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’.