Editor’s Note: This article is part of “Change Makers,” our recent CT special issue focused on some of the ways women are influencing the church, their communities, and the world. In this special issue, we’ve included articles that explore trends in women’s discipleship, examine research on women and workplace leadership, highlight women who are making a difference, and grapple with the unique challenges female leaders face. Click here to download your own free digital copy of “Change Makers.”
As a millennial Christian, Kathryn Freeman’s experience at work captures both the open doors and stubborn glass ceilings facing many professional women today. The director of public policy at a faith-based nonprofit in Dallas, Texas, Freeman describes herself as “a strong personality, meaning I am not shy about voicing my opinions.” She says her bosses, mostly older men, welcome this strength. Her gifts and ideas are encouraged and expressed in her role advocating on complex issues like criminal justice, gambling, and immigration.
But Freeman also says her singleness comes up a lot at work—and it didn’t at the secular nonprofit where she worked previously. “It comes from the idea that a woman’s highest calling is wife and mother,” Freeman says . “Even as your male coworkers seek to climb the ladder, you, single woman, should be keeping an eye out for a husband, not executive leadership.” She also notes that coworkers have told her to smile during presentations so as not to appear angry. “In more secular settings, I doubt this would be voiced out loud, given how strict most HR departments are about perceived harassment.”
For all of women’s gains in higher education, politics, and business over the past century, the barriers women face at work are so perennial as to seem rather permanent. In the US, working women make, by varying estimates, 79 to 85 cents compared to every dollar earned by their male counterparts. Women at the top of their game in Hollywood and cable news networks face sexual harassment and threats of demotion should they come forward. Lack of mentors, inflexible leave policies, and negative views of assertiveness are all common barriers for many professional women, across all ages and fields of work.
But evangelical women may face unique barriers owing to their religious communities. A Barna Group survey published this March found that evangelicals—while generally supportive of working women—were the group least likely to support them compared with all Americans. For example, a majority of Americans (77%) are comfortable with the idea that more women than men could someday occupy the workforce. Yet slightly half of evangelicals, 52 percent, are comfortable with this future scenario. Evangelicals were the group least likely to be comfortable with a female CEO (77% versus 94% of all Americans) and least likely to believe that women face unique barriers in the workplace (32% versus 53%). Further, 73 percent of evangelicals are comfortable with the idea of having a female president, compared with 85 percent of all Americans.
For a movement as complex as evangelicalism, the reasons for these findings are likewise complex. Unlike other surveyors, Barna identifies evangelicals by adherence to nine theological criteria rather than church attendance or survey participants’ self-identification as evangelical. Among Barna’s criteria is “a strong belief that the Bible is accurate in all the principles it teaches.” Many evangelicals believe that Scripture forbids women from having authority over men in the home (Eph. 5:22–24) and the church (1 Tim. 2:11–12). This certainly informs church leadership; according to Barna, evangelicals were the group least likely to be accepting of a female pastor (39%). But Roxanne Stone, editor in chief at Barna, notes that evangelicals’ “view of leadership within the church is expanded into their view of societal leadership more broadly.” So while the Bible doesn’t forbid women from leadership in society—and might actually encourage it, given the examples of Deborah, Esther, and the Proverbs 31 woman—their beliefs about women leaders in the church color their perception of all women leaders.
Stone also notes that evangelicals’ views on family shape their views on working women. “Evangelical churches have often been at the forefront of conversations about ‘family values,’ and those values often reflect a preference for stay-at-home mothers,” Stone says. As mainstream feminism has encouraged women to seek influence outside the home, some Christian communities have more strongly emphasized the traditional family structure and the nobility of motherhood. In research for my book, A Woman’s Place, I found many examples of leaders overtly teaching that motherhood is a woman’s highest calling and that mothers who work outside the home could harm their children. Mothers who do work full-time are in a minority, sometimes a lonely one, in many local churches. And, as Freeman noted, single women in particular may sense that professional success is not as important as “success” in their personal lives.
Stone rightly notes that evangelical gender norms that may seem unusual within the broader culture today were widespread outside the church not that long ago. “Many women today, outside of evangelical churches, still struggle with” the decision on whether or not to work full-time while raising children, she says. The “mommy wars” are not unique to Christians. And while many mainstream workplaces say they support women leaders in theory, their policies and hiring practices don’t always bear this out. If there’s a silver lining to the Barna study, it could be that “evangelicals may be the only ones who are being honest—or at least self-aware!” Stone says.
For all the external barriers that professional women face—including attitudes among fellow Christians—internal barriers prove equally difficult to budge. This was one of the provocative themes of Sheryl Sandberg’s 2013 manifesto, Lean In. As she writes, “We hold ourselves back in ways both big and small, by lacking self-confidence, by not raising our hands, and by pulling back when we should be leaning in.”
Bernice Ledbetter, founding director of the Center for Women in Leadership at Pepperdine University, says the lack of a “leader identity” among women keeps them from taking opportunities that may be wide open for them. “The ability to internalize a leader identity has been shown to be important for projecting confidence and being seen by others as an effective and capable leader,” says Ledbetter. In other words, if a woman doesn’t think of herself a leader, she probably won’t become one.
Kali Thorne Ladd is by all measures a leader. With a master’s degree in education policy from Harvard University, Ladd is executive director of KairosPDX, a Portland nonprofit that helps low-income children get quality education. She was recently listed as one of Portland’s 40 Under 40 leaders for 2017. But when she found out about the award, she says, it was “really awkward for me.”
“I’m always amazed when people call me a leader,” Ladd told me. “I am outspoken about the things I believe; I’m passionate about the work I do. But there’s something about being called a leader that’s like, ‘Oh, wow.’ It’s often my male friends who tell me, ‘You are absolutely a leader; how can you even question that?’ ” Ladd also says she observes male peers stepping up for tasks they have little experience or competency in, whereas she and other women tend to step up only when they feel competent.
One reason many women don’t quickly identify as leaders is because our cultural models of leadership are masculine. Programs at top business schools such as Wharton and Harvard have begun trying to change these models in order to produce more effective female leaders. Traditional models of leadership reward drive, competitiveness, and decisiveness—traits stereotypically belonging to men. Leaders who are sensitive, communal, or intuitive are often viewed as ineffective. Yet when women lead in a way that’s stereotypically masculine, they are often perceived as bossy or dominant. This is why, for example, Freeman says she will intentionally dress in feminine clothing at work to “counterweight” her assertiveness. “Men don’t feel as threatened if I am in a floral dress,” she says. “It’s a signal that I am not trying to be a man” or bossy.
Ledbetter says that the growth edge for organizations today is encouraging women to authentically lead as women. “Women lead differently than men, and oftentimes women’s leadership is hidden in plain sight,” she says. “Can we accept that leadership is valuable even when it is expressed differently?”
“Women are more collaborative in their style of leading,” says Mary Robinson, who served as Ireland’s first female president from 1990 to 1997. She observes that women are more likely to empower others for influence and less likely to assert hierarchical power.
In fact, women may be more naturally poised to lead in the 21st-century workforce, where “collaboration is taking over,” reported the Harvard Business Review in 2016. “As business becomes increasingly global and cross-functional, silos are breaking down, connectivity is increasing, and teamwork is seen as a key to organizational success,” note the authors. This means that women may have an easier time seeing themselves as leaders, without feeling pressure to act like men in order to be effective. And there’s much here for evangelicals to affirm: If Christians believe that male and female are “very good” and together bear God’s image (Gen. 1–3), then surely they can support organizations drawing on unique male and female qualities in equal strength.
How churches can support professional women
Meanwhile, evangelical churches play a crucial role in supporting professional women—even churches that believe church leadership is reserved for men. Scott Sauls is senior pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church in Nashville, Tennessee. Sauls says his church supports working women by “valuing women for their leadership and voice inside the church.” As a Presbyterian Church in America congregation, the church reserves the role of elder and senior pastor for men, based on the denomination’s reading of 1 Timothy. But half of the church’s senior directors are women, and each elder commission has at least two women as advisers. Women are also encouraged to teach classes and lead small groups, as well as read Scripture, play music, and pray during worship services. “We want to be sure that the direction of our church is shaped just as much by women’s perspectives as it is by men’s,” Sauls says. Pepperdine’s Ledbetter agrees: When churches engage women and men equally in the use of their talents inside the church, they have an easier time affirming the use of those talents outside the church.
Likewise, Eugene Cho, pastor of Quest Church in Seattle—part of the Evangelical Covenant Church, a denomination that ordains women—believes it’s incumbent upon pastoral staff to name sexism in the workplace as an injustice and a result of the Fall. Sexism is not the way the world is supposed to be. “The treatment of women, in my opinion, is the oldest injustice in human history,” Cho told me. “There’s a certain power in acknowledging these barriers, including the cultural patriarchy that existed during the time of Jesus and that exists today.” Beyond addressing the mistreatment of women in sermons, Cho says, his church works to highlight strong female figures in the Bible and to highlight women as members, small group leaders, worship leaders, elders, and pastors.
Local churches can also do a lot to defuse the Mommy Wars—the cultural phenomenon in which women judge each other based on diverging parenting choices. Even in churches that vocally honor stay-at-home moms, there will be single women as well as mothers who work outside the home due to financial necessity. “When churches communicate that women who work are valued, important, even inspirational, that goes a long way for women who may be questioning their place in the world,” Stone says. She suggests that churches make mentoring connections between older and younger members and host networking events for professionals in similar fields. Or, they can make “a concerted effort to avoid assumptions or generalizations—that moms stay at home, or that dads go to work, or that doctors are men,” she says.
On this point, Stone says churches can celebrate men’s participation in the life of the household. After all, Scripture doesn’t treat mothers as more important than fathers, and actually speaks much more of fathers, calling men to lead and love at home as patriarchs (literally, “family ruling”). Implicit in the dialogue about women’s work is an invitation to men to reinvest at home—to find meaning and identity outside a paycheck and colleagues’ praise. “Society cannot honestly survive gender parity in the workplace without also striving for a similar gender parity in the emotional labor required for the rest of life,” Stone says. This means churches must offer families a vision of fatherhood that challenges the “doofus dad” image in pop culture.
One of the most important findings of the Barna survey is that millennials (defined as Americans born between 1982 and 2004) are uniquely accepting of women in the workplace. They are the group most likely to be comfortable with the idea that women in the workforce could someday outnumber men, at 84 percent. Many women in their 20s are prioritizing career over marriage or family, either due to a lack of marital prospects or the knowledge that establishing their careers earlier will give them flexibility and security later.
These trends carry huge implications for the church, if only because more than half of most congregations are female. Young women today “are rising in the ranks at work and they are finding immense value in their jobs,” Stone says. But if their church does not echo that value, there will likely be a disconnect. Ultimately, honoring working women comes down to effective evangelism. As Dorothy Sayers wrote in her seminal essay “Why Work?,” “How can anyone remain interested in a religion which seems to have no concern with nine-tenths of his [or her] life?” The nine-tenths of life is where young women like Kathryn Freeman are thriving; now they’re just waiting for the one-tenth of life to catch up.
Katelyn Beaty is an editor at large for Christianity Today magazine and the author of A Woman’s Place: A Christian Vision for Your Calling in the Office, the Home, and the World (Howard / Simon & Schuster) which has recently been released in paperback with an accompanying small group curriculum (Abingdon).