We live in a crazed, image-saturated world of social media and advertising. In an unfiltered way, sexualized images of women and power images of men bombard us daily – every hour. What do these images tell us about the place of women? How are men objectified into certain characteristics? Are we really predetermined to have certain characteristics, behaviors, and thoughts? All of these images collectively create a social construction of gender and gendered stereotypes. And many times we buy into these ideas, even implicitly in subtle ways.
Expectations result in realities. The reality is that rigid gender role expectations limit people from their potential and opportunities.1 In a recent ad campaign, run like a girl, #likeagirl, marketers with Always asked, “When did doing something like a girl become an insult?” The ad challenges the notion and reminds us that society’s influence on girls at puberty lowers self-esteem.2
It’s not only advertisements: we, as parents and community members, choose words that limit people by gender as well. Have you ever overheard something like this: “Why can’t I, Mom?” (young child), “because girls don’t do that…” (parent). Or, for example, when a young boy is emotionally hurt by a classmate and the response is to “man-up” or “boys will be boys.” I wish that these statements weren’t so powerful, but they are. And, even for those of us who had parents that said, “You can be anything you want,” many of us realize that some professions or life goals might be harder than others due to our gender. I can hear someone saying that it might have been true in the past, but not in 2015. Yet, gender inequities still persist today.
The facts are that women earn 77-82 cents for every dollar that men earn. Women hold only 5% of the top positions in Fortune 500 companies (Pew Research Center). Women represent half the population, yet only 19% of the US Congress (Pew Research Center): “In 2015, 104 women hold seats in the United States Congress, comprising 19.4% of the 535 members; 20 women (20%) serve in the United States Senate, and 84 women (19.3%) serve in the United States House of Representatives.”3 If our statements didn’t matter, then these statistics wouldn’t be real. We can create personal and structural limitations, or we can create opportunities for boys and girls, men and women. And I, for one, hate glass ceilings.
This social construction of gender doesn’t merely remain in the advertising or public sphere; unfortunately, these gender role expectations permeate into church culture and tradition as well. In my experience, I have observed that the majority of church elders and deacons are men; I have also witnessed the segregation of women to women’s ministry. Recently, in my Facebook scrolling, I read a blog by Sarah Bessey. She challenges us to stop “treating women’s ministry like a safe club for the little ladies to play church.” Why is she (and I) frustrated? Because our socially constructed beliefs about women have entered how we study, pray, and worship God. When women’s ministry is about “cutesy things and crafty bits, safe lady topics, and … modest[y]” and “cute cupcake designs and decorating tips, scrapbooking parties, casserole recipes, and other ways to pass the time,” then our ministry has been influenced by society’s gender role expectations. I work at a Christian college, and this reminded me of a conversation with a campus leader about our discipleship groups that focus on being a “man (or woman) of God.” This leader expressed frustration with these types of materials, asking “Why can’t we just focus on what it means to be a follower of Christ no matter our gender?” I agree.
I wonder what Jesus would make of our gender scripted lives. He came to free us and transform our lived experience. Could we be free of these rigid roles and gendered captivities? One day during church, our pastor was preaching about Luke 8. I couldn’t help but notice a few verses earlier: Luke 8:1 said, “Soon afterward he went on…” My curiosity led me to question, after what? In a previous verse, Jesus has “something to say to you” (Luke 7:40). He challenges the status quo and asks us to “see this woman” in a new light. After he radically challenges the men in the room – in the house of a city leader, no less – he proceeds to allow women to accompany him into his ministry – Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna.
Does Jesus have something to say to you about gender and ministry? Might we rethink women’s roles in the church and leadership? In Rachel Held Evans book A Year of Biblical Womanhood: How a Liberated Woman Found Herself Sitting on Her Roof, Covering Her Head, and Calling Her Husband Master, Evans wittily explores the mixed messages and roles that women have experienced in the life of the historical and current church. She literally tried to live out the commonly-focused on passages that relate to women’s roles. She also challenges the wedded combination of biblical and womanhood, saying the combination has, at times, been employed to solidify gender roles and maintain hierarchy. So, unlike Rachel’s investigative spirit, I’m not willing to perch on my rooftop, address my husband as master, cover my head, and refuse to cut my hair for nine months to understand these realities.4 Yet, I am willing to re-explore what scripture says about our gender scripted lives and how we can live as liberated and free co-heirs to the Kingdom.
What can we do to seek gender equity and empowerment? Speak out. Challenge statements that limit people to particular roles. Get involved in the HeforShe campaign. Let your sons and daughters like books, sports, and dolls without fear of gender identity confusion. Break the status quo of gender stereotypes in our homes, workplaces, and places of worship.
From a research perspective, Jean Kilbourne’s research of how media portrays images of men and women, boys and girls in Still Killing Us Softly has offered more than a decade of compiled documentation. ↩
You may think, “Oh, she is just one of those feminist radicals.” Well, yes, and thank you. I am a wife. I am the mother of one biological son and two young men who we have taken into our home as family. I have good male friends. I am a strong supporter of men. I love the men in my life. ↩