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There's Something in the Water

How second-generation gender bias makes it difficult for women leaders to thrive

A few years ago, my husband and I moved from Missouri to Idaho to pastor a church. Having spent approximately 48 hours of my life in the state—and only for the interview process—I fully expected Idaho to be true to the stereotype: potato fields as far the eye could see. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that while Idaho does, of course, have field upon field of potatoes, it also has breathtaking streams and rivers, snow-capped mountains, and pristine mountain lakes. My fisherman husband has been in fish-catching heaven ever since.

But in 2015, something strange happened—99 percent of the sockeye salmon run died. Dead fish. Everywhere. What happened? The water was clear, and food sources were readily available. It was as if there was something in the water, some unseen force at work, making the environment inhospitable.

In the same way, there seems to be something in the water of many churches, at both the local and denominational level—something that is hindering women from thriving at the same level as their male counterparts. In generations past, it was easy to identify explicit structures and policies that hindered women from obtaining and succeeding in pastoral roles, but in many cases, those overt barriers have been eliminated. Even so, the number of female pastors hasn’t shifted much. According to Hartford Institute for Religion Research, only 12 percent of congregations in the United States have female lead pastors, and, in evangelical churches, that number drops to 9 percent. If so many barriers have been eliminated, why haven’t the number of women and men in lead pastorates and denominational leadership positions equalized?

Researchers Herminia Ibarra, Robin J. Ely, and Deborah M. Kolb asked the same questions about women in the secular work place, and determined there was undoubtedly something in the water—something that went deeper than the overt barriers of years gone by. They named this experience Second-Generation Gender Bias, concluding that “second-generation bias erects powerful but subtle and often invisible barriers for women that arise from cultural assumptions and organizational structures, practices, and patterns of interaction that inadvertently benefit men while putting women at a disadvantage.”

Good Intentions Are Not Enough

Let’s be clear. We’re not calling out men for evil intent and taking names. There are no torches lit. Women and men both appear to be oblivious to this bias, perhaps aware that something is amiss but with no apparent ability to name it or amend it. Nevertheless, there is something holding women back.

January30, 2018 at 8:00 AM

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