and wife. They play into the myth of women as sexual temptresses who want to seduce men and lead them astray. They leave women out of important discussions and opportunities for networking in a sphere where relationships are key. They ignore the fact that there are men who are attracted to other men. They allow fear of the other to fester, instead of finding ways to work constructively together.

They treat men’s experience as the norm and they allow men to retain control of who is allowed into networks and opportunities. They are a block to equality because they make it difficult for men and women to work together. They throw suspicion on innocuous meetings, and inject anxiety into conversations. I believe they actually increase the possibility of affairs because men and women don’t learn how to relate to each other normally or how to deal with temptation and attraction.

Of course we need to be wise to the possibility of temptation, but any boundaries need to respect women as adults with a contribution to make and should be negotiated between women and men – not decided by men in power. Boundaries need to facilitate men and women working together not put barriers in the way. Instead of making elaborate arrangements to avoid each other, women and men need to work on their maturity and emotional health. People who feel they are at risk of temptation can put extra accountability in place without needing to avoid the opposite sex altogether. People who are concerned about what others think need to decide which is more important – equality of opportunity or the condemnation of strangers. They can decide to model something new rather than being constrained by out-dated and suspicious opinions.

This is just one contributing factor but I think it’s significant. People tend to reproduce in their own likeness, and a lack of diversity is self-perpetuating unless it’s intentionally addressed. We need to relate as adults, not as ‘others’.

23 thoughts on “Where are the women?

  1. Thank you for saying this. You are right to highlight how a particular culture disenables women’s ministry, and I suspect skews peoples perception of sex and gender in general. The whole idea that members of the opposite sex alone together are somehow incapable of not having illicit sex seems to promote the innevitablility of illicit sex!

  2. Jenny, thanks for this. I think there is another dynamic which you don’t mention, which makes change easier when named. In my (every) university, there is a clear distinction between students, who are classed as ‘vulnerable adults’ for safeguarding purposes, and staff; I have a different set of boundaries with colleagues than I do with students. (I do in fact see students – female or male – alone, but there are things I do in both cases out of regard for safeguarding procedures, and to protect myself against the possibility of a false allegation (they happen; generally more from mental illness than malice)).
    In the church world, this boundary can be unhelpfully blurred – in the context you mention, of ‘pastoral apprentices’ and mentoring relationships, it is potentially very blurry. At the same time, most of us (still) were trained/inducted into a practice of ministry which implicitly assumes that there is one main minister, and everyone else is under her/his care somehow.
    In this context, developing a practice which treats everyone you ever meet as ‘client/vulnerable adult’ rather than as colleague is wrong, but understandable, and could easily give rise to the sorts of practices you describe. I think exposing this dynamic might help some people to get beyond these practices.

    • Thanks Steve – that is helpful. I agree we need to have sensible safeguards in place but all women don’t need to be treated as if they were in the ‘vulnerable adult’ category!

      • Absolutely not! I think there are two things here: 1. We (as church leaders) have been socialised to put everybody in the ‘vulnerable adult’ category, and many do it without thinking; 2. Some (many/most) male church leaders then assume that their practice with ‘vulnerable adult’ women should be different from their practice with ‘vulnerable adult’ men. My point was that exposing and overcoming 1. would be adequate to answer the problems you address here; 2. obviously raises a whole different set of questions… Anyway, thanks again for the blog, and for replying.

  3. As a diocesan children’s and youth work adviser, I’d be prevented to meeting 1-2-1 with half of my clergy if this antiquated and naive attitude were allowed to rule the roost. Thankfully, the CofE, for all it’s failings, seems to have moved a little more with the times. Maybe it’s a problem more with the non-conformist, free and fundamentalist churches?

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  5. I can totally see what you are saying and where you are coming from. And, a few years ago, I would totally agree. I found it utter madness that men and women couldn’t meet due to an irrational fear that ‘something could happen’. But then I saw the devastating effect of situations that seemed to ‘creep’ up on God-fearing, totally devoted to ministry people who never started out with that intention – or even an attraction. Now I would totally champion being sensible and never allowing situations to arise where things could grow. I realise that creates all sorts of obstacles to get round as far as mentoring and bringing on younger people of both sexes. And in many cases we simply do not get it right, so there certainly needs to be dialogue between the sexes about finding better ways forward. I do believe people need to be far more intentional about looking further afield than the simple pool of people that they have relationship with/know/have had speak in the past to see what other experts are out there. I do also think that women can be limited by their particular juggling act – particularly those that are married with children. It is still usually the case that it is the mother that juggles work, home and daily family commitments such as school runs and after school clubs, so the father is much more able to travel to be involved in speaking engagements. Have they got more to say than their wives? Maybe – but maybe not. But the practicalities mean it is much harder for such women to push themselves forward as there are so many obstacles to overcome – not just the years of social convention that will no doubt weigh heavily upon them too.

  6. On conference speakers yesterday at Church Urban Fund conference.. both plenary speakers were male (though I know it’s hard to find a female archbishop) and 3 out of the 11 workshop leaders were female.

    I can see there are some (e.g. counselling) situations where some precautions are wise, but there are so many assumptions in our highly sexualised society that the virtue of chastity and self control is totally absent.

    Anyway has no one thought about the possibility of homo – sexual interactions, entanglements?

    I (as a married male) have worked for about 40 years in church linked organisations, the voluntary and community sector and in academic life and I think the majority of my professional colleagues, managers, subordinates and “clients” have been women and I can’t recall in all that time more than a handful of slightly flirtatious remarks or looks, and pondering about whether a friendly hug was appropriate or dangerous.

    Meanwhile my wife usually with other female colleagues spends her working life in a group work environment with male sex offenders.

    Which all makes me amazed it is such a difficult issue for Christians. Where I think the issue really lies is about power relationships… where sexual exploitation (usually by the alpha male) is all too frequent. From King Solomon to Henry VIII to Bill Clinton the story is familiar…

  7. Brilliant writing once again Jen, but this makes me want to cry with despair. It also makes me so relieved and confirms my decision to stay out of the main stream church, although I am not convinced the church around the edges are always that much better either. The suggestion that men can not have a meeting with a woman on her own is so laughable were it not so tragic. I, as do many other women, work with men daily, the idea that I would not be allowed to have a meeting with a man because I might tempt him is so appalling and so insulting.

    My fear is will this ever change?, what messages are we giving to our young people growing up in the church? ,I don’t want my teenage daughters to experience this level of sexism, this belittling view of women.

    I remember this being an issue in the church when I was 16/17, I really believed it would change, I really hoped that by the time I had children the church would have moved on. Now at 41 with a 16 yr old daughter I don’t think it has changed at all and I am not sure what will make it change.

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  9. Wow. As someone who has been advocating Christian men and women nurture trust in friendship with healthy boundaries, I really think you get to heart of the issue. It’s not just welcoming women’s ideas. It’s their about embodied presence, nearness, and trusting women.

  10. Thinking about the “relationships that creep in” on men and women working together, referenced by Claire as a reason to continue being extra-careful.

    I would suggest that this is the natural outcome of a culture that encourages separation of sexes and viewing all relationship between non-related men and women as implicitly sexual from an early age. They are, in fact, at risk because of the cultural influence and not because they are working together. When we identify the wrong cause, we propose the wrong solution.

    I suppose we will just have to weather the inevitable shakedown of ideology as the church culture transitions … if it transitions. Has this form of growth ever happened in an ideal way?

    Yes, men and women have been set up to fall by the way they were trained from an early age … and we will, because the authenticity that would protect us is not yet there. But it was an internal flaw that was already within us because of how we were raised to think, not one that is created by being together in a room with a person of the opposite sex. Otherwise, nobody would ever be safe, even in families.

    Isn’t it better to expose our flaws and failures in perception, with all the pain they cause, and deal with the mentality of separation and inequality that has created them so the next generation can grow into a healthier working relationship? I would say it is better to struggle forward and pay the price, than to perpetuate the same ignorance and weaknesses for our children to deal with in their time.

    Sometimes humility is saying … there is a better way and I cannot yet live it well … but I will do my best to make it easier for you.

      • Thank you for speaking up! It’s a relief to see these thoughts shared and seriously considered … never mind a wonderful chance to process my views through additional perspectives as well.

  11. I agree with Mere Dreamer. The fact is I think many Christians have to rethink their hypersexualization of closeness between men and women. Healthy boundaries mean you can’t be in close physical proximity with the opposite sex and/or you can’t be emotionally close with the opposite sex without sex or inappropriate happening. This is just a powerful myth. Of course it can happen but really the massive social changes between men and women in the past 30 years have really demonstrated this to be more of a myth than reality.

    One thinks of the hundreds and thousands of now normal everyday occurrence of therapists meeting alone with an opposite sex client for weeks, sometimes months, sometimes years, dealing with emotional intense issues with no impropriety or sex happen. This turns the whole notion of sexualization of depravity between men and women when they get close on its head. And to think many of these therapeutic encounters involve people who are not even Christians!

    The catastrophic warnings of men and women falling into sin if they spend any time in close proximity without a chaperone have not borne fruit through years of men and women engaging in intense emotional conversation with the doors closed.
    If thousands of men and women have done this over in the last 20 years or so, what does this mean for Christian men and women in forging new grounds of relating to each other?

    Such rethinking of a hyeprsexualization of closeness can bring great liberation for women precisely because they have been closed out of the presence of men for reasons, you stated Jenny.

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  14. Thank you for this. So challenging, I’ve totally done that, all in the name of propriety. We are massively overdue a change. I was talking at a conference recently – suggesting that we have a reduced understanding and encounter with the Father because we see the father as a gender specific term, and that the fullness of masculinity and femininity is found in the God head. I was shocked when a lovely guy challenged me after, saying ‘Surely you’re not suggesting that God has feminine attributes?” Church culture has bamboozled people to the point were they would entertain the idea that women exist outside of the image of God. I would love to see church being parented, not managed. I have two little girls, one is in the stage of child development where she need to know she is valuable, the other needs to know she’s competent. I’m not going to duck out of the privilege of investing in that, thinking that because they’re girls, it’s my wife’s job. It would hugely limit their experience and opportunity. So why do we think it’s ok in church to limit the permission of the mothers, and neglect the discipleship of the girls. We look at slavery now, and think – how on earth did the church justify that! In a hundred years, what will the church look back on in the same way? I think the way we have objectified, reduced, disempowered, and failed women will be front and centre of that conversation.

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  16. Coming from a ministry family where both my parents were equally involved in the “job” I have always found it hard to understand the lack of involvement of women in mainstream ministry. What struck me here was the Baptist Minister’s wife sitting there knitting. My mother always took part in any spiritual conversation that was being held around our kitchen table and yes if my father was asked to counsel a woman on her own, dad always asked if mum could take part. Maybe the change in attitude has to start where most change starts and that is in the home and I am not just putting the responsibility on the men here. I am surprised by how many minister’s wives see ministry as their husband’s “job” not a joint venture that is about saving souls for Christ and spreading His word to the world. Christ treated women with respect in a world where they were not respected and He expects us to do the same. Men need to follow Christ’s example as do women, respect yourselves and the opposite sex just as Christ did, after all isn’t that what we are here for – to follow Christ.

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