The Perception Obstacle for Women Pursuing Leadership in Evangelical Workplaces
Women who pursue leadership face a conundrum: people's perceptions of an ideal leader do not always match their perceptions of an ideal woman. The theory has been well documented in secular business sectors, but little research exists on how perceptions impact the success of women leaders within evangelical nonprofit organizations. This incongruity formed the germ of a recent doctoral study conducted by Halee Gray Scott at the Talbot School of Theology at Biola University. Using a representative sample from 21 evangelical non-profit organizations (including Christianity Today), Scott compared employees' views of a successful leader to women in general, men in general, female leaders, and male leaders in order to determine whether or not these views pose an obstacle for women leaders. Her.meneutics contributor Karen Swallow Prior spoke with Scott about why the study's findings offer implications for women in all spheres of influence, especially in evangelical sectors.
What is missing from research on Christian women leaders?
There are books that fall into the theological debate camp, anecdotal books about a specific woman's experiences as a Christian leader, and books that cover biblical women leaders, but there was no comprehensive literature that targets the women serving in leadership positions in our churches and in Christian parachurch organizations today. So women everywhere—from my students to female vice-presidents to female pastors—are wondering where the maps are. The younger women are wondering if it is possible to be a woman leader; the women leading are wondering how to navigate the tough terrain. I wanted to start drawing a map.
Why are perceptions so important?
Most of the research that has been done in the last 30 years (which has not considered evangelical institutions specifically) shows that the way we think about leaders and the way we think about women are very different, a huge obstacle for women to overcome. If women demonstrate qualities that are typically associated with being a good leader—such as assertiveness and confidence—they cease to be viewed as "good" women—who we expect to be nurturing and supportive. Our perceptions are important aspects of reality. Although we do see imperfectly, or dimly, we do still see, and what we see is important in our decision-making process. I wanted to know if people's perceptions about women might be holding them back from more leadership opportunities.
What are some of the qualities associated with ideal leaders and with women that seem to be in conflict?
When compared to ideal leaders, women in general were viewed by people working in the Christian organizations as having fewer traits related to ambition, analytical ability, assertiveness, and self-confidence. They were viewed to have more communal traits such as creativity, helpfulness, and kindness. Women were also described as having less relationship-oriented traits like compassion, cooperation, and intuitiveness, and less task-oriented traits like competency, intelligence, and independence. Women also rated lower in transformational leadership characteristics such as encouraging, inspiring, and trustworthy.
How much of an obstacle do you think this creates to women advancing in leadership roles within the evangelical context?
That probably depends on the individual organization and how intentional key decision makers are in tapping into the giftedness of their staff—male or female. The study shows that people in these organizations don't think women have what it takes to be a leader—so it might be harder for women to be considered for a promotion. However, once she obtains a leadership position, this study indicates that more than likely, she will be viewed pretty favorably.