Women, leadership and the B-word

September 11th, 2019

When a male leader is direct, confident,or decisive, he’s often known by a C-word: Confident. Competent. Charismatic. He’s prized as a strong leader, a natural leader. A woman, however, is often stuck with a less desirable word. With less desirable connotations.

I told my husband about the title of this blog and asked him what he thought the B-word was. He answered tongue in cheek. “Bright? Balanced? Bold?” I laughed. The truth is, we both know she’s more likely to be known as bossy. Or worse, a b#tch.

Strangely enough, it’s not just men that make these pronouncements. Other women do too.

Why would women resist strong female leadership? Is it because women are afraid of their own power? Is it because women fear the backlash that comes when another woman displays such qualities? Or maybe traditional female gender socialization is so ingrained that it’s simply hard to accept this sort of female leadership.

I’m not sure. But I do know this. Women, as well as men, are naturally shaped to be direct, confident and decisive. As well as tender, compassionate and collaborative. Traditional gender norms tend to skew socially acceptable behaviors, but in studies about personality type, all of the above qualities occur almost equally in both men and women. Moreover, since each one of us — male and female — is made in the image and likeness of God, there are no mistakes about how we turn out.

The church needs strong, decisive leaders who are confident, competent and charismatic. As well as compassionate and collaborative. And the church needs them in both the female and male versions.

So how do we move beyond the negative monikers of bossy and b#itch? I have three suggestions for the women in the pews and pulpits:

  1. Remember the power women from your past. Identify women from your past that shaped their families and communities with their insight, intuition and ability to get things done. You are part of that history. Women have always been leaders, even if not in the public square. 
  2. Mentor the next generation of women. Elizabeth supported Mary when they both carried miracle babies who would change the arc of history. In the same way, mentor younger and older women in developing their own confidence and skill. 
  3. Own your inner boss. Get comfortable with your own power. The power to move a conversation forward, to motivate a congregation, to envision new possibilities. A female colleague gave me a prized mug that says: “I’m not bossy. I am the boss.” 

There is one more B-word that is under-used when it comes to women. One we should wholeheartedly embrace: Bishop.

In 2006, I attended an international United Methodist celebration of the 50th anniversary of full clergy rights for women. All of the female United Methodist bishops in the church were in attendance. They told their stories, spoke on panels and cheered each other on. I was amazed not only at their leadership, but at their everydayness. As I navigated airports on the way back home, I thought to myself that if I had seen any of these women without their episcopal robes or name tags, I wouldn’t have known they were bishops. They looked like other women I knew: grandmothers, mothers, sisters and friends.

In the same way, women leaders are all around us. Women who accomplish amazing things in their communities, families and in the Kin(g)dom of God. We need you. Yes, in some settings, you may be thought of as bossy, or even bitchy. But let’s not forget, you may also be thought of as bishop-material.

Learn more about Rebekah's work at rebekahsimonpeter.com

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