In collaboration with Near Neighbours, we recently spoke to 30 or so women in Birmingham to ask them about their experiences of being a woman in a religious space. You can find out more about who we spoke to and how in the full report, which is available here.
In this series of posts, we’re exploring women’s responses in relation to four key questions. The first question was: are religions inherently sexist? The second question was: what’s it like being a woman in a faith space?
The third question, and subject of this post, is: why are faith leaders still mainly men?
Most participants came from religions where women have a right to access leadership positions within the faith's institutions. However, many participants pointed out that, in practice, there are still many barriers to women doing so. In some cases, where people are appointed to particular positions, men are chosen because they are still seen as exhibiting traditionally 'masculine' qualities such as leadership and assertiveness (even when it doesn't seem they do):
Because the ones at the top are mainly bishops, it will be difficult for women to rise up and above a certain level. The higher echelons of work are given to men even if they have no clue or idea of what they are doing, they are still being put in those positions.
Many participants said the idea of women in leadership positions was still new and that it was taking some people a little time to get used to this new norm. It is clear, though, that this is still a hot topic: one participant recalled how many people had left her church after her vicar has merely expressed support for the idea of women in leadership positions.
In addition to people being appointed to roles, some participants also discussed how they felt some men simply did not want to open the space to women's involvement in the running of their faith institution. As one participant put it: 'when there have been discussions in the mosque about what to do I have put both hands up a million times and been ignored. Look at some of the largest mosques in Birmingham: they don't have any women on their boards and committees. It's because they have very old-fashioned views'.
Coupled with this, some participants said they were less likely than men to be encouraged to go for positions of leadership within the community. This was particularly the case in those faiths where people are thought to have a calling or a gift for particular positions within their institution:
I try to see something in others and bring it out. It took me a long time to see something in myself, because no one saw anything in me so I thought I'd best go looking myself! So I always try and talk to people in church and say, 'What would you like to do here?' and then I try and help them do that, whether it's being an usher or something more.
A common theme throughout the discussions was that the sexism inherent in wider society constantly creeps into the religious space. This means men have a head start when it comes to being considered for leadership positions: 'Men are automatically in leadership but women have to get there somehow… We are normally the extension of the domestic sphere…but men are in the world and the ones making the decisions there'.
Of course, not everyone had had negative experiences. One Muslim participant discussed how attitudes towards women were changing within her congregation:
In our community, young people are putting themselves up to be part of the organisation [of mosque functions, etc]. It's the older generation that felt 'we don't want to part'. But if you go up there and say, 'I want to be part of this' none of the men would say you can't.
Is this a sign that things are changing? Have you had similar experiences of trying to lead in a faith space? Let us know here.
Remember, there are other posts on this topic and you can download the full report here.