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Overcoming Gender Bias

Melinda Gates on how to be a successful woman leader

I did something the other day that I immediately regretted. Worse, it was in front of my 2-year-old daughter. I had come down with a nasty head cold that turned into a nasty chest cold, and my daughter, who already shows an incredible amount of empathy, looked at me with concerned eyes as I coughed yet again. I didn’t want her to be worried, so I did what any good parent does: explain that everything was going to be okay.

“I’m going to Walk In Care to see a doctor today, honey. He’ll give me some medicine, and I’ll feel better soon.” Rather than smile at her reassuringly, though, I winced at my mistake. “I mean, he or she will give me some medicine,” I quickly corrected.

The exchange was over as quickly as it began, and she started singing the ABCs to herself contentedly. I, on the other hand, felt terrible about my slip-up. I knew this one mistake wouldn’t affect my daughter long-term, but I didn’t like what it revealed about my own gender bias. On a practical level, it’s silly: all of my doctors are women—I know that women make great doctors—but language makes a big difference, and I don’t want to be part of perpetuating the problem.

The issue, perhaps, feels more acute within the church where it’s not as common to see women in leadership roles. Perhaps especially here we need to notice when gender bias is alive and well. As much as I am for women leaders, especially in the church, I find smudges of gender bias all over my thinking. The problem is not so much with having gender bias—certainly, we all suffer to some degree. The problem is with letting that bias go unquestioned. When we do, we can do a lot of damage without even thinking about it.

Naming the Problem

Earlier this fall, I had the honor of sitting down with Melinda Gates at the Global Leadership Summit held at Willow Creek Community Church. Among other things, we talked specifically about the gender bias she’s experienced as a woman leader. As one of the first women in tech at Microsoft and the co-founder of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Gates definitely understands the challenges women leaders face.

The reality is that we experience gender bias from an early age, picking up on subtle messages about the kinds of things boys and girls do. Gates told me about a study that was done with young girls who attend computer science camps. The factor that determines whether girls will report enjoying their time at camp may surprise you. Gates explained:

One of the biggest predictors about whether a girl will say she had a good experience is the posters on the walls. If it's all guys on the posters, she won't report having a good experience—even if she actually does a really good job in the programming camp. Whereas, if it's either all females or it's a mix of females and males on the walls, she will generally not only have a good experience, but she'll also report having had a good experience. We have these cultural norms; we think of certain jobs in certain ways. Role-modeling makes a profound difference for girls. So instead of thinking, “Oh, the only people that would be good at tech are men,” they might think, “Hey, there's a female doing that job, and she's successful. I could see myself in this role.”

This leaves us with a problem: We want to see more women in leadership roles. But the best way to encourage women to fill these roles is for them to see other women already there. As we—both women and men—see more capable and called women filling leadership roles, we’ll be more likely to encourage other women to fill similar positions. In the meantime, though, we need to keep our eyes and ears open to the gifted women around us, encouraging them to fill roles that fit their gifts, passions, and callings—even if there aren’t other women filling that particular role yet.

When Our Biases Are Wrong

It can be startling to find that our gender biases may actually be wrong. Gates told me that a study was done to determine whether there was a vast difference in skill between men and women when it came to coding. Because coders are so often men, common sense seemed to say that men are naturally better at it. Following this rationale, more men are hired for coding positions overall. But is this even true? Gates explained:

We don't mean to, but both women and men have bias about who we will hire into a role. We know this because they have blinded some of the studies. They give girls and boys a coding problem and blind it so the reviewer of the code doesn't know if it was a male or female writing the code. The women actually do slightly better than the men. But if the reviewers are looking at code and they know it was written by a man or woman, they'll generally say the man's code is better. They don't mean to—we just all have these biases. Men and women have biases, and we have to overcome that.

So your church has never had a woman in charge of finances? If she’s the right person for the job, who cares about history?

Do you have a woman who’s passionate about connecting with kids through sports? Tap her for the children’s sports ministry, even if that role is normally filled by men.

Perhaps you have a man who is passionate about serving others through food. Why not put him in charge of the hospitality ministry at church?

It can be difficult to separate out our biases and reality, but when we do, we may be pleasantly surprised.

Our Leadership Biases

Once we are in leadership positions, we may find ourselves bowing to gendered biases we didn’t even know we had. Because we see so many male leaders, we often equate male styles of leadership with success. What does it look like to lead as a woman—or, better yet, as the person God has created you to be?

When Gates joined Microsoft in 1987, there were lots of other women working there—but they weren’t dealing with the technology side of the business. All of her tech peers were men, people she describes as “hardcore technical people.” With only male role models, she thought it was necessary to take on their brash, aggressive leadership style to succeed. She found, however, that this style didn’t fit her, and she started wondering if she’d make it past the two-year mark at Microsoft. Then one day, that all changed:

I thought, It's a great company. I want to work here. I believe in the mission. I'll just try on who I really am, my own style, and I'll see how that goes. I'll just give that six months, and if it doesn’t go well I'll leave. When I tried on my own style, however, it worked so well. I was not only happier, but I started to be able to attract people to my team because they also wanted to be able to be themselves and lead in their own style. I learned a lot about how to be myself in that environment and how not to be like everybody else, and that has ended up serving me.

I stayed nine years. I loved it. I had a great career there. But it also served me well when I came to the foundation. I realized I needed to be myself, and I needed to role model that. We have lots of different types of leaders at the foundation: male and female, brash and not brash, collaborators and people who are more solo. All of those styles are okay. There isn't one right one—it’s how they all mesh to get the best outcome.

This is a tension I have often felt in the church. Because so many of the leadership roles have been held by men for so long, we often equate success with the ways they lead and do ministry. And while they may be successful, it’s not necessary for us to take on their styles, methods, and systems in order for us to be successful. If something your predecessor left for you is working and feels like a good fit for your leadership style, by all means, keep it! But there’s no need for us to feel boxed in by the ways our predecessor led.

Years ago when I was the only woman on staff at a small church, I felt like all eyes were on me, wondering if I would cut it. I wanted to do whatever I could to blend in, so I took on some of the style of my coworkers. I figured if I could act like them, I might not stand out as much. One of my coworkers was a huge extrovert. Acting like him only tired me out. My other coworker was a bookworm with extensive knowledge of Greek and Hebrew, and he was always sharing deep wisdom. Whenever I tried to say something wise like him, though, it always came out sounding incredibly stupid. In trying to act more like my coworkers, I stood out even more. When I focused on leading in ways that fit me, we all benefited.

Gather Together

One of the most difficult things for women facing gender bias in church leadership is feeling alone. Often, women who are on staff are the only woman—or one of only a few women—on the team. Leadership is already an incredibly lonely role. Add to that the fact that there aren’t many women leaders, and it can feel incredibly isolating. When I brought this up with Gates, she had some helpful wisdom:

Being in community, in a circle where there isn't hierarchy, allows people to be vulnerable and be themselves, to say what they're really facing. We all face lots of things in our lives: good, bad, and hard. People have to have a safe space where they can say that and share how they're personally trying to grow. So I am a big believer in groups. There’s huge power in it, but I think sometimes we underestimate that.

In fact, one of the ways I got through Microsoft in the early years when I was still navigating and figuring out who I was, is I had an amazing group of people around me. On a really tough day, I could pick up the phone and call them, and we'd try to drop whatever meeting we had and go be with each other. You knew who had your back. I could say, “This day was really hard,” or, “I have no idea how I'm going to go do this tomorrow.” And they would give tools and the encouragement. We all need that kind of thing. You just have to look for it and build it around you.

How might you gather with other women leaders in your church for this kind of support? If there aren’t many women leaders at your church, I’ll bet you’ll find women at other local churches or in area ministries who are in the same boat as you. Gender bias is a real struggle women leaders face, whether it’s subtle or overt. Can you imagine the power of women leaders coming together to share openly their struggles, hopes, and needs? Rather than simply lament not having community like that, do what Gates suggests: “look for it and build it around you.” Your leadership, your ministry, and those you lead will be better for it.

To learn more about our conversation with Melinda Gates, read this article.

Amy Jackson is managing editor of Gifted for Leadership, SmallGroups.com, and Christian Bible Studies.

October27, 2016 at 8:00 AM

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