On Tuesday, I got into a long and interesting conversation on twitter about (broadly) gender and inclusivity at Christian conferences and (specifically) what it was like being the only woman at the THINK conference last year. My friend Hannah blogged about it:
We’ve had a number of years now to observe, in the digital realm, the combative way that men often engage with theology and their opinions about the church. In an atmosphere that is frequently not a safe space for women thanks to theological and/or cultural beliefs that mark us out as somehow inferior, and considering the struggles with impostor syndrome and lack of confidence that women often face, it’s no wonder that somewhere like the THINK conference could make a woman feel uncomfortable. Particularly - as Hannah pointed out - when the conference is hosted by a group of churches known for making complementarianism a distinctive.
I’d recommend you read the whole piece, which reflects on why it’s important that event organisers do make an effort to reach out to people who don’t look like them (and not just in the having-two-X-chromosomes way). I wanted to pick up on her comment about socialisation, and write a little bit about what it was like being in the room, and why the style and atmosphere of conferences may also exclude women.
What this isn’t (I hope): me whining about not being regarded as a special flower at a conference I went to almost exactly one year ago: no one was mean to me, no one insulted my intellegence, no one suggested - or I think would have thought to suggest - that I shouldn’t be there. Everyone individually was very welcoming. I learned a lot about Romans (the subject of last year’s conference, and got reminded that people I see taking different positions to me in online wrangles about the theology are decent people thinking and acting in good faith - something that is easy to forgot when there’s computer screens and miles of phsyical distance between you.
What this is (I hope): some thoughts about why, despite all of that, I spent the best part of three days feeling awkwardly like an odd fish, and like I wouldn’t choose to go back (I haven’t, I would if another woman would go with me).
[This is also just about my experiences, from my point of view: there are whole other layers and areas of diversity and inclusivity to be thought about in this conversation, and I’m going to try not to assume that my experience is equivalent to that of someone else who would look different and out of place in a different way than I did, or indeed, to that of another woman, or that some of the men in the room didn’t also feel out of place at times.]
So here’s the thing: yes, it’s weird, lonely, and slightly alienating being the only woman in the room. But for me, the problem was less about being the only person in the room with long hair, and more about the way the room was set up and the way learning experience took place.
The THINK conference presents itself as a collaborative space, where people will come together and think together about theology - this is some of the wording of this year’s event:
Wrestling with 1 Corinthians.” Running across three days in July, a group of leaders, pastors and teachers will gather in Bedford, and go through 1 Corinthians in depth.
Yet despite this, it was very much a front-lead, teach-heavy event. There was plenty of time for discussion and question and answer, but there was definitely a place of authority in the room. And that in itself is not a problem: in a room of 30-odd people, someone has to lead the discussion, turn the group away from blind avenues, or regretfully away from windy lanes, and, in this case, see that we got through one of the bible’s most complicated books in depth in three days.
But: every voice of authority has their own influences and authorities, who they will turn to for additional perspectives, support or answers. Everyone has friends and colleagues (and twitter-buddies) they talk with about the things that interest them. And in this case, some of them were in the room, and were called on as additional authorities in the conversation.
Basically, while the room was laid out as a teacher - student style space, not all ‘students’ were invited to participate in the same way. Ostensibly, we were all there to ‘wrestle togther’, but in reality, a few were there to wrestle together - as they do outside of that room on a regular basis - and the rest of us were there to learn from them. (Incidentally, I’d like to give a hearty thank you to the three or four guys I was regularly in discussion groups with, who absolutely treated my voice as equal to theirs, and one worth listening to, both on Romans and Andy Murray’s chances of getting out of the Wimbledon quarter finals…)
And so you have a club-within-a-club, an inner sanctum or magisterium who belong to the same group of churches, go to the same events and also socialise outside them, in the physical world and online. It felt like there was a ‘cool kids’ club that I - and I imagine some of the other guys present - felt like they were never going to be invited to hang out with, never going to be good enough or smart enough to join. We’d been invited to the sandpit, but we weren’t going to be invited to help build the castle. Being a woman just adds an extra, very obvious, layer to that exclusion.
And this makes things immensely more complicated, because you don’t just have to deal with being inclusive in the bodies that you have in the room, you have to think about being inclusive with the brains that you have in the room.
Academia (which is a part of my career background) and online debate about theology and doctrine, which is often an extension of academic space, tends towards the argumentative and combative, easily slides from agreement and disagreement about a point to a declaration that things are right or wrong and that the people arguing for or against them are smart or stupid. Learning to develop a thick hide to deal with this is something you have to do in academia to preserve your mental health. It’s something I’m not great at, because I find it hard to disassociate my ideas from me, and it’s one of the reasons I’m not sorry not to be in career academia any more.
I think that this fear of expressing our ideas lest they be shot down becomes a greater problem in questions of faith and theology, because this is a space in which you’re dealing with serious existential questions, and because people are, unsurprisingly, emotively attached to ideas that are tied to their eternal salvation. Talking honestly about theology, especially about a book like Romans that is seriously heavy-duty, I think requires a space where you feel like you’re not in danger of being shot down or ending up feeling small or humiliated. It requires an openness and an emphathy that it takes effort to cultivate, and that, I think, were not in evidence in that room.
This isn’t an issues that just affect women (I know men in academia who feel as negatively as I do about the often agonistic atmosophere) - but there is a gendered element to them. As Hannah pointed out:
women tend to learn from a young age that they’re expected to be quiet and take a back seat while men dominate in group settings.
I, despite being an over-educated, intellectually-minded person, am statistically less likely to be open about my thoughts and opinions in a roomful of men than the man next to me.
All of this means that conference organisers and leaders think about how the way they manage the content and atmosphere of an event in order to make sure that people feel equally able to participate (assuming that they want people to feel equally able to participate, and I am assuming that), and that in doing so they need to take into account the fact that some sections of the room will already be less inclined to participate openly than others. Some of that might be the result of a life time of socialisation - but some of it might also be the result of the way you and your group, as hosts, present yourselves to the world. And that, you can do something about.