Guys, I want to help you out.
The church is not always a welcoming space for women. That statement seems rather obvious when we talk about clergy sex abuse or the exclusion of women from ordination.
But what about everyday disrespect, discrimination, insults, innuendos, exclusions and dismissals?
You may not even know what I mean by that. For many men, these forms of mistreatment of women are invisible, and often men have no idea that they’re doing things that are harmful to women. They’re just being guys like the culture has taught them to be guys.
(And be aware that race/ethnicity, ability, age, sexuality and social class all intersect with gender to shape all these interactions.)
I’m guessing you want to do the right thing. And, to be sure, I’m not suggesting you’re a bad person. You’re just part of a system designed to keep male dominance in place — often by obscuring how male dominance works.
We know from research many of the ways women experience everyday mistreatment and discrimination across all of life, including the church.
So, here’s a list of 10 things men can do to support women in the church.
Some of this may be hard to hear because it asks men to examine behaviors that seem perfectly natural to them. It asks men to give up their privilege and challenge core assumptions of masculinity. It’s when you find yourself most likely to protest that you should listen most carefully because that is likely the place you most need to learn.
1. Stop talking so much.
Men and women learn different speech patterns. Women often are more hesitant to speak up. Men need to allow a space in the flow of conversation to give women time to enter. Respect what women bring to the table and acknowledge their expertise. Men so often try to explain things to women that women already know — or know more about — that women coined a word, “mansplaining.” Don’t think you need to explain everything to women. Let them ask you for what they want to know.
Men also interrupt women — a lot. Stop interrupting. Women often will speak in less adamant terms; they’ll be more relational; they’ll be quieter; and men will dismiss what they say, which leads to the second point.
Just giving women space to speak isn’t enough. Listen. Men are taught the subtle message that their ideas are more important than women’s, that they’re just naturally smarter than women, and, in the church, they’re just in a better position to make important decisions. Men often only half-listen to what women are saying, or they listen assuming women don’t really know what they’re talking about or don’t have the expertise to be taken seriously. And, again, most of this is not conscious.
“Just giving women space to speak isn’t enough. Listen.”
So when women speak, listen without thinking about what you want to say next. Provide nonverbal feedback that shows you’re listening. Ask supportive clarifying questions. Check your perceptions of what you heard to make sure you understood. Acknowledge what has been said, and don’t jump right in with another topic or direction.
And, especially, don’t take a woman’s idea and present it as your own.
3. Give credit and amplify.
Most women can tell you about a meeting (or many meetings) when they expressed an idea that the group ignored. Then five minutes later a man expressed the same idea, and the group thought it was brilliant. Instead, men should give credit and amplify women’s contributions.
For example, if in a discussion about a new community ministry Jane says, “There are a lot of latchkey kids in the neighborhood. Why don’t we start an after-school program?” John can say, “As Jane said, kids left on their own after school is a real issue in our community and so I think we should look into an after-school program. Perhaps we should start with a community survey to gauge interest. Jane, what do you think about that?”
4. Step aside for women to lead.
Because our culture assumes men are leaders, most leadership positions in social institutions are held by men. Think how hard it has been for even moderate and progressive churches actually to call women as senior pastors. Because men learn they are to be leaders, stepping up and volunteering to lead in the church comes easy, and most church folk are just grateful somebody volunteered to lead.
“Churches should seek out women to lead and give them these opportunities.”
Instead, churches should seek out women to lead and give them these opportunities. People may argue that a certain man has more experience, but we also need to remember that he has more experience because he’s had more opportunity because he’s a man.
5. Share the church housework.
Every organization has housework — record-keeping and note-taking, cleaning, sending flowers and planning parties, and caring for children, for example. In the church, as in the rest of society, women typically do more than their fair share of the housework. Many women like the housework, but they’d probably like some help.
If men do their share of the housework, it may also free up time for women to step into leadership roles. So, work in the nursery, help prepare Wednesday night supper, take responsibility for ordering the altar flowers each week, organize meals for a bereaved family.
6. Respect women’s space.
Men take up a lot of space. Women have even coined a word for it, “man-spreading.” Take a look on any airplane or in a movie theater, and you’ll see how men claim their space and very often intrude into women’s space. Women, on the other hand, are taught to take up as little space as possible, and so they usually will cede their space to a man spreading out into it. On sidewalks this means that men expect women to move out of the way if they’re headed toward each other. And men aren’t even aware of these things.
This also means that men move into women’s space in ways that can feel demeaning or threatening. Men often stand too close to women when they’re talking, or they tower over them. Again, these are not usually conscious behaviors. They are simply unconscious expressions of dominant masculinity in the ways men are taught to take up space.
“What matters is not your intention but the impact your behaviors have on women.”
Men also often touch women in ways that make women feel uncomfortable because an unwanted touch is not a show of affection but an assertion of power, especially in situations when women do not feel that they can tell men not to touch them. And remember, what matters is not your intention but the impact your behaviors have on women. Realize that hugging every woman who walks in the door of the church on Sunday morning may well not be welcomed by many of them.
7. Challenge other men.
Step up. As long as men do not challenge the sexist and inappropriate behavior of other men, they are complicit in the mistreatment of women. So-called “locker room talk” is a good example. Even if most men don’t participate in overtly crude talk about women, they rarely speak up against it when they hear it. This silence reinforces the perception that such talk is acceptable; it’s just boys being boys.
If men want to be allies to women, they must be willing to confront other men. In the church, this can be challenging men when they make sexist jokes about their wives or when they want to disqualify women for some positions in the church.
8. Advocate for women.
Men also can use their positions of relative power to advocate for women. For example, a man on a pastor search committee can push the committee to include women for serious consideration for a call. Men can advocate for gender equality when any issues of gender arise in the church.
For example, men can advocate for gender-inclusive language in worship or the exploration of gender issues, like gender violence or the wage gap, as topics for church study and missions. In particular, men can learn about issues of gender by educating themselves and then centering conversations about gender, power and privilege in church conversations and decisions.
9. Take up women’s issues, but don’t take over.
As men educate themselves about gender, they will begin to see the myriad ways women, across their differences of race, class, sexuality, ability and age, experience discrimination, mistreatment and violence. Men may begin to feel expert in these matters, and, given men’s socialization, taking over leadership on these issues could be quite easy.
“Do this because it’s the right thing to do, not because you expect anything out of it.”
Enthusiastic allies often think they’re showing their commitment by taking on leadership in the issues of other people, but really they’re usually unconsciously asserting their dominance. Learn to be a backup player; be the chorus, not the lead.
And don’t expect women’s gratitude; don’t try to be the exceptional man, the proverbial good guy. Do this because it’s the right thing to do, not because you expect anything out of it.
10. Be uncomfortable.
Being an ally is uncomfortable. Learning about your own privilege and the many ways you’ve benefitted from it without ever seeing it is uncomfortable. Learning to be quiet, to be in the background, to speak up to other men — it’s all uncomfortable. And it’s necessary.
Simply saying you support women is not enough if all of these subtle — and yet profoundly harmful — behaviors go unaddressed. And don’t go asking the women you know if I’m right about all this. They may well not tell you the truth anyway because women have been socialized to protect men’s feelings.
I hope I’m helping you here because I do believe most men in churches want to do the right thing. It’s just that simply being a man within patriarchy means you don’t even have to see so many of the wrong things. Being an ally means doing your own consciousness-raising work and then changing your own behaviors to help create a more inclusive, equitable, and just church for women.
Susan M. Shaw is professor of women, gender and sexuality studies at Oregon State University in Corvallis, Ore. She also is an ordained Baptist minister and holds master’s and doctoral degrees from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Her most recent book is Intersectional Theology: An Introductory Guide, co-authored with Grace Ji-Sun Kim.
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