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.

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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.

With this incongruity, how is it still possible for women to become effective and accepted leaders within evangelical institutions?

The incongruity is an obstacle, just like many other obstacles women face—balance of work and family, limited opportunities, and personal limitations. The good thing about these obstacles is that there is usually a way around them, but it helps to be conscious that they're there.

Have these qualities associated with ideal leaders changed over time? If so, can some of this change be attributed to the increasing presence of women leaders in the workplace?

When this dynamic was first studied in the 1970s, people described successful leaders as having high leadership and task-oriented (competent, intelligent) traits. Now, when the same study has been conducted in different organizations across around the world, people describe successful leaders more in terms of transformational leadership characteristics. As for whether this change is because of more women in the workplace, that's probably a chicken-or-the-egg question.

What was most unexpected from your findings?

A few things were surprising. Women were oddly viewed as less relational than successful leaders. We might assume that women would be more relational than anybody else, but the study suggested otherwise. The responses might reflect our growing desire for more relational leaders.

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Also, in most of the previous studies like this, there weren't any real differences between men and successful leaders, but in this study, men were viewed as less relational, task-oriented, and had less transformational leadership qualities than successful leaders. I'm not sure if this difference just reflects changes in what we, as a culture, value in leaders or whether Christians have different views on what it means to be a successful leader. 

Also, as a group, women were viewed as different from successful leaders, but women leaders were similar to successful leaders. It's almost as if we think women leaders are exceptions to the rule. The few women in leadership are thought to be somehow different or extraordinary from other women—I call it the Superwoman Principle.

Did your research point to any ways in which evangelicals might move beyond theological debates about women in leadership?

This research emphasizes what complementarians and egalitarians have in common rather than where they differ. Complementarians and egalitarians agree that women are gifted to serve as leaders in certain capacities, but Christian women leaders have often been empirically overlooked by both groups in academic literature. I don't think the theological debates are going anywhere anytime soon, but I do hope this research shows there is room for another conversation about Christian women in leadership, such as how we can help women overcome challenges and thrive in their areas of influence. Regardless of which position the organization is more sympathetic to, we have a responsibility to ensure that individuals are free to exercise the gifts distributed by the Holy Spirit, unencumbered by obstacles in whatever form they may take. 

Related Elsewhere:

Previous Christianity Today coverage of women in leadership includes:

Baptist Fellowship Offering Cash Incentives to Churches Considering Female Pastors | Why leaders are willing to pay expenses for search committees that consider women for church leadership. (October 5, 2011)
Purity Practices: Coed Leadership Concerns | Old safeguards face coed workplace. (July 22, 2011)
A Liberating Woman: A Reflection on the Founder of Christians for Biblical Equality | Catherine Clark Kroeger championed women's equality without budging on scriptural authority. (July 12, 2011)