By Mark A. Taylor
Many, many years ago I bumped into the president of a parachurch ministry who was considering a woman for an executive role with his organization.
“You know,” he said to me, as if he couldn’t quite believe the statement he was about to make. “She’s really sharp.” She would be the first woman to serve (with distinction, I might add) with such authority at his institution.
That incident reminds me of a Christian college teacher who wrote on a student’s paper, “You write really well for a woman.”
Admittedly, both these incidents occurred decades ago. But a report by Joanne Lipman in The Wall Street Journal says such words still are spoken, and not only in church settings.
In her piece, “Women at Work: a Guide for Men,” she mentions comments she’s received that were intended as compliments but, like the quotes above, were really insults. She classes some of these as “benevolent sexism.” To a mother: “You’ve got two little kids? How do you do it?” From a colleague: “She’s a very accomplished woman leader.” Why not just say “a very accomplished leader”?
I can only begin to summarize her piece here. Its whole premise is, “I’m not against men. I love men. But women cannot make happen all the change necessary in the workplace today. Men need to initiate some changes.”
Some of her points:
• Women have been conditioned to ask questions or apologize for their ideas rather than assert a straightforward suggestion. This puts them at a disadvantage in a meeting.
• Women tend not to ask for a promotion or a raise—or even to be aware they deserve one—as soon as men do.
• Women must earn the respect of their colleagues; men assume they have it when they walk into the room.
• Women may cry more easily than most men. They still deserve honest feedback on their work.
• Women may not be ready for some tasks or roles when their children are small. This doesn’t mean they’re incapable of handling more after the children are older.
• Women tend to collaborate more than men, which some men misunderstand as weakness.
I sent the piece to a number of women who lead ministry and asked them if they resonated with it. Are problems like these facing women in church work settings as they are in the corporate world?
Those who answered me, in a word, said “Yes.” Not that every problem mentioned by Lipman has been experienced by every woman who responded. But their comments reveal a church workplace that often presents far different experiences—and opportunities—for women to lead than for men.
Rather than write one too-long column here, I’ll save most of these comments for next week’s column. But to get us started, let me quote just one woman who comments from the center of one megachurch’s ministry.
“At our church we say we are all for women in leadership and we want more women to step up and lead and teach,” she said. “But we kind of have a boys club going on where it is a little harder for women to be mentored and a part of the inner circle.
“Many meetings start with sport references and conversations.
“If a woman feels passionate about something, we might cry. That is very difficult for any of the guys to understand; they feel she is just too emotional. But if a guy gets mad about something, it’s accepted.”
I’m sure not every Christian leader—man or woman—will agree on the scope of this problem or the solutions to it. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t consider it.
Have the male leaders at your church formed a “boys club” even as they’ve given women significant responsibilities for the church’s ministry? Next week I’ll introduce you to a few more women who feel something like that is happening where they serve.