ATLANTA -- Evangelical Christians may hold to a theology of equality between the sexes before God, but a study released Friday, Sept. 19, revealed colleges and nonprofits in the evangelical realm lag significantly behind secular nonprofits in placing women in leadership positions and on their boards of directors.
“Evangelicals don’t come close -- we’re doing about half as well,” said sociologist Amy Reynolds of Wheaton College, one of the principal researchers for the Women in Leadership National Study (WILNS). Reynolds and Janel Curry, the first female provost at Gordon College, worked together on the study, which featured a partnership with the Center for Social Research at Calvin College.
Details of the study results were presented at a session of the Religion Newswriters Association annual conference in Atlanta.
Results so far indicate that women hold only 21 percent of board positions, 19 percent of paid leadership positions, and 16 percent of CEO positions at the organizations included in the study. Twenty-four percent of the organizations studied have no women on their boards at all, while 16 percent have boards made up of 40 percent or more women.
The first phase of the study examined women’s representation at the highest levels of leadership in more than 1,400 organizations, including members of the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities, the Accord development network, and the Christian Community Development Association. A second phase canvassed leaders in a subset of those groups, a statement said, in order “to better assess the gender climate and perspectives of men and women in leadership,” researchers indicated. A third phase has yet to be completed.
“The results of this study should be disturbing to evangelicals,” declared Rich Stearns, president of World Vision U.S., a leading evangelical charity. “My hope is this study will provoke a lot of conversation in boardrooms about why we are lagging so badly.”
The study found that while 94 percent of the leaders surveyed support the notion that “men and women should share leadership roles” in society, fewer say the same of roles in the church and family, with 84 percent of female and 66 percent of male leaders supporting such an egalitarian arrangement at church. Still, those are strong enough majorities to suggest a disconnect between belief and practice, Reynolds said.
“Women and men are often confused about where their organizations stand on gender parity,” she added.
The study also found that many female leaders in evangelical colleges and nonprofits “do not feel supported by their colleagues, and face other constraints at work and in the church.” These women, the study reports, “are sticking it out,” even if remaining is difficult.
Curry said organizations need to be more explicit about their leadership policies, and urged men at the top to mentor women in their careers. “Male leaders need to be sponsors for women,” she said.
Stearns concurred, adding that getting women into top positions takes planning, sometimes years in advance for boards with term limits, in order to have female candidates lined up. He noted that evangelical organizations can face obstacles finding interested and qualified women.
Attitudes about women and leadership are formed on the ground in congregations, Stearns said. Pastors and teachers are “shaping values of people who sit in the pews on Sunday and go to work on Monday,” and they aren’t always speaking articulately about women, he said.
Although evangelicals are lagging, study sponsors noted similar difficulties for women in the general population, as well: “Even in the broader academic and nonprofit world, women are underrepresented in leadership, accounting for 40 percent of the CEOs in nonprofits, and 26 percent of college presidents,” a statement indicated.
The issues raised by the Women in Leadership Study aren’t new to the evangelical world, though some organizations have long operated on a presumed egalitarian basis. The Salvation Army, a church and social-service mission organized in London in 1865, has long proffered the idea of equality, and three of its 20 international leaders have been women.
At lower levels of the organization, the group’s Caring magazine reported in 2012, women can find difficulty, noted Commissioner Carole Seiler, whose husband, Paul, heads Salvation Army operations in the Midwestern U.S. She earned a master’s in public health and was working to help victims of HIV/AIDS, but was assigned to a youth ministry position when her husband received his new assignment.
“My previous work and education weren’t even factored into my role,” Seiler told the magazine. “I found ways to be fulfilled without fussing about it, but when I became a divisional leader -- and the divisional commander’s wife -- I realized I needed to do more to help other women,” she added. “Once you get into a position of authority, you have to keep being a voice.”
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