'You can't be what you can't see' - or why gender parity at conferences matters

Monday 12 January 2015

In 2011, Jennifer Siebel Newsom's documentary Miss Representation captured the imagination of those who are passionate about seeing girls and women reach their full potential. Despite the advances made in recent decades, women are still subject to messages from society that tell them their worth lies in how they look, assigning them a narrow set of priorities and limiting their horizons. That year, the motto "You can't be what you can't see" was everywhere. As I wrote at the time:

"Even if you haven't watched the trailer yet, with its footage of bikini-clad women in music videos interspersed with derogatory newspaper headlines about women politicians, you can probably reel off a list of the ways the media and popular culture makes it abundantly clear what us women are good for. We're the eye candy, the gender whose worth is bound up in how sexy we are. We're the bitches and the backstabbers and the lovers of catfights. The yummy mummies and the slummy mummies. The bosses from hell and the boardroom ballbusters. When we go into politics, the newspapers run stories on our dress sense and cleavage rather than our achievements. Men turn up at our public appearances holding banners saying 'Iron my shirt'. 

"How is this making the women of the future feel and what's it doing to their ambitions Miss Representation reveals all. It reveals how such toxic imagery is making girls and women feel devalued and ignored - as one teenager says, it's as if no-one cares about their brains, only their looks. It reveals how girls' dreams and ambitions change over time, as they find themselves trapped in stereotypes of what a woman should be and treated accordingly by boys, trapped by the perception that 'feminine' or 'like a girl' means 'inferior'." 

In recent months I've had cause to look back at my diaries from years gone by, and what has struck me more than anything else is the sense of alienation that I felt from the church as a young woman who didn't feel like she conformed to the popular stereotype of 'Biblical womanhood'. When I finally found women 'like me', particularly women who I could see doing the things that I felt I was gifted to do, I knew that they were my people. They were mentors and cheerleaders and role models for women like me, and they gave me hope that contrary to the impression I'd been given, there was a place for me in the church.

At the end of 2013, I was involved in the initial conversations that grew into what is now known as Project 3:28. These conversations were inspired by the discussions about that year's The Nines conference, which began with a tweet from Rachel Held Evans: "More than 100 speakers and four of them are women. This is not what the church looks like." We wanted to take a look at the UK Christian conference scene and see if we'd fared any better than The Nines. In our first year of analysing conference line-ups, we found that although it's claimed 66% of churchgoers in the UK are women, they make up just 34% of speakers at conferences.

Last week, we released the statistics from 2014's conferences, and it was encouraging to note that several organisations had been encouraged to think about gender parity in their line-ups that year. The report, once again, prompted plenty of conversations. There has been news coverage, and there have been blog posts. Some people think that the report is a terrible waste of money (hint: it didn't really cost anything at all), and others have argued that it's obvious that women are underrepresented - why should we need a report to tell us that? I would argue that a report was needed because it has spurred people into action. It has recognised the efforts of organisations trying to be inclusive, and in giving people the figures, it underlines the extent of the issue. The vaguely negative accusations levelled at those of us involved in the project have been interesting and frustrating, not least because they're no different from the stock responses that those passionate about gender and the church have to deal with every time they stick their heads over the parapet.

Nobody's saying that we should prioritise a 50:50 ratio of speakers over gifting, knowledge, and experience. 

What we're simply saying is that the gifting, knowledge and experience of the body of Christ is often not reflected in who gets to speak, who gets to lead, and who gets to be considered an authority.

Yes, women sometimes have different styles of leadership to men. And they often make different life choices due to lack of confidence. 

But as Miss Representation told us, you can't be what you can't see. I speak from personal experience when I say that many of us who are underrepresented in leadership benefit from having people like us to model it for us before we can believe it's something we can do, something that would be possible. That doesn't just go for women and the church - we're talking about all minorities here, in all areas of life. If women aren't stepping up to speak at conferences right now, that's not to say things can't change if they start to see a better way modelled.

Women are mothers. And?

Some of the women who have been the greatest influence on me in recent years are mothers. And they're doing what they're doing despite being mothers. It's my firm belief that mothers who are called to lead can do so with the right support, whether that's more equally shared parenting or conferences and organisations being considerate of their needs and helping out with childcare, or enabling them to bring along another adult to watch the children while the preach happens. It is simply not true that the secular feminist movement, the Christian feminist and egalitarian movements and conferences with a commitment to gender parity have little interest in promoting a more equal approach to parenting. It's one of the keys to women realising their full potential, And we must continue to advocate for it.

If women feel that their children take priority over ministry and career, so be it. That's their prerogative. But it's not the whole story. To say this is the case for the majority of women is incorrect - and it casts a disapproving eye on women who feel otherwise: women like me, and so many other women I know, who don't feel that a few hours of evening preparation and a day spent at an event means our children are worth less than profile and accolades.

Lack of gender equality isn't the problem. Conferences and high profile speakers are the problem, apparently. 

All that scoffing at Christian events and 'well known speakers' and snide little 'ughs' at the very idea of desiring to hold a leadership position or stand on a platform or teach people looks a little bit suspect when it's coming from people who are the leaders and the speakers and the high profile names, by which I mean white men - sorry, but that's exactly who I mean. It's all right for you, isn't it? You can scoff, and talk about how Christian culture needs to change, but come conference season everyone on the line-ups will look a bit like you, sound a bit like you - and they'll probably include some of your friends as well.

Project 3:28 didn't spring up when a bunch of people in thrall to the idea of helping women to become 'big names' and 'Christian celebrities' decided to try to make it happen. We'd all agree that a culture of Christian celebrity and waiting for conference season for a yearly spiritual high at the expense of the local church, of building relationships and grassroots organisation is inadvisable and can be toxic. But at the same time, we know that events and conferences are important to many. People go to them in order to be fed, to be inspired, and to grow in their relationship with God. We all need a balance - and while we know that Christian culture can be problematic, there's no reason we should seek to model gender justice in this very visible sphere.

How is making women more like men the answer to inequality?

Let's get one thing straight: appealing to the 'why should we squeeze women into a male mould?' school of thought doesn't wash. If you think the 'masculine flavour' of church leadership and speaking is a problem, why seek to uphold the status quo and fob us off by pretending we're better off out of it? Let's challenge inequality together, not by keeping men and women in separate spheres. Change the 'flavour'. if women lead and speak in different ways, let them do it.

What about [insert issue here]? Isn't that far more important? 

Maybe it is. But gender justice is my thing and I'm going to stick to it, for all the women who have ever felt they can't be the person they want to be because they can't see anyone like them paving the way.


Al said...

I confess that I am rather frustrated—though not surprised—by the approach that Project 3:28 has taken to this.

Precisely no one in the whole of the conversation that I have witnessed so far is saying that it wouldn’t be good to have more women speakers or that it wouldn’t be good to recognize the gifted women that are out there. Why has there been an argument about this at all? Surely we should all support an organization designed to make conference organizers aware of gifted women, to increase their visibility, and to advocate for their greater presence at the front of conferences? Ian Paul is an egalitarian. I may hold to a form of complementarian position (closer to that of the RCC than evangelical complementarianism à la Piper or Grudem), but I am firmly in favour of having women as conference speakers.

The frustrating thing is that Project 3:28 has needlessly tied a project that should be able to bring many people from across the spectrum together in an admirable common cause to a polarizing and dogmatic ideological position. There are a number of key tendentious and/or objectionable claims being made or insinuated:

1. That men and women have distributions of gifts, callings, capacities, and motivations that render them equally called to, gifted, prepared, motivated for, capable in, focused upon, and prioritizing of conference speaking.
2. That we must aim for 50:50 representation.
3. That anything short of this is an oppressive expression and result of patriarchy.
4. That the current imbalance is almost wholly a result of injustice and that securing the greater presence of women is principally battling past and existing injustice.
5. That anyone who challenges these claims is misogynistic or opposed to women on some level.

Much of this is driven by a sort of ideology that seems to run contrary to a lot of observable reality. We are being expected to sign on to this ideology or risk being castigated as backwards and oppressive.

It would be easy to reframe all of this without the ideological elements. It could be pointed out that women’s gifts often go unrecognized by conference organizers and that we need to establish measures for their greater recognition (the practical measure of a database of female speakers is superb). Women’s teaching gifts need to be developed, so conferences should seek to be proactive in providing opportunities for and encouraging the gifts of promising young women, not just selecting existing developed talent. That women may face both particular practical limitations and prejudices that serve as obstacles to their ministry and that through both awareness and taking key measures, these can be addressed. That women are disadvantaged in a number of respects and may require a greater purposeful investment of society’s resources and labour in order to achieve a fuller realization of their potential. We don’t have to believe that these disadvantages must be attributed to social injustice or to male pathology in order to believe that it would be good to be mindful of them and to take steps to address them in certain ways (for instance, confidence levels are a huge factor advantaging men relative to women, and the ‘confidence gap’ almost certainly is in large measure attributable to testosterone). All that is required is a loving recognition of women, an appreciation of their gifts, and the desire to see them reach their full stature. There are ways in which people can stand side by side in this endeavour, even while disagreeing strongly on the ideology and politics.

With a more open-ended and less ideologically predetermined approach to justice and the common good, we all leave ourselves open to surprise. Perhaps feminists will find natural differences in motivations and aptitudes of explain rather a lot of the differences between gendered places in society. Perhaps those opposed to feminism may find that injustice plays much more of a role than they could have imagined.

Tanya Marlow said...

Great post. I have been disappointed by an article I read (I forget the author, regrettably) who said something along the lines of 'Women have children! And I believe a women's place is looking after children, therefore they will not have as much speaking experience as men, therefore they will be inferior speakers.'
First - not all women are married, or have children. Some women have grown-up children. Let's not resort to stereotype.
Second - the insinuation is that there just simply aren't the women who are as 'good' (by what ever sheepish Christian margin we measure these things) as the men. To which I say - there are maybe 100 speakers at each conference. Can we find 50 women 'as good as the men'? In a New York minute. There are perhaps 10 keynote speakers at a conference. Can we find 5 women who are 'as good as the men'? I'm not even going to dignify that question with a response.

I'm really grateful for the 9:38 Project. Keep up the good work

Ann-Christin said...

good post!


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