Sometimes sexism is harsh, blatant, and outrageous. And sometimes it’s none of those things. There are blatant forms of sexism as well as more subtle forms of sexism. The latter can make women feel a little crazy when they attempt to point it out, because people tend to minimize experiences with subtle sexism as harmless or misinterpreted.
Subtle sexism is often much harder to spot than explicit discrimination, but we as the church need to get better at identifying it. Examples of subtle sexism include:
A woman shares a good idea in a church meeting and it’s ignored, but a man at the table says the exact same thing and it’s suddenly celebrated as the best idea ever.
A woman points out inconsistencies in how she is being treated in the church, but is told that she’s just making things up or that what she experienced isn’t reality (gaslighting).
Like the examples listed above, microaggressions are everyday infractions of personhood experienced by marginalized people and groups. They communicate hostile or negative messages to women and other oppressed groups. You can learn more about subtle sexist behaviors in this Bustle article, “Microaggressions Women Face.”
Women experience microaggressions all the time, in the broader world and sadly, in the church. Ideally, this kind of sexism would be cleared up by our call to live as forgiven Christians. Unfortunately, it isn’t.
Christian blogger Crystal Lutton recently wrote a great article about microaggressions in the church.
If you know any women in ministry or are one, this scene may sound familiar:
“First year licensed pastors with no formal training whatsoever have been known to mansplain doctrine when I’m trying to make a point. I guess my Master’s degree from a world renowned seminary doesn’t mean I understand simple things because I have had people correct my word choice, argue for a different explanation of what I’ve said, or even try to apologize to others on my behalf because I clearly don’t realize that it says… My favorite is when I get told that I should read my Bible and then I’d understand.”
Often, the church refuses to acknowledge the education and experience of women, choosing to prioritize less educated or less informed male voices for no other reason other than that the speakers or critics are male. When this happens, women are downgraded to second class citizens and their competency is always followed by a question mark.
Sadly, this is a common occurrence for girls and women in the church—in Sunday school, after giving a sermon, in a church staff meeting, etc.
In my former conservative, evangelical denomination, sexism was present but always very subtle. So many times, I was implored to be graceful and give some new man an opportunity I could have had. I was asked to make way for men who needed to show their worth, needed their chance, were closer to ordination, or were related to someone in leadership. It was explained away as the Christian thing to do—a beautiful example of servant leadership.
Except it wasn’t. It was sexism. So was being asked to volunteer for free in a previously always-paid teaching position. The people in charge used gaslighting (rewriting and dismissing my experiences) to make it okay. Back then, I just let them rewrite my narrative—that I was serving God by stepping aside and making space for male leaders. That I was cooperating and being a team player. That I would get my chance soon enough.
But rewriting a narrative without someone's consent is abusive, and in this case, it was rewritten because my experiences as a woman were judged invalid. And rewriting women’s narratives declaratively states that they’re not men’s equals. They’re not good enough. They don’t matter.
Towards the end, when I would try to stand up for gender equality, I was told I was overreacting, and being proud or pushy. But there was never space to have a real discussion and actually talk about the way women were being treated in a tradition that claimed to be egalitarian but didn’t live it out.
It’s important to acknowledge that, even in churches that are supportive of women in leadership, there are countless stories of sexism. For instance, some people will regularly walk out of a room or not attend church when a woman is preaching. They simply will not participate. That can stem from several types of sexism—implicit gender bias against women and objectification to name a few.
There have been very few times in my life when I’ve walked out on a speaker—less than a handful. It was always because the speaker went way outside of one of my boundaries. (Usually I will stay and listen to people even when I totally disagree with their ideas.) But when it comes to women speaking in the church, some people have no problem just leaving. They won’t even give the woman a chance because of her female body.
I invite you to ask women in ministry when they have experienced this. Not if, but when. Because this happens to most women in ministry at some point. People leave when you preach and teach, and they often make sure to tell you about it. Often, they tell others about it too. And, for those who don’t think they participate in this type of bias, remember that we are complicit in biased behaviors when we don’t critique and dismantle them.
These behaviors are not okay. They aren’t redemptive. And they don’t reflect the life and words of Jesus.
Sexism is a hard topic to address. But when we refuse to have this conversation, we say to all the women and girls in our midst that their status doesn’t matter. And we teach men and boys that affirming women’s full humanity isn’t a priority.
So let’s be brave and have the tough conversations. Let’s be brave and stand up for goodness and wholeness for ourselves and the women around us. Let’s admit that our “equal” churches still aren’t equal. Because only when we’re willing to admit that we have work to do, only when we address these issues and repent, can men and women move forward together as true equals.