I have a confession to make, one that I often sheepishly keep to myself: I have very rarely felt discriminated against for being a woman, but often because I am not a certain type of woman.
I stand on the shoulders of giants who labored to make inroads for women’s rights, for equal opportunity in our culture, our workforce, our political system, and our churches. As a child and a teenager, my father taught me that I could be anything I wanted when I grew up. I believed him. My generation – the people I grew up with and the people I interact with even today – take it for granted that women deserve the same opportunities as men. My church assumes that leadership in the church should be based on God-given ability and vocational calling rather than gender. At both seminaries I have attended, I have been encouraged by God-honoring, conservative male professors who regularly tell me, “The church needs women leaders. One reason the church today has so many problems is because we have so few women leaders.
No one can deny that discrimination against women is a present reality and that women still face significant challenges in their path to leadership. However, in an age when more women are occupying leadership positions in churches across the country, when more women are running successful, high-profile Christian ministries, when enrollment trends at many Protestant, evangelical seminaries reflect a growth rate among women students that exceeds that of men, I can’t help but wonder if we’re asking all the right questions regarding the future of women in leadership. Perhaps the question is not, as it has long been, exclusively whether or not women should be leaders in our churches, but also, “How should we perceive women leaders once they are in those positions?”
In a recent book titled, Through the Labyrinth: The Truth About How Women Become Leaders, researchers Eagly and Carli argue that “the glass ceiling” is no longer a useful metaphor when describing the obstacles women face in leadership today. Instead, they suggest the image of the “labyrinth” through which women must navigate successfully to be an effective leader. Women can be leaders, but our perceptions about women and leadership often divert the route to leadership. Research studies indicate that it is difficult for a woman to be perceived as both a lady and an effective leader. Both men and women expect women to be “warm, caring, selfless, and nice” while they expect leaders to be “assertive, direct, and competent.” When women display the desirable leadership traits – confident in their competency, assertive, and bold – they cease to be viewed as “warm and caring” and are instead perceived as “tough, domineering, relentless, or brutal.” In political circles, these women are called “Iron Ladies.”
The first woman who taught me what it meant to be an iron lady was my grandmother, the leader, the helmsman, the anchor of our family. She lived through the Great Depression and World War II. She stood beside her husband through both the Korean War and through three decades of hard labor on a cotton farm. She bore and raised three children who, in turn, gave her five grandchildren. She buried her husband, her father, and her mother. Even today, at age 75, when she is not taking care of sick and aging family members, she’s volunteering at the local nursing home and hospital. Yet, I can probably count on a single hand the times I’ve seen her cry or heard her complain. Once, when I complimented her on her strength, she casually shrugged and said, “Sometimes you just have to be tough.” And being “tough” never made her any less a lady.
And so my question for you, lady leaders, is this: If women leaders face this type of discrimination in the broader culture at large, how can we begin to counteract it in our churches? Is the church ready for iron ladies? For women leaders with tremendous visionary and leadership capacities, but who may not display the qualities we expect of women? Are we ready to hold loosely our own expectations of other women leaders and of ourselves??