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Overcoming Gender Bias

Melinda Gates on how to be a successful woman leader

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.

October27, 2016 at 8:00 AM

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