2001

The Voice: Spring 2001

The Voice

Where are all the women?


By Julia K. Stronks

Whenever the Voice arrives in my mail, I immediately drop what I am doing, make a cup of tea and sit down to catch up on all the goings-on at Dordt. My husband and I met and married at Dordt. We both consider those college years to have been not only great fun but also formative in terms of helping us to think through and respond to God's call to each of us in both our public and private lives.

However, a few months ago, when I read the Summer 2000 issue of the Voice, I was struck by something that troubled me. There was a picture of faculty invited to Dordt from Christian colleges all over the country to talk about the relationship between traditional “Western Civ” courses and global history in the Christian college curriculum. All of the participants were male.

I teach at a Christian college similar to Dordt, and the role our women students play in our communities is always on my mind--so, I was primed to be sensitive to a picture like this. I am disappointed and concerned that in the twenty years since I left college, we are seeing not more and more, but fewer and fewer women emerging as leaders in our Reformed institutions.

There are, of course, women doctors, lawyers, accountants, Coffee Break organizers, and so forth. My point is that, given our demographics, we should have more women leaders at this point. For a long time, women students have outnumbered men at Christian colleges--this year's entering class at Dordt held 137 men and 188 women. Even more importantly, however, women's entering GPA and ACT scores are equal to or higher than those of men. One would expect this pool of talent to produce, at a minimum, a better balance in our faculties, for example. But, it hasn't. In 1982, when I left Dordt, there were three women faculty at the associate or full professor rank. Out of a faculty of sixty-three, that is not quite five percent. Today, twenty years later, there are eighty-two faculty and four are female associate or full professors--still not quite five percent. What's going on?    

If you had asked me in 1980 if I was mentored in the same way as male students, I would have answered, emphatically, “yes!” My male profs were very helpful during the law school application process--they encouraged me to go to Washington, D.C. on the American Studies Program; they did everything they could to push a smart, insecure student into the role she wanted but was scared to pursue. When I left college I assumed that because I could go to law school there would be no gender barriers in front of me. I was unprepared for the struggles I would face in balancing career and family. I was also unprepared to think through the assumptions that we make about differences between male and female leadership styles. In the legal world that was problematic. In the evangelical Christian world it was really tough.

Given the synodical debates in the Christian Reformed church about the role of women in church leadership, it is understandable that women are not emerging as leaders in that field. But the debate about why women should not be ministers or elders has a profound rippling effect. When you combine this with the arguments about “headship” that were prevalent in the 70s and 80s, you can see that the different roles men and women play in church and family life have a direct impact on the role they play in other areas of life. If women are not seen as able to provide leadership in family or church life, then it is difficult to see how they can do so in work arenas. I am not going to argue here that there are not significant differences between men and women, but this is an issue that is being hotly debated outside our faith circles. The implications of our assumptions about gender are huge--and, these discussions are not welcome in our church. “Feminism” is terribly suspect--and almost any mention of gender roles gets pushed under the feminist umbrella.

Over the course of the last twenty years, I have come to reject the view that women have an essentially different role to play in life than do men. Although I do not need to be in a community that agrees with my understanding of what it means to be a Christ-centered woman, I do need to be in a community that welcomes discussion about it. So, what can be done?

If changes are to occur in our culture, our teaching institutions are one of the best places to start. Despite my belief that Dordt faculty did mentor me well, I would like to challenge all of us to think through doing this even better.

First, hiring women as faculty is not just a “politically correct” thing to do. Women and men students need to see what it looks like to be a woman professional. Gender equity cannot be theoretical--it has to be modeled. At forty, I can see that the collective messages I received from the Christian community about a woman's role in life were almost powerful enough to tamp down my professors' mentoring. If women students see mostly men lead and mostly women raise children, our mentoring of them will not matter. Women will not know how to lead.

Now, it can be difficult to find women faculty to hire, in part because of the conflicting messages women receive about their real calling. I suggest two things. Gifted women students must be encouraged to do doctoral studies. And, at least until we have more women faculty, colleges should actively search for women scholars and those in other professional fields, inviting them to speak on campus. Often the networks that male academics have formed do not allow them to get to know Christian women scholars. Bringing professional women to campus, both alums and others, will allow for a different type of mentoring to take place. Faculty mentors serve one role, but research shows us that students also benefit tremendously from mentors in their chosen field of work. Male and female students and faculty can network in a mentoring program that reaches out to women professionals.

Second, it is striking to me that the Reformed worldview that claims all of culture can and must be transformed has still such amazing hostility to feminist theory. True, there are elements of many feminist voices that are antithetical to a Christian worldview--but, that's true of every “ism” that we teach. I think that if all of our students and faculty took feminist thought as seriously as we've taken study of liberalism, Marxism and so forth, we would have wonderful discussions about gender roles and the lack of Christian women leaders. And we'd learn something. Feminism, like all perspectives, can contain truth that can inform a Christian worldview.

Finally, I think we need to challenge our assumptions that women should balance family and career while men will easily have both at the same time. A professional career is not for everyone. But, we do seem to assume that a professional career is for every man who wants one and is for only those women who will give up something in family life. Some men stay home with their children, true. And there are women who try frantically to “have it all”--all at the same time. But if we challenged the notion that “career and family” exist differently for men and women, I think we would find that both men and women can benefit from an arrangement that encourages both parties to have equal responsibility in the home and equal responsibility in public life. This means changing the way we look at work. Both male and female students need discussions concerning appropriate parenting and family life, whether or not they will be engaged in professional work. And, when we Christians fail to discuss alternative approaches to career and family choices with our students, we serve neither our potential women leaders nor our men leaders very well.

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