Let’s not all faint at once.
Last night, during a bout of the insomnia that comes from a day spent mostly drinking tea and reading novels, I was tracking Rachel Held Evans‘ interactions on twitter about a US online leadership conference called The Nines. She put together a short storify of some of it.
Now, let’s be upfront: I had never heard of The Nines (apart from the rather good indie movie starring Ryan Reynolds) before hearing of it from Rachel, and it’s fair to say that my first impressions are coming from one side of the story, and are not good. But since no one is disputing the fact that only four of this years’ 100+ speakers are women, it’s probably equally fair to say that I’d have been unimpressed, however I came across them. After all, I opted out of of going to my church’s hosting of this year’s Global Leadership Summit because there were only two women speakers on the schedule. TWO. Out of Thirteen. It’s not quite as dramatically awful as four out of over one hundred, but come on: how hard weren’t you trying, guys? I’m not saying that those two weren’t great. From everything I’ve heard, they were. I’m saying if Willow Creek had added two more 25% of their faculty for the Leadership Summit would have been female. Gosh.
So look. I know historically, churches have not been great at women in leadership, and I know that it takes time to build up a body of women in leadership, ready and able to use their voice, and I know that those there are have over-scheduling issues on a par with the men – probably worse than the men, let’s be honest, given family dynamics are still what they are. (I also know that there are some Christian conferences that just aren’t ever going to put women on the stage, for theological reasons, and, well, I disagree with that too, but at least they have some internal logic for the absence). But still, if you’re organising a conference in the Western Hemisphere and you can’t ensure that 25% of your speakers are female (because around half your audience will be), you are not trying hard enough. Frankly, if you’re only at 25% you’re doing pretty badly.
So I’m done caring about your excuses. If your ratio of men:women speakers is out of whack with your audience, I want you to stand up there and own it. To say, ‘I’m sorry. Historically we have sucked at this, and it is hard work getting beyond this, and we are going to work harder at it.’ And then to talk about what you’re doing to get beyond it – because it is hard work and I want to know you’re working hard at it – because historically, guys, your gender has made it harder for us, and you owe us to work harder at fixing it for us now.
I want to know how hard you’re pursuing female speakers (not just firing off invitation emails into the aether and saying, ‘Well, we invited them and they didn’t reply..’), and how you’re listening to the reasons why they can’t come and speak and what you’re doing to make it easier in future – are you putting in provisions for families, are you enouraging women to gain practice and confidence in other arenas, are you training women to speak out in public and listening to them when they do? I want to know that you’re looking for female speakers from outside the box, for women who influence or network, rather than leading from the front or from a position, because I think, oftentimes, women lead from different places than men. Where is your seminar stream or workshop for supporting women in finding and using their voice, in a society that tells women that they’re bitches and shrews if they speak out, or just laughs at them for being daring to have an opinion? For women, it’s not just about getting practice or gaining confidence. It’s about actually realising that there is no biological reason under the sun for them not to get up there and speak. So I want to know, what are you doing to change this bit of the society you’re in?
And look, I’m talking to myself here too. I’m as prone to looking for the big names and voices who have influenced me as the next person when I’m going to things or organising things, and the sad fact is, that most of them are men. And a large part of this is because often women aren’t and haven’t been given a platform to speak about the things I go to conferences for. The one female mentor I have is the best mentor I have (and I suspect she’s the best mentor the guys she’s mentored have too). Every other woman I know working in that particular area is the same age as me, so we have a different relationship, and because I often don’t think of myself as someone who should be invited to speak on things, I forget to think of them as those people too. I have to constantly remind myself that, ‘Hey, we’re competent grown-up humans with expertise. We can be voices too.’ And once I have remembered, it can be really hard to convince other women of this too. Because like me, they’re not used to being told that they can be. But I need other people to help me out.
And also, guys, we have as much to say to you as we do to each other, so stop putting us in the ‘relationships, pregnancy, abortions and families,’ slot. That doesn’t help.