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Study Reveals Missing Influence of Women among Nonprofit Leaders

An interview with researchers Dr. Janel Curry and Dr. Amy Reynolds
Study Reveals Missing Influence of Women among Nonprofit Leaders

The Women in Leadership National Study, funded by the Imago Dei Fund of Boston, has completed two phases of a three-part study that examines institutional leadership among evangelical nonprofit organizations. Researchers have studied a number of organizations that include World Vision US, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities, Christianity Today, American Bible Society, and others.

On behalf of Gifted for Leadership, Margot Starbuck spoke with Dr. Janel Curry and Dr. Amy Reynolds, professors at Gordon College and Wheaton College respectively, who shared what they’re learning from the study.

GFL: I know the study was inspired, in part, by the absence of data about women’s leadership in the Christian sector outside the church. I’m curious about what you each brought to the study personally.

Janel Curry

Janel Curry

Janel: I would say for me personally, I was looking for a way to help organizations that wanted to move forward—I am always looking for data that helps you know how to be successful. This is of most interest to me: helping organizations move forward.

Amy Reynolds

Amy Reynolds

Amy: For me personally, one of the reasons I was interested in this project was because of my interactions with female students at my own college. I saw the tensions some faced as parents, or home churches, or peers, encouraged them not to be too career-driven. I encountered students who were a bit surprised to see me combining my role as a mother with my role as a professor and Christian, often seeking advice since they had seen few models of women combining careers and family in their own lives. Even for those students who believed God did not restrict them because they were women, they were dealing with baggage from the past of being told that being female limited the ways they could serve God and serve the church.

GFL: So how do evangelical nonprofits compare to their secular counterparts, in terms of women being in leadership?

Amy: Not well. We do about half as well, generally speaking. So for example, women account for 40 percent of CEOs in the nonprofit sector generally (Benchmarking Women’s Leadership in the United States, Colorado Womens College 2013), but only 18 percent of our sample. Women serve as 26 percent of college presidents (same Benchmarking study), but only 5 percent within our sample of Christian colleges. Women make up 29 percent of college boards, but 19 percent of Christian college boards; 43 percent of nonprofit boards generally, but only 22 percent of the boards in our study.

GFL: You discovered that most evangelical women and men share the egalitarian view that women should lead in the workplace and broader society, but that there are mixed feelings about women leading in the home and church. How do you think these findings impact the organizations you studied?

Amy: First, we sense that people are conflicted about women leading, even as they, in theory, support women leading within their organizations. Christian nonprofits may be seen by some as existing on the boundaries of church life and society, especially as leaders within many of these organizations are expected to provide spiritual leadership. Supporting women leading in an organization, when you expect them to be home watching children, makes it hard for women to thrive in leadership roles—we suspect. It’s also worth noting that while the men and women in our sample expressed similar views on women leading in society, men had more conservative views—than women—on women’s leadership in the home and in the church.

Second, many of the leaders we surveyed wouldn’t have guessed that their peers did think that women should lead in society, so even as males and females may express such a belief, it’s not being clearly communicated. We were surprised to find that many organizations don’t have an explicit policy—in their vision/mission statement, core values, faith statement, etcetera—regarding women and men in leadership.

GFL: Some will hear that women are underrepresented in these organizations and wonder, “So what? Does it matter?” Does it? Why?

Janel: Studies have shown that organizations are actually more successful when they have greater diversity in their leadership. So it matters because, in order to achieve mission, organizations need diversity in their leadership. So this study is about helping evangelical nonprofits better achieve their missions.

GFL: And what would you say is missing from our organizations and ministries when women are not fully represented?

Janel: I would reframe this question to say—what are we missing when we are not drawing on the full range of leadership talent within our community. When we have women in leadership it often also opens up the way for men with a greater range of leadership styles and talents to also move into leadership. So I see it as opening up leadership to the full range of styles and talents that God has gifted us with in order to achieve mission.

GFL: What can women in church leadership do to offer support and advocacy for their sisters in nonprofit organizational leadership?

Janel: Given the difference in views between the church and society, and women’s roles, often women feel like church is a foreign land—or that they live a split life—they are in leadership in society and then not in church. Anything that can just simply recognize the roles that women are playing outside the church—stated in the church setting—helps to create a safe place within the congregation.

Obviously managing these tensions is a spiritual challenge. Women in the church can be supportive through prayer and mutual spiritual growth.

Finally, sponsorship is an important element. Put women’s names forward and describe what you think they could bring, or recognize their roles. Make them visible by just pointing out what they are doing.

GFL: What role does mentoring play here? If women in leadership help inspire others to join us in these roles, what responsibility do those of us in leadership have?

Janel: We prefer sponsorship over mentorship. Being a sponsor involves affirming someone’s giftedness, encouraging them in this giftedness, and putting their name forward while naming that giftedness. It is about giving them opportunities to grow—removing obstacles.

GFL: What is the most important thing you think the church needs to hear from this study?

Janel: I would emphasize again—organizations need to be explicit about their stands. If they are complementarian then they need to be explicit about this and if they are egalitarian, the same. I encourage men who are egalitarian who attend churches that are not, to be the ones to step up to open up dialogue. This creates space for conversation.

Amy: Churches need to be clear about what opportunities they believe women should have to exercise their leadership gifts. This applies to churches who support women in leadership or restrict such roles to men. Churches who want to support women at all levels may think their stance is clear. But it might not be. Given the differences of opinion and conviction among Christians on gender, churches cannot take for granted that members know where they stand. Past research has shown that even in denominations that affirm the leadership gifts of women without limitation, women are often still very underrepresented in leadership—leading, perhaps, to confusion among some members on how the church really thinks about the roles of women and men.

Second, this research suggests that women’s leadership gifts are being under-utilized. White men are largely the ones leading Christian organizations, Christian colleges, and Christian nonprofits. (Our study also found that racial diversity levels were very low). This means that the church and church-based organizations are missing out on a depth and breadth of perspective that is necessary to be the church. Some of this may not be due to principled opposition to women in leadership, but due to a lack of initiative to support and actively encourage women in leadership. This is why the next phase of our study will involve interviews with leaders in organizations where women are well represented and thriving, in order to understand best practices that other organizations might adopt.

To learn more about the study: http://www.gordon.edu/womeninleadership

Margot Starbuck is the author, most recently, of Not Who I Imagined: Surprised by a Loving God. Connect with Margot at www.MargotStarbuck.com or on Facebook.

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