The Awkward Dance: Christian Women Leaders Finding Their Footing Amid Conflicting Ideals
by Jess Mason
When you think good Christian woman, to what extent do you think effective leader?
According to our research, Christian women leaders face conflicting ideals for women and for leaders in their communities, such that traits of effective leaders can contradict traits of admirable Christian women.
I believe that if these cultural ideals go unexamined, capable women may falsely doubt their fitness for leadership. They may also betray their leadership strengths—as well as their authentic selves—in order to conform to their culture’s image of a skilled leader.
In this post we explore six conflicts-of-ideals reported by participants at the Woven Consultation on Christian women in leadership in March 2016. In a series of follow-up posts in the coming months, we’ll look at these conflicts and consider: Where are these cultural ideals challenged by Scripture? Where do biblical examples shift—or broaden—the picture of what healthy leadership and/or healthy womanhood can look like?
THE LEADER-WOMAN DANCE
Conflicting ideals for leaders and women seem to begin in many cases with masculinized norms for leadership. One woman shared this challenge in terms of available role models: “Being shaped by male dominated fields, I don’t know [how] to lead being [a] woman.” Another woman reported, “In ministry, I’ve experienced that I had to be or act different than my true self as a woman because I had to act as a man.”
The Bible challenges the assumption that effective leaders must be men. Women in formal leadership roles include Deborah the judge, Junia the apostle, and Phoebe the deacon, among others. Women of extraordinary influence without official leadership roles include Esther, who planned and made an appeal to prevent an Israelite genocide, and Abigail, who confronted a battalion to lead David back to God’s word and will, setting the tone (and providing the land base) for David’s unparalleled reign over Israel.
To lead wholeheartedly, women leaders need to be set free from contradictory standards. As one Woven participant put it, “We need to be able to lead as women, not be shoehorned into leading like men.” Here are the cultural contradictions women leaders report navigating in their leadership settings.
SIX CONFLICTING IDEALS FOR LEADERS VS. WOMEN
1. Should I be dominant/aggressive or accommodating?
American culture can prize dominance in male leaders, sometimes to a blinding degree. One woman mentioned a “dominating male” ideal for leadership. Another observed, “Women need to be more aggressive…to compete with their male counterparts in business.”
But leaders must change their tune to be considered admirable women: “Being an alpha female is…too manly.” One woman shared that, “Women can’t be aggressive in advocating for themselves.” Multiple leaders reported that the more common expectation on women is that they “be available” and “meet everyone’s expectations.”
2. Should I be direct/assertive or agreeable?
One minister shared that over her years in leadership she has had to force herself to be more “direct” than she feels comfortable being as a woman. Others affirmed this tension: “Women aren’t assertive.” “It is hard to confront people.” “It's not feminine to disagree.”
3. Should I be confident or self-effacing?
Many women reported feeling that leaders are supposed to appear strong and put-together at all times, and not show weakness or vulnerability. The expected appearance of strength led one leader to lament, a “leader must be always confident. I’m not always confident.” In fact, the very opposite of confidence may be expected of women: “I must present myself as ‘less-than’ to be liked.”
4. Should I be hard or nice?
Like the 19th century children’s nursery rhyme—sugar and spice and everything nice, that’s what little girls are made of—women are expected to be “always happy and positive all the time.” Bottom line: “Women should be nice.”
But one woman shared the expectation that as a leader, “it’s better to be hard than vulnerable.” Another shared that she felt the need to come across as “hard” to be effective in her leadership context, even though “that’s not my true self.”
5. Should I be decisive or consensus-building?
While women agreed there are different types of leadership, some felt forced to choose between false opposites. One wrote that leadership tends to be narrowly defined by those already in power, with principles like, “good leaders are decisive, not consensus building.”
One leader felt she had to decide between being a “good decision-maker” and being a “follower, as expected [of women] from a cultural and social perspective.”
6. Should I be unemotional or emotional?
A common tension for women in leadership is the scope and extent to which emotions and emotional expression have a role in effective leadership. One woman shared that she hears the message that women are supposed to be “giving and emotional.” Another wrote, “women are the weaker/emotional/vulnerable gender.” But, as previously stated, leaders are expected not to show vulnerability.
Without the acknowledgement of emotions as a potential source of insight, the expected emotionality in women would appear to do nothing more than cripple effective leadership.
Tell Us What You Think
We hope this article fosters discussion, reflection, and greater awareness of your leadership choices in your various work and life settings. Please join the Facebook discussion to add your thoughts and experiences.
Share Your Story
Have you experienced any part of this awkward dance in your community? Or does your community have some wisdom you’d like to share? If you have a fuller story to share, contact Jess Mason at jmason [at] egc.org about contributing a personal reflection blog post.
What Else Should WOVEN Be Discussing?
Is there a part of the leader-woman dance that was not mentioned that you would like to bring to our attention? Contact Jess Mason at jmason [at] egc.org to share your insights.
Jess Mason is a licensed minister, spiritual director, and research associate in ARC@EGC. Her passion is to see God’s goodness revealed to and through Christian leaders and pillars in the Boston area.