Sexism by any other name . . . .

Christianity Today posted a web-article this week, entitled The Benevolent Sexism at Christian Colleges. Biola University professors and researchers, Brad Christerson, M. Elizabeth Lewis Hall and Shelly Cunningham offer a glimpse into the experiences for many female faculty at Christian liberal arts universities. As I read through the article, I felt like they were describing my life. I’ll offer a few key comments based on my own personal experiences and then invite as many as would like, into the discussion, particularly my two colleagues on this blog.

Christerson, Hall and Cunningham call the particular dynamic of male-female collegiality on Christian college campuses, benevolent sexism. “Benevolent sexism refers to sexism that is not overtly hostile. In fact, it is often in the context of warm, friendly personal relationships between men and women.” I have taught in environments where the sexism was overtly hostile, but where I am now there is an ethos of collegiality and my relationships with my male colleagues are marked, for the most part, by relationships in which I am treated with kindness and respect. What makes my relationships different though, than what I observe in male-to-male relationships is that men tend to earn and give respect based on their intellectual and academic accomplishments. The respect and kindness afforded me most often seems to be for my being womanly – e.g. nurturing, tender.

The article points out that the results of this study show female faculty often feel excluded from male social groups in part because “evangelicals are more guarded about cross-gender relationships.” The theological wars over issues of women in leadership, the roles of women and men, among other things has fostered an ethos in which men and women are socially awkward in relating professionally with one another. Should a male colleague and a female colleague meet in an office alone to discuss a research project? Can they meet for lunch or at a coffee shop? If someone sees them, what will people think of them? The typical end result of this awkwardness and paranoia is that it’s often just easier NOT to engage professionally, which consequently means that women get left out of the discussion. I cannot even begin to count the number of times I have felt excluded from professional conversations in which I knew or suspected that it was primarily because of my gender. And, sometimes, I was the one making that choice.

Finally, a point closely related, was “how social exclusion leads to professional disadvantages by virtue of being left out of informal information-sharing networks. . . .” In my own experience, for many, many years, I have watched as the men go to lunch together, talk shop over coffee, play sports together, socialize together with their families and very rarely was I or any other female faculty member included. And, here is where the benevolent part comes in. Many of my male colleagues would consider me a friend, and if I raise the issue of women being left out of social networks, I typically receive two kinds of comments: “We are not stopping you from having your own social networks;” or “you may be right, but it’s too uncomfortable, it’s not appropriate or healthy, etc.” And the researchers are correct, in that this subtle benevolent form of sexism leads to less academic and professional opportunities for women: advancement and promotion, grants, access to networks that lead to book contracts, journal articles, etc. Succeeding professionally is often about mentors and networking, getting your name out there because of the social networks you develop. The ethos of benevolent sexism on Christian college campuses makes it much more difficult for women to develop the needed relationships to thrive professionally. Sexism by any other name is still sexism.