One striking finding of the Gender Parity Project—the largest study to date of women leading evangelical organizations (nonprofits, not churches)—is that the men in such organizations identify as egalitarians. At least when it comes to women leading in society, writ large. Janel Curry, provost of Gordon College, and Amy Reynolds, professor of sociology at Wheaton College, found in their two-year study (funded by the Imago Dei Fund) that 93 percent of the men surveyed agreed with the statement, “Men and women have freedom to pursue their gifts and callings without regard to gender roles. Men and women should share leadership roles within society.”

So why do women hold 21 percent of board positions, 21 percent of paid leadership positions, and 16 percent of CEO positions in the evangelical organizations surveyed (about half the number of women leading nonprofits broadly)? Curry and Reynolds posit that, while a few organizations explicitly say they want only male leaders, or belong to denominations that do, the problem may be that most organizations say nothing at all. “At one point we tried to look at mission statements and strategic plans . . . and it was amazing how few clearly state whether leadership positions are open to both men and women,” says Reynolds. “Given the different views in the evangelical world on this, we found that fairly troubling, that you could not find that information out.”

Still, Curry and Reynolds say that most nonprofits surveyed want more women leaders, if for pragmatic rather than theological reasons. “When we went to the Christian Leadership Alliance (CLA) conference, there was really no defensiveness about this issue,” says Curry. “The response was, ‘Give us the tools. Tell us what we need to do to help women move into these positions.’ ”

The study itself doesn’t provide the tools, but it does identify a structural gap—and, Curry and Reynolds hope, provoke more organizations to be explicit about wanting women leaders. They spoke with managing editor of CT magazine Katelyn Beaty about their study, whose findings are being presented today at the Religion Newswriters Association conference.

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To gauge the gender breakdown of these organizations, you used Form 990 data (tax forms), which asks organizations to list employees making more than $100,000, as well as board members and other key employees. Why use this metric to gauge something as broad as leadership?

Reynolds: We know that the measure of leadership we have is just a proxy for the measure we would ideally want, but we were most interested in having a study that measured as close to a full set of evangelical populations as possible. And since we knew we wanted 1,500 different organizations, we were looking for something that would be the same across them, which is what led us to the 990 data. On the 990, the leadership it lists is that over $100,000 [paid leadership positions] and board members. We also tried to code out non-leadership positions. But we went with that because we wanted a way to operationalize it, that we could do the study five years in the future and use the same metric, and use the same metric across organizations.

Curry: The $100,000 mark was merely there because the 990 tax form uses that, and we tried to compensate for that by looking at other data, because there are some religious traditions that would be paying less than that, so we tried to get them into the study.

The reason for looking at leadership positions is that there have been quite a few studies done on the gender climate of organizations and how women move up. But there really has not been something among the evangelical population about actual women who are in leadership, and factors that led to their success, their being able to be there.

You sent the survey to 425 organizations, and you wanted to ensure that the organizations were part of a larger evangelical umbrella group, such as the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA) and the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU). From those 425 groups, you received 698 responses from men and women representing 135 organizations. Which groups and which people responded the strongest?

Curry: The people who were asked to respond were those in the top 3 tiers of leadership in those organizations. So the survey asked somebody in the organization to identify the top three layers of leadership, so that was the group that filled out the survey.

Reynolds: Because the top leaders knew this was a survey aimed at issues of gender in leadership, they nominated more women than men. But actually with the survey, we had more than 40 percent of the people nominated being women, so that reflects organizations wanting to give us the names of all women that could maybe be conceived of in the leadership realm.

Curry: This reflected almost a misunderstanding, that men in leadership weren’t being asked to fill it out, so we had to clarify that both men and women were being asked to fill it out, because it’s an issue that affects both of them.

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Women in leadership is not a women’s-only issue.

Curry: Exactly. And I would say that’s the tipping point that we’re at. I do think men are starting to understand and become vocal on behalf of women because they need the skills of women. Everybody’s skills and gifts are needed in order to achieve the mission.

Reynolds: The best response rate was among the CCCU—more than half of those organizations responded. The other groups—development groups, student ministries, large ECFA organizations with budgets over $10 million, and ECFA groups with budgets under $10 million—were more similar to one another, with about a quarter responding.

Which type of evangelical organization tends to be doing the best when it comes to gender parity? The worst?

Reynolds: In the nonprofit sector in general, women do better in smaller organizations—as the size of the organization goes up, the number of women in leadership goes down. We find that same dynamic in our study, but if anything our numbers don’t look as different as they do in the nonprofit world at large. So the largest nonprofits we looked at, while they aren’t doing very well, we don’t see that same degree of variation where the budget seems to be this key part of the story.

The group that stands out—student ministries, 15 of them, and these are just ministries that are part of the ECFA—their numbers are lower at every level.

That surprised me because of how many women leaders I can think of in InterVarsity Christian Fellowship (IVCF).

Reynolds: They are the exception. They are the ones that have done well.

Curry: That’s because at the very top level, Alec Hill is a spokesman for women, and IVCF is clear that they are supportive of women in leadership. That’s one of the things that we found out, or a best practice, if you want: For an organization to be quite explicit about its view, whether it’s a complementarian or an egalitarian view.

Reynolds: So many people we surveyed experience a mismatch between their own views on gender and leadership and other leaders’ views. At one point we tried to look at mission statements and strategic plans of a subset of these organizations, and it was amazing how few clearly state whether leadership positions are open to both men and women. Given the different views in the evangelical world on this, we found that fairly troubling, that you could not find that information out.

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You found that about 1 in 4 (24 percent) of all organizations surveyed have no women on their boards. Similarly, among the organizations whose 990s do list their top 3 paid leaders, more than half have no women in top positions. What accounts for organizations having a complete absence of women on their boards and among top leaders?

Graph Note: It is harder to assess variation among the number of paid employees. Of our sample of over 1,481 organizations, only 387 had at least 3 paid top leaders listed on their 990 forms. Of those, 56 percent (over half) have no women holding those top positions (while 12 percent had 40 percent-plus females on their paid leadership).

Reynolds: Some of these we could tie to groups that are associated with a denomination with specific views about which gender should hold leadership roles, and they have all men on the board, so it seems intentional. But most of these groups in the ECFA, it’s not actually clear what their theology is. So it’s hard to tell, is it on principle, or is it because it just wasn’t a priority? It’s probably some of both, because we’re finding that the boards that have a high number of women on their boards are often very intentional about that. But we haven’t parsed out how many are because they don’t really care, or because they do care and that’s how they want it—women or no women.

Curry: It’s easier to see the pattern in terms of who does have women, especially in the CCCU, because you have institutions that are affiliated with certain Christian traditions. For example, Wesleyans (Free Methodists), the Church of God, the Anabaptist tradition, tend to have more women in leadership. It’s interesting how important that denominational heritage is, because the schools are not always on the liberal end, and they might be culturally very conservative, but somehow that tradition has carried on, that it’s more of an option than within other traditions.

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I was struck by the graph that gauged complementarian vs. egalitarian views on family, church, and society. I wasn’t surprised to see that more women than men supported women’s and men’s equal roles in the family and church. What seems surprising is that nearly all men and women surveyed hold an egalitarian position when it comes to women’s roles in society: “Men and women have freedom to pursue their gifts and callings without regard to gender roles. Men and women should share leadership roles within society.” What does this finding portend for the gender parity you hope to see?

Option 1: “Men and women have freedom to pursue their gifts and callings without regard to gender roles. Men and women should share leadership roles within [family/church/society].”

Option 2: “Distinct gender roles are ordained by God, with men and women serving in ways that complement one another. Men should hold distinctive leadership roles within [family/church/society].”

Curry: It raises the question as to whether we’re losing women’s leadership gifts to the society at large, because it’s more acceptable for them to use those leadership gifts in the society than in the church. . . . for example, you see evangelical women running for political office, and that seems to be acceptable. We also wondered if the number of women leaders were low in student ministry because that work more closely aligns with church.

It's unclear whether leadership in evangelical organizations would fall under “church” or “society” leadership.

Reynolds: The University of Denver put out a 200-page report last year on women’s leadership across many sectors, and nonprofits is a sector, and religion is a sector, where they just look at churches. But the reality is, there are a lot of evangelical nonprofits, and nonprofits are a place where the church is very active in the world. But it doesn’t really get studied because it’s not seen as religious, but they are obviously different from regular nonprofits—the boundary between church and not-church is blurred. Part of the reason we separated this question out is that we wanted to see if people were consistent in their views about church and society. I was struck by how different the men are in their views on family/church and their views on society. I thought that society number would have been lower—I was surprised that when it comes to that society level, most men and most women supported women in leadership.

What did you find out about how leaders’ attitudes on women in leadership corresponded or didn’t correspond with their own churches?

If we run those numbers on the organizational level, 28 percent of women say they have more progressive views on gender than their churches do. But a similar number, 30 percent of women, say they have more progressive views about women in leadership than their organizations do. A book called Evangelical Christian Women (2003) reported many of these women are leaving the church, because they’re kind of told they can lead, perhaps they’re given a leadership position, but it’s clear there are mixed feelings about whether they should exercise it, and so they exit the church, and some even exit the faith. Many of the people involved in this study were passionate about it because we don’t want to lose women from the church. When we look at this finding, when over a quarter of women say they are in places where they have different views about how they can exercise their leadership gifts than others around them, do they just stay [in those organizations] for 40 or even 10 years?

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Curry: When we presented at the 2014 CLA conference, there were many people saying, “We want women to come and they won’t.” So we want to know, what are the barriers both psychological and structural that keep them from stepping up?

Janel, you wrote in a column last week, “The study is not about empowering women but rather about fostering institutional change.” What’s the difference between the two?

Curry: Organizations, whether they are led by men or women, realize that they just need everyone’s gifts at the table, and ask how they can structure their institutions in order to make that happen. In the past, when it’s about women, it’s about making women assertive, but it’s all about women somehow trying to get in. I think it’s a more faithful view to say, “God calls us all. How can we structure our organizations to use everybody for his mission?”

In the article you noted that the male leaders of big-name evangelical organizations—CLA, ECFA, but also World Vision and IVCF—are pushing more urgently for widespread institutional change. Is this actually a new shift? Is this different from what you’ve seen from these organizations five or ten years ago?

Curry: I sense that it is. When we went to the CLA conference, there was really no defensiveness about this issue. The response was, “Give us the tools. Tell us what we need to do to help women move into these positions. What are the barriers, tell me, because I’ve asked them, and some won’t do it, and I know I need them.” At the CLA meeting, you see more women who are the head of missions organizations because they are the right person for the job, not worrying about whether it’s a woman or not, but, “This is the person that has the skills that we need at this point in time.” So that kind of urgency: “Let’s not let the fact that it’s a woman get in the way of getting the person we need to lead the organization.”

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Janel, you mentioned that one "best practice" is for organizations to explicitly state their views on women in leadership. Beyond this, what are other best practices evangelical organizations might use if they want to draw a greater number of women leaders?

Curry: Being very intentional about board composition is important—it starts at the top. And men being advocates for women—their champions—in moving them up. Often we think about maternity policy, but when it comes to moving women into leadership, it may be different elements to best practices.

How might you respond to the charge that gender parity is really about political correctness, and that organizations should instead seek the most qualified candidate, regardless of gender?

Reynolds: I don’t see our project as being about [political correctness] at all. The reality is that the very low numbers of women leaders in these sectors—most dominated by women in their staff—suggests that institutional realities make leadership opportunities more available to men than they do to women. We want to help organizations encourage all people to use their gifts to build the kingdom. There are lots of organizations that want to see more women in leadership, and a primary goal of our work is to help them do that.

I would reject the assumption that more men are in leadership because they are more qualified, and sociological evidence shows that in the secular world, women also face a number of institutional and cultural barriers that hinder them from becoming leaders.

As you see women holding more leadership positions in these organizations, do you anticipate some men reacting negatively, even if silently, evidenced in a drop in attendance numbers or job application numbers?

Reynolds: There are a number of evangelical organizations that will still want men only to be in leadership. Those are still going to exist, and the purpose of our study is not to tell those organizations that they are wrong. The point of the study is for people who want more women in leadership to be able to facilitate that.

Curry: What you see in society at large is more partnership, not women dominating or men dominating, but more partnership. If Christian organizations don’t have more women in leadership, it becomes out of sync with society and starts to seem strange. But you can always get an imbalance and have too many women and not men. It’s about needing everybody.