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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.

None of the male faculty studied identified social isolation as a source of dissatisfaction. Did the study take into account the possibility of gender differences on this point? Perhaps male faculty members just have less of a desire for social groups—or even notice them less.

The study was concerned not so much with how socially isolated faculty felt in general, but rather how social exclusion leads to professional disadvantages by virtue of being left out of informal information-sharing networks. So while it might be possible that men are less concerned with being socially isolated in general, and therefore feel less dissatisfied, it is clear that women faculty at this university are being excluded from important job-related information because of their exclusion from male social groups.

It is also unlikely that these findings can be reduced to gender differences, since the narratives of the women included descriptions of their male colleagues going out together for coffee or meals, or seeing the male chair of department invite a young male colleague out. These descriptions suggest that the males do, in fact, have great access to opportunities for socialization.

Does the gender inequality found in your study seem rooted more in evangelical social and sexual mores or in evangelical theology?

Both are at work and both are important. Evangelical theology prioritizes the personal choices of individuals and their consequences. Personal choices with regards to sexual ethics are seen as of particular importance in the evangelical subculture. In this environment, guarding against sexual temptation seems to trump concerns about any gender inequality that results from avoiding too much contact with the opposite sex at work. These theologically based concerns translate into a preference for gender segregation in church contexts that bleeds over into Christian work settings. Because of this predominant socialization, we are not taught how to have appropriate professional relationships with the opposite sex. There is also a dominant theology of gender hierarchy in evangelicalism, which does not necessitate, but in practice results in, limiting the professional advancement of women.

"Relationism," in this case, relationships with students and colleagues of both sexes, emerged in the study as the greatest source of satisfaction for both men and women in the evangelical institution. How did the value placed on relationships in the evangelical institution compare with the secular university?

Since we did not perform qualitative interviews at the secular university, we can't directly make this comparison. However, the interviews with both male and female faculty at the evangelical university show that close, warm, personal relationships with students and colleagues are one of the primary reasons these faculty chose to work at an evangelical institution as opposed to a secular university.

What are some possible implications of this high job satisfaction rooted in relationalism for the future of evangelical higher education?

It is a great selling point for attracting both faculty and students to evangelical universities. While facilities, resources, and faculty pay are generally more modest at evangelical universities when compared with secular universities, faculty can experience a more collegial work environment, and have a greater role in the lives of students. For those who value this, it can outweigh pay and benefits in job satisfaction. For students, opportunities for knowing your professors personally in a mentoring role might be a deciding factor in choosing a university.

Your study applied the findings of previous research on the tendency of evangelicals, based on theology, to emphasize individual rather than institutional actions. How might your study be of use in making institutional changes to reduce gender inequality and increase job satisfaction even more?

This is our hope. We hope that by identifying the sources of gender inequality at evangelical universities, we can encourage administrators to pursue solutions to these problems without undermining their commitment to their evangelical faith and theology. In particular, encouraging more collaboration between men and women faculty, making information more available to women faculty regarding resources, promotions, and opportunities, intentionally prioritizing women for leadership positions, and training staff and faculty regarding the damaging effects of narrow views of masculinity and femininity seem to us to hold great promise in making the workplace more equal in evangelical institutions.

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