Are you a man who is discontent with just believing women should be treated fairly? Are you ready to do something? Here are ten practical ways to address sexism at work, church, or in every day contexts. Whether you are an egalitarian, a feminist, or simply want to be more inclusive and challenge the status quo, it is my hope that this list will be helpful.
1. Verbally recognize the excellence, talents, contributions, intelligence, and insights of women.
Often the crucial contributions of women at work, church, and home go unmentioned. Men have the opportunity to offer life-giving words in public settings that can inspire women to further develop and use their gifts and influence how others perceive them.
Women are often recognized for gifts of service rather than leadership, which often results in women being treated as expendable. There was a woman who developed and led a successful family life ministry from the ground up. When a male intern came along the pastor put him in charge and told her to assist him—and essentially run the program—behind the scenes. She quit and the ministry failed. Eventually the pastor recognized his mistake and brought her back to revive the ministry.
2. Utilize the spiritual gifts and talents of women.
Once when Bill Gates was invited to speak in Saudi Arabia he was asked if it was realistic for them to be one of the top ten countries in the world in technology. Noting the segregated audience, Gates replied that if they were not going to use half of the talent in their country they did not stand a chance.
Are there talented women at work or in the church that you have not noticed or used before? Have they only been noticed as a team player or helper? At a time when the church is in decline we cannot afford to ignore what God has blessed us with.
A good leader recognizes and utilizes talent. A pastor once came across a new Christian who had come out of a domestic abuse situation. He recognized her gifts and took her under his wing as a mentee. She developed into a compelling preacher, and started a thriving nonprofit which she still runs today.
3. Go out of your way to include women in important conversations.
I have noticed that if I want to be included in an important conversation I nearly always have to take the initiative to insert myself into the discussion. Men, your assertiveness and drive are appreciated in ways they are not for women. (See The Double-Bind Dilemma for Women in Leadership.)
Growing up, women are often taught to be quiet and polite. We are even taught to have smaller body posture (ex: rather than being spread out and owning space we are told to cross our legs). Women who assert themselves run the risk of being considered pushy, a nag, or worse.
Consider my friend who is soft-spoken, highly unassuming, and kind. She speaks five languages, does extensive Greek word studies, and reads biblical commentaries in her spare time. However, she is often perceived as aggressive by certain church and family members when she shares with them what she learns from her studies.
What does it look like to invite women into the conversation? Whether it’s an informal discussion, a Bible study, or a work related meeting, go out of your way to ask women what their thoughts are and express respect for their opinions. If they are interrupted, invite them to continue and even point out that they are being interrupted. When leading a small group I noticed one woman was quiet the whole time, so I asked her what she thought. Unfortunately, her husband and another man interrupted her five times as she tried to answer!
Another way is to seek women out to be on panels, speak at conferences, or be part of the decision-making processes of a company or church. It is important to realize there are subconscious biases at work here. A friend of mine tried very hard to get a female plenary speaker for an event. Unfortunately, the event leaders had a problem with the candidate and she was not contacted. A few weeks later they considered a man with the same perceived shortcoming but still thought he was an excellent choice. No one meant to intentionally exclude women—but the perceived shortcoming of the woman was amplified and made into a deal breaker, which was not the case for the man.
That said, avoid tokenism. Women should not be considered interchangeable (ex: we already found a woman for our panel so don’t need another one) nor should they be selected for their gender alone. We need to intentionally seek out women because they are underrepresented, but we must not go with the mindset that anyone will do as long as we fill some sort of quota.
4. Invite women to attend informal work and church outings.
Women in work and church contexts are at a disadvantage when they are not included when men went out to play golf, go hiking, go out to dinner, or some other informal activity. They arrive at a meeting only to discover everyone else has already discussed “X”, or less directly apparent—friendships and relationships have been formed with the leadership. If you notice it is always the guys going out and doing things with the boss, make it a point to invite the women. This does not mean that men and women can never do things with their own gender, but consider whether this is the usual pattern and how it may put women at a disadvantage when it is time for work promotions.
5. Mentor women.
Mentorship can improve the overall functioning of an organization and can make all the difference for women. But many women do not get this opportunity because 1) there may not be any (or only a few) women in leadership in their organization, 2) their potential is not as easily perceived (research shows men are valued for their potential, while women are valued for their experience) or 3) they are considered a risk for male impropriety (more on this later).
When I was having a tough time in sales, a male coworker named Kyle met with me one-on-one and helped me figure out what the problem was and how to improve. He committed to being a resource until I was on my feet. As a child, my pastor and my dad encouraged me to ask tough theological questions and helped me look for answers rather than just telling me what to believe. When I was in college, Pastor Lee acknowledged my gifting and was available to answer my questions about the biblical canon (he is a well-known expert in the area). He gave me tips about choosing a master’s degree and wrote me letters of recommendation. These men are responsible for my love of the Bible and current participation in a PhD program in theology.
6. Change your rhetoric.
The descriptors and analogies we use are both a reflection of our world and shape how we see our world. As a woman I am used to having to put myself in the shoes of men, but men are not used to putting themselves in the shoes of women. Growing up in church I was asked to think about how I was like Moses, doubting Thomas, or the apostle Peter. Have you been asked to consider how you are like the Proverbs 31 woman, Deborah, or Hagar who named God “the God Who Sees”?
The world has a stunted imagination when it comes to envisioning women in leadership. What faces and examples come to mind for feats of courage, competence, and grit? When you think of a person defeating all odds, rising up as a leader, preaching against injustice or changing the world do you ever envision the face of a woman?
A prominent Christian man once introduced a panel of four people as “Dr…, Dr…, Dr…, and Christine.” The first three were men but all four were doctors – Oops! This reveals a subconscious bias in how women are viewed. It was an honest mistake, but it was also a contextual one. We do not live in a world where women are equally valued and we must actively transform our perspectives and the perspectives of those around us.
Look for, think of, and give new examples with female faces. This is a conscious change you will have to make in your thought life, everyday speech, sermons, and Bible studies. Imagine if since you were very young you regularly heard positive examples of female CEOs, pastors or generic examples with “she.” Maybe there would have been four doctors in the house that day instead of just three.
7. Stand up for women when demeaning rhetoric or jokes are shared at their expense.
People do not like being called out on sexism. Do it anyway.
Whether you asked for it or not, as a man you have power and privilege that women do not. Women should not have to live in a world where they are subjected to harmful stereotyping and demeaning jokes. There is more risk for them if they speak out than there is for you. I know that if I get angry or offended I can be dismissed as emotional. (For a great example see Greg Hahn’s post Standing Up for Our Sisters at the Men’s Retreat.)
Something else to note: Sometimes sexist jokes are meant to be satirical. This can still be inappropriate. A woman podcaster I know used to get jokes about her role in the kitchen. She was the only woman on the podcast and the prevalence of these jokes highlighted her gender and how many perceived her “God-ordained” role. Maybe these jokes would be funnier if as a society and church we had truly moved past our desire for women to be passive and submissive, but we have not.
8. Monitor how you praise and encourage women and girls.
When complimenting your daughters, granddaughters, nieces, or other girls, do you mostly comment on how cute they are? How pretty? How does this compare to comments you typically make to boys?
Women and girls are used to having their value summed up in appearance, whether they are critiqued for being too fat or too skinny, or praised for being beautiful and worthy of a man’s adoration.
On my first day preaching I was complimented on an excellent sermon—and how beautiful I was! When delivering an exegetical paper at a conference I was complimented on having solid argumentation—and on my appearance. In this context such compliments are out of place and highlight that I am valued primarily for my appearance.
Imagine what it would be like if most of the compliments you received were superficial, even when at work, or when giving a presentation or preaching. Women and girls need praise that draws out character, resilience, intelligence, and agency.
9. Guard your thought life.
Women are sometimes seen as a threat to a man’s reputation. This impacts a woman’s ability to function optimally at work or church and discourages men from seeing women as peers.
Imagine what limitations you would have if you could not meet with the boss one-on-one for anything; if peers avoided being alone with you or being too friendly. Imagine if you had to be careful about joking around because it might be interpreted as flirting.
At church this might mean private discussions with the pastor would require the door be open at all times. Maybe at meetings the pastor or elder always brings a female secretary or wife. Some women in the evangelical world have shared with me that men are afraid to ride in a car with them alone. All of this behavior encourages the idea that women are this separate other that one cannot get too close to without risking a romantic relationship or adultery. (For more on this see How I Learned to Stop Worrying About the Billy Graham Rule and Love Like Jesus by Ty Grigg over at Missio Alliance.)
In addition, young women are often held responsible for male lust. It is usual at Christian schools, Sunday schools, camps, or other avenues for women to be told not to make men stumble by dressing immodestly. I am all for modesty, but the idea communicated by this is that men are unable to control themselves and that women can cause them to sin (both untrue).
Women are not responsible for your thought life: you are. If you struggle more than you think is normal with sexual temptation, that is work you need to do. Do not make it the problem of women.
10. Recognize and counter your own biases.
This last suggestion is a simple one. We are all biased by our culture and experiences to think certain ways about men and women, both inside and outside of the church.
Does a woman appear less qualified or less strong of a candidate than a man? Why? Is the assessment fair? Are you irritated by a woman’s suggestion or complaint? Why? Would you be as irritated if she were a he? Do her arguments seem too emotional to you? Internal biases that work against women are not anyone’s fault, but it is our responsibility to identify and change them.
So those are some of my thoughts on how men can address sexism in practical ways. Now, it is your turn to see the world with new eyes and develop some additional strategies! What would you add to the list?