A young woman I mentor recently emailed me asking for advice. She was frustrated. She had a class project due and her male study partner wasn’t doing his fair share of the work. When he did contribute, his ideas didn’t serve the project well. However, she refrained from making suggestions and offering solutions or taking the lead in the project, because she believed she needed to submit to his leadership.
This young woman deemed making suggestions and offering solutions as over-stepping her bounds as a woman. Although the two weren’t romantically involved, somewhere along the way, she had picked up the notion that she should defer to males–whether they were husbands or group partners.
When we met in person, I suggested that whatever her view on gender roles, whether egalitarian or complementarian or somewhere in between, she needn’t submit to her study partner. After all, he wasn’t her husband. Instead, she should be a good steward of her intellectual gifts by speaking up and using her God-given wisdom and talents. She and her study partner could cooperate by mutually deferring to one another. To do so isn’t inherently sinful, disrespectful or emasculating.
Nineteen-year-old Julie Zeilinger summed up this tendency well in her Forbes Magazine article, “Why Millenial Women Do Not Want to Lead.”
In the article, she observes: “We addressed laws and policy, but failed to acknowledge or alter the psychological factors that prohibit or encourage women to want to lead and which allow society to embrace female leaders and take them seriously.”
Despite the fact that women have made many strides in society, Zeilinger notes that her friends are still loathe to raise their hands in class or speak up when they find themselves among men. What discourages women and young girls from speaking up? Two culturally inbred pressures Zeilinger cites are the need to be perfect coupled with persistent self-doubt.
Then last March, the New York Times ran a story by Chrystia Freeland called, “Cultural Constraints on Women Leaders.” In this article, Freeland highlights the research of Soo Min Toh and Geoffrey Leonardelli, two professors in the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto. These two professors suggest another reason that women are held back in their leadership efforts: “tight” cultures. As Freeland summarizes it:
…women are held back by ‘tight’ cultures and can emerge more easily as leaders in ‘loose’ cultures. ‘Tight’ cultures are ones that have clear, rigid rules about how people should behave and impose tough sanctions on those who color outside the lines…. Loose cultures, by contrast, do not have clear norms and are more tolerant of deviation from the rules.
But even in otherwise loose cultures, women subjected to “centuries of sexism” exhibit “self-imposed stereotypes.” According to Toh and Leonardelli, this means that women sometimes prefer to defer the leadership role to men in the group, despite possessing the abilities to lead themselves.
If this is the case in broader society, the situation is exacerbated in the church. Some Christian environments are very “tight” cultures.
No doubt there are Christians who vehemently disagree with Zeilinger, Toh, Leonardelli and each other on the extent to which women are permitted to lead in the church and in society. Yet at the least, I hope that Christians can agree that we need to address the psychological factors and bad theologies that pressure Christian women like my young student to categorically submit to men.
Growing up, I attended a little country church. My pastor never once preached a sermon on gender roles. It wasn’t a topic of conversation. It was only when I attended a conservative Christian college that I grappled with a foreign concept: Some of my brothers and sisters believed women should defer, or submit to men—even outside of marriage.
If we are to entertain this idea, we must consider its implications. If women should categorically submit to men, does this mean women are barred from becoming school principals, professors or the President of the United States? What should, then, be the role of women who stand in leadership roles in the academy, nonprofits, government and the business world?
Is it accurate to equate speaking up in mixed company with a refusal to submit to men, and a transgression of God’s will?
I would suggest that such thinking is harmful to the body of Christ and society at large. It’s bad theology and it’s bad practice. God has given us all spiritual gifts and natural abilities to steward—not to do so is to act unfaithfully by burying our talents.
Dr. Russell Moore, of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, a school renowned for its complementarian views, agrees. In his view, women are far too submissive to men, out of a misunderstanding of what submission really is. He writes: “In the Bible, it is not that women, generally, are to submit to men, generally. Instead, ‘wives’ are to submit ‘to your own husbands’ (1 Pet. 3:1). Too often in our culture, women and girls are pressured to submit to men, as a category.”
There’s plenty of data from the business world, for example, demonstrating that having women in leadership increases profitability, morale, and overall organizational success. Why not think that comparable results occur in other spheres? When anyone—men or women—pool their gifts and talents together and put them toward honorable use, good things tend to happen.
No matter where any of us land on the complementarian/egalitarian spectrum, we should encourage Christian women and girls to raise their hands, speak up and contribute in meetings, classes, church or any other context where men and women are present. Our lives and our world will be the better for it. That’s being countercultural in a good way—and also being faithful.