Jo Saxton Q+A: What's Holding Women Back?
Jo Saxton is passionate about leadership. A Londoner of Nigerian descent who now lives in the Twin Cities, Saxton is a church planter, leadership coach, and the author of More Than Enchanting. A sought-after speaker, Saxton also serves as chair of the board for 3DM, a global discipleship ministry. Saxton’s latest endeavor is “Lead Stories,” a podcast with co-host Steph Williams, in which they discuss themes like soul care; the “behind the scenes” life of leaders; and assessing leaders’ physical, relational, and mental health. We connected with Saxton to get her take on the unique experiences of women in leadership.
Why are you so devoted to equipping women for leadership?
In the Great Commission, we are all called, as men and as women, to be involved in what God is doing. He designed us to know him and make him known in the world around us. We need to be equipped and empowered to do that, and I don’t think we can do that with just 50 percent of the global population. We want to see 100 percent—both men and women—empowered to play our part in what God is doing in the world.
What do you see as some of the most common barriers that may be holding women back from taking on leadership opportunities?
The internal barriers women battle are huge. Most women leaders I know are quite skilled, but they may still lack confidence. They may wonder, Is this okay? Do I have permission to do this? Marian Wright Edelman said, “It’s hard to be what you can’t see.” When you don’t see people like you—who act like you, who have a life like you—you’ll tend to second guess and doubt yourself. That can create an internal barrier: a lack of confidence.
Another barrier that’s unique to women is simply the reality that what it looks like for women to lead is different than what it is often like for men. I’m a mother. When my husband and I had children, it impacted us differently. His body wasn’t impacted; as a woman, my body definitely was. The realities of motherhood affected how I led as well as what I wanted the opportunity and freedom to do during certain stages of life. The pathway to leadership for women is simply different—it tends to not be as linear as it is for men, yet many of our leadership structures default to pathways that are quite linear and may accommodate men more easily.
Our cultural expectations of women and leadership can also play a role. For example, I’m from a country that has paid maternity leave. That reality impacts how a woman can lead during that season of her life. There’s more time and space to physically heal, to reassess, to build new rhythms for a new family, and a job to return to. I was able to choose to take unpaid leave when I had my children here in the US, but what happens if a woman cannot afford to and her body is still healing? I’m also from a country that has seen women leading—that has had a queen for over 60 years and has had women in the highest positions of political office. Seeing women in leadership roles like that impacts the perspectives of younger women growing up.
Another critical barrier for women is a lack of mentoring. It’s really understandable that male leaders often don’t want to mentor female leaders because they want to draw an appropriate boundary. But if that doesn’t happen, how is mentoring going to take place? In my experience, mentoring happened in a group context with men and women together. Because we were mentored together, it ensured that there was an environment in which I was receiving the same leadership training and opportunities that the other guys received. That team-mentoring culture produced multiple leaders as a result.
In addition to mentoring, what other factors formed you as a leader? How did your own “lead story” start?
I was never really ambitious for positions of leadership, but I was always hungry to see justice. I would look at the world and think, This isn’t right. The poverty, the broken lives, the broken communities—it isn’t right. Even as a young child, I thought, Why is this happening? I think that leadership sometimes begins in that way, with that “why” question. It may be a passion that develops out of that question “Why is this happening?”
And over time, there was a nudging I began to feel toward leadership. It was absolutely contrary to how I felt about myself. I didn’t feel confident, I didn’t feel secure. I felt very broken—but I couldn’t get away from an internal hunger to see God’s name glorified and to see a broken world restored.
When I was 17, I studied A-Level history [in England]. One of the things we learned about was the role of Christians in the abolition of slavery and in transforming society. I think I was one of the only Christians in my class and I remember sitting there feeling so proud to be a Christian—seeing in the history books the legacy of what people had done in the name of Jesus. I went from there thinking, God, if there is any way I can be involved in doing something that changes the shape of history for generations, I want in. I saw a glimpse of the same power that raised Christ from the dead, living in people and birthing incredible things.
I didn’t often see many leaders who were like me, who were in my environment and who were women of color like me. I didn’t have a frame of reference for what my leadership could look like—but I did have a youth leader who really encouraged me. For someone to look at you and say, “I’m going to invest in you because I think God has placed something in you”—that sort of encouragement is so important. Over and over, others helped create an environment that encouraged me to lead.
The key moment was while I was in my 20s and I was working as a youth and college pastor at our church. There was an important conference, and my senior pastor had been invited to speak. But then he invited me to speak in his place. He basically stepped down so that I could step in. He sacrificed his own opportunity so that I could have an opportunity. He really believed that I was called to lead, and so he stepped aside for me. He invested in me and encouraged me, but he also sacrificed to make it possible. Those choices have shaped how I view leadership today.
You mentioned that early on you didn’t see many others like you, leaders who were women of color, in your particular church environment. How might that be an ongoing challenge in evangelicalism today?
This issue is heavy on my heart. As Christians, we all must ask ourselves, if our conferences and events don’t reflect the wider church, how will we reach the wider world? Do the books we read and the theologians we listen to reflect the ethnically and socio-economically diverse culture we’re living in? Are we inviting leaders from various ethnic and cultural groups to speak into our context? Doing so only enriches the body of Christ, but way too often, people of color tend to be overlooked.
It doesn’t make sense from a missional standpoint to want to reach the nation and the world in a transforming way, and yet not go to our African American brothers and sisters, our Latino brothers and sisters, our Native American, or Asian American, or immigrant communities and say, “What are you learning? What is God teaching you? What can we learn from you?” It just doesn’t make strategic sense, theological sense, or missional sense to focus primarily on one voice and one experience. If we’re not hearing the stories, the church is weakened as a result.
Yes, this is a justice issue, but it is also quite simply a gospel issue. The Great Commission tells us that God’s plan is about all nations, all people groups. For the sake of the gospel and the honor of his name—recognizing that all of us are made in the image of God—I think we need to look again.
What are some of the most common struggles women in leadership face?
One key struggle for most women leaders is loneliness. The loneliness of leadership is sometimes palpable and tangible. The isolation I’ve felt particularly as a woman of color in leadership has been physically painful at times. Earlier this year I said to God, I can’t be this lonely. I can’t keep second-guessing what you’re asking me to do. I need to build a sisterhood. I realized I needed to just reach out to people and say, “Hey, let’s be friends.” So I’ve invested time and effort into building and deepening those relationships.
What else have you done to work through leadership struggles in your own life?
I’m a firm believer that we lead from the inside out, so I’ve made it a practice to deal with my “junk.” I deal with my brokenness, my past, my failures, and try to come before the Lord and face them head-on.
Seeking out mentors, building strong friendships, and seeking our prayer are key to my rhythm of leadership now. I don’t walk alone in leadership. I need to make sure I have people around me who will ask me ugly questions. Scripture tells us that Jonathan strengthened David’s hand in God (1 Sam. 23:16). To anyone who is serious about leadership, I’d say, “Who in your life strengthens your hand in God? Who is it that will weep with you, will fight for you, will ask you really difficult questions?”
There is a proverb which says “It takes a village to raise a child.” I believe it takes a village to raise a leader—and it also takes a village to sustain one.
What would you most want to say to readers who are navigating their own “lead story”?
I want to tell women that they may not feel seen, but God sees them. God has given them gifts, abilities, passions, and dreams. They have a contribution to make in this time, in this moment. Take the next step that God is asking you to take in order to make this world a better place. The world needs the Great Commission, the world needs the gospel, the world needs the love of Jesus. We are each designed to play our part.
And I’d also like to say this to men and women who are already in positions of leadership is this: What it could look like to invest in women leaders? What could it look like to invest in women leaders of color? How could we listen to them, encourage them, share our spaces, or even sacrifice our opportunities when needed in order to see them realize their God-given potential? And what might we see happen for God’s glory in our communities and cities as a result?