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The 'Benevolent Sexism' at Christian Colleges
The 'Benevolent Sexism' at Christian Colleges

Women at an evangelical college face a wider gender gap than their counterparts at a secular institution, according to a new study published in Religion and Education. But they're also more satisfied in their jobs than women at secular schools.

Biola University professors Brad Christerson, M. Elizabeth Lewis Hall, and Shelly Cunningham, authors of "Women Faculty at an Evangelical University: The Paradox of Religiously Driven Gender Inequalities and High Job Satisfaction" attribute this paradox to "benevolent sexism" and the high value evangelicals place on personal relationships. Karen Swallow Prior, chair of the department of English and Modern Languages at Liberty University and a regular contributor to Her.meneutics, interviewed the scholars about their findings.

Explain "benevolent sexism" and its role in the study's findings.

Benevolent sexism refers to sexism that is not overtly hostile. In fact, it is often in the context of warm, friendly personal relationships between men and women. This type of sexism undermines opportunities for women through emphasizing the nurturing role of women (particularly in raising children) and the male role as protector of and provider for women.

Many women faculty on the evangelical campus in the study reported feeling undermined at work by implicit assumptions that they should be home with their children, or that the qualities that are valued in academia—intelligence, assertiveness, and confidence—are not traits appropriate for Christian women.

So while women at this university generally report warm friendly relationships with male faculty and students, they also feel limited support for their professional achievement because of traditional gender assumptions.

What did your study find to be the greatest sources of perceived gender inequality among the female faculty members of the evangelical university?

The greatest disparity was in the extent to which faculty members felt informed about various aspects of their job, including expectations for advancement, negotiating for resources, and opportunities for research. This may explain why there is such a disparity between men and women within the evangelical university in promotion to full professor and access to resources such as housing allowances, sabbaticals, funding, and course release for research.

You note that female faculty felt excluded from male social groups. As the study points out, evangelicals are more guarded about cross-gender relationships. Is "separate but equal" as applied to gendered socialization possible or desirable in an institutional environment?

As is the case with racial segregation, "separate but equal" is a fallacy. Since males have disproportionate access to resources and power, segregating women from men, even informally, means that women will continue to have less access to information and resources that are important for advancement in their profession.

How did the inequality perceived by female faculty at the evangelical institution compare to the female faculty at the secular institution studied?

The gender inequality on all measures was greater at the evangelical university when compared to the secular university.

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