Where Are Women Speakers?

May 7th, 2011

The other day the keynote lineup for an exciting Christian conference popped up on my Google Reader revealing six black-and-white headshots of men.  I lost interest immediately—not because I’m a raging feminist with a vendetta against white males, but because my mind automatically filed the conference away into the category of “same ole, same ole.” 

The absence of women in Christian leadership is a widely-discussed phenomenon and one that has recently become more relevant to me as a young author and speaker trying to make her mark in the world.

My limited experience in the industry has revealed at least seven trends that might explain why that speaker lineup lacked diversity: 

1. Women have their own category.  

The Christian subculture abounds with women’s conferences, women’s books, women’s ministries, and women’s studies. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this of course, but it can restrict a woman’s sphere of influence to that of her female peers rather than the broader culture. Like it or not, men hold the positions of power in Christian publishing and leadership, and you can’t rub shoulders with power when power is in the other room.  

2. Women hold fewer seminary degrees.  

Although women earn 58 percent of college degrees, they only earn about 30 percent of seminary degrees. This restricts our ability to speak with authority on certain theological topics and also limits our ability to network with influential Christian leaders (i.e., “seminary buddies”).  Fortunately, more women are enrolling in seminary than ever before, so this trend looks to change dramatically over the next 20 years. 

3. Women are expected to speak with a certain voice.

A writer friend of mine recently confessed that she floundered a bit in writing her memoir because she felt pressure from her girlfriends to write with an inspirational tone more characteristic of Beth Moore or Stasi Eldredge than Donald Miller.  I could relate to her predicament, for even I—the self-proclaimed sacred cow tipper—wondered for a time if I should share my story chic-lit-style because I am a woman. (I’m glad I didn’t!)  Too many strong female leaders are losing their unique voices in an attempt to fit a perceived mold. 

4. Women hold fewer pastoral positions.

For better or worse, it’s the superstar pastors signing the book deals and speaking at Christian conferences these days.  Due to historical disparities and continued debates over female ordination, the majority of these superstar pastors are men. 

5. Women are expected to be submissive.

As Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg recently explained in an intriguing TED talk, this is true of the wider culture, not just the Christian culture. Perception analyses show that success and likability are positively correlated for men and negatively correlated for women.  For whatever reason, women are less liked when they succeed. Apply this disadvantage in the context of a religious environment where women’s roles in the home, church, and society continue to be hotly contested, and the mere appearance of a woman on a keynote lineup can elicit a negative response. This may sound cynical, but as a Christian woman I approach every board room and podium with the full knowledge that there’s probably at least one man present who thinks I shouldn’t be there.  

6. Women expect themselves to be submissive.

According to Sanberg, women systematically underestimate their own abilities, often attributing success to either luck or help.  Last week I nearly broke into a nervous rash because I asked the coordinator of a conference to let me in on a more high-profile panel discussion.  I was afraid of coming across as too aggressive, too confident, too entitled. Of course he agreed, and now I get to join a group of respected theologians to talk about a topic I’m passionate about.  I couldn’t help but think of similar opportunities that I’ve missed because I was too afraid to ask. 

7. Women are complaining about this phenomenon rather than changing it.

Several months ago I went out for beers with six of my fellow conference speakers, all of them male. The name of a female writer came up and a couple of the guys groaned, noting that she constantly complained about the lack of women speakers at Christian conferences. I had to laugh at the irony, but they had a point. Nagging our way to the top won’t leave us there for very long. Instead we’ve got to do it the old fashioned way—by being as good as (or better than) the boys. 


What else contributes to the lack of female leadership in evangelical circles? In what ways are the trends described by Sandberg exaggerated in a religious environment? 

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