Last year, the World Economic Forum predicted that it will take until 2133 to achieve global gender parity in four key areas – health, education, economy and politics. In 2014, the predicted year that parity would be achieved was 2095. In the space of just a year, progress on gender justice slowed to the extent that predicted achievements were set back by 38 years. That’s why the official International Women’s Day theme in 2016 is #PledgeforParity. Advocates are being encouraged to put their name to a number of statements focusing on achieving parity in all areas of life.
For the past three years, I’ve been part of a small group of people with a vision to see UK-based Christian conferences and festivals make a greater commitment to gender parity. We have no funding and no celebrity backing. We’re simply a group of people who are passionate about equality and mutuality in Christ, who saw an opportunity to publicise something that concerns us, with a view to making a difference. After we completed our first round-up of statistics looking at the number of men and women speaking at Christian events, we gave ourselves a name: Project 3:28.
Having just released our report on 2015’s conferences and festivals, we’ve been taking a fresh look at the newest statistics and what they tell us about gender parity at Christian events. Although we’re really pleased that overall, the number of women speakers has risen every year since we started the project, what really stood out to me this year was the relatively low proportion of women speakers at well-known, ‘big name’ events put on by churches that, in theory, affirm and encourage women in teaching and leadership roles.
It remains one of my greatest frustrations that despite churches and organisations affirming an egalitarian stance, this is often not reflected in practice. A commitment to gender justice and believing that women are not confined to certain roles in the Church must go hand in hand with actually living this out.
So if the proportion of women teaching and speaking at your church’s flagship events isn’t creeping above 25 to 30 per cent, it may be time to consider your own pledge for parity. If women never preach at your egalitarian church, it might be time to ask why. Churches up and down the land are full of gifted and able women. Yes, there are certain barriers that can stop them being as ‘visible’ as men, but this should not be an excuse.
This International Women’s Day, the Pledge for Parity includes five statements. What would it look like for these to be put into action in the church? What could you challenge the church about or put into action in your own life or your job?
1. I pledge to help women and girls achieve their ambitions
Christian organisations and churches can spot the potential of women and help develop it by giving them the opportunities to use their gifts. Individuals can put their experience to excellent use by mentoring and being great role models for younger or less experienced women. And let’s remember that this doesn’t have to be limited to full-time Christian ‘internship’ programmes often aimed at young people only. Women at all ages and stages of life have so much to offer.
2. I pledge to challenge conscious and unconscious bias
Often the reason that you don’t see as many women speaking and leading is unconscious, ingrained, structural bias. Leaders seek out and promote people like them. Old boys’ networks hold sway. Socialisation means that women can often feel as if they’re being ignored or spoken over while men saying the same things are celebrated. Churches and Christian organisations should be places where different styles, experiences and modes of communication are welcomed.
3. I pledge to call for gender-balanced leadership
Even in theoretically egalitarian churches and organisations, women are often less visible while men are the ones ‘up front’, on platforms, being the ‘public face’ of the ministry. This sends a particular message, whether they realise it or not. Project 3:28 has always called for gender balance and we’ve been delighted that several organisations have contacted us to say that they are now committed to being more proactive about achieving it. It’s not tokenism, it’s undoing imbalance that sees women marginalised.
4. I pledge to value women and men’s contributions equally
One thing we’ve noticed while conducting Project 3:28 – although it’s difficult to report on – is the particular imbalance of men and women speakers in ‘main stage’ sessions and the way some events show particular patterns in consistently only having women speaking about certain topics – family, marriage, emotional wellbeing – over anything else. We know that main stage speakers are a big draw for delegates and so the pressure to have ‘big names’ on line-ups – often well known male leaders and speakers – plays a big part here, and also that women have so much to offer in teaching on topics like family life and marriage. But we also don’t want to be trapped in a box that reflects traditional gender roles either – and that means a shake up of what topics are pigeonholed as ‘for women to talk about’.
5. I pledge to create inclusive, flexible cultures
Christian culture can often be unconsciously exclusive. For those who uphold the status quo and represent a position of privilege in the Church, it’s not always easy to see how they could be making others who ‘don’t fit the mold’ feel as if they ‘don’t belong’. Sometimes this is a case of ‘you can’t be what you can’t see’ for women. Sometimes it’s a case of inflexible cultures that put them off getting involved – such as lack of childcare provision at an event or the understanding that many women work outside the home and therefore aren’t readily available during weekday working hours. Festivals, conferences and churches need to make inclusivity a priority.
It should be no longer acceptable for Christian organisations to pay lip service to empowering and recognising the gifts of women – without actually doing much to put this into practice. If women make up more than half the church, it’s endlessly frustrating to see them underrepresented and invisible. As we celebrate International Women’s Day and the many achievements and talents of women, let’s pray for gender justice and commit to challenging bias in the church. Perhaps women don’t feature too heavily at your favourite event or conference. Why not get in touch with the organisers to ask why? If women rarely preach at your church, maybe it’s time to find out how the gifts of the women in the congregation are being developed? It’s time for us all to think that little bit more about parity.
This post is part of our week-long series on womanhood and feminism, curated by Dr Claire Rush.