Encouraging Women

How can women be encouraged to embrace leadership? A great deal of work has been done to investigate gender imbalances in leadership roles outside the church- how can the knowledge from this be applied to encourage women?

Women continue to be under-represented in many areas of church leadership, especially stipendiary ministry, young vocations, senior posts and the leadership of larger churches. This is not an issue that is limited to the Church, and a great deal of work has been done elsewhere on questions of gender imbalances in leadership roles. How can women be encouraged to embrace leadership?

  • Firstly, it’s crucial to recognise different theological perspectives on women and leadership, especially church leadership. Like men, some women are comfortable with the idea of women being ordained or in authority over men, and some are not. Sometimes their position will be carefully thought through and consciously espoused; sometimes they will be in a process of working through what they believe. Either way, it is important to respect their position and support them in considering what kind of leadership, if any, is appropriate.
  • Gendered stereotypes are all around us, in the media, the workplace, the family and in church. Church leaders can do a great deal to challenge stereotypes by looking at their church through a gender lens. For example, who normally takes on roles entailing management, pastoral care, making coffee, preaching, childcare, admin, decision-making or cleaning? Does the imagery around the church, on windows, photos and projector screens, show women as much as men, and what does it show them doing? Are female examples as well as male used in sermons? Is there an over-emphasis on women as mothers and carers?
  • Leadership styles vary. Women may espouse a more collaborative and less directive style than men, or they may not, but often when women are directive they are heavily criticised. Individuals, both men and women, need to be supported in finding their own personal style of leadership.
  • Ordained roles in particular are still very recent for women in the Church of England. Many women will never have considered this as a serious option for them, especially if they have only ever seen men in ordained roles. Role models play a key part in discernment of vocation, as do vocations conference and events specifically designed for women. It can be helpful to consider how to make female role models available to the widest range of congregations.
  • Women often have very different life experiences from men, and different expectations about the future. Many bear substantial caring burdens, for children, ageing parents and others. Some have to respect established careers of partners in the decisions they make. Women sometimes self-limit their ambition because of an expectation of future caring roles or marriage which aren’t even a current reality. Good advice is needed on how leadership or ordained roles can fit with specific life circumstances. Sometimes it may be appropriate to challenge younger women’s expectations of how their lives will play out, if they are framed by gendered stereotypes.
  • Research has shown that women are more likely than men to undersell themselves, and are less confident in their skills and qualifications. Active encouragement, for example pointing out a woman’s strengths or suggesting that she consider a path or put herself forward for a role, can broaden horizons and provide the incentive needed to take a vital step.