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Moving Mountains: Barriers for Christian Women Leaders


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By Dr. Halee Scott

Amy was a vice-president for a Christian non-profit in Los Angeles. She had been with the company for several years—it was the first place she applied after college. Amy started as an administrative assistant for the president, but senior leaders quickly realized she had a knack for business and a mind for problem solving.

Amy quickly moved up through the ranks, becoming the first (and only) female vice-president. The president, the board members, and the other vice-presidents appreciated her ability to navigate complex organizational challenges, but there were two challenges that completely stumped her:

1. How to find a female mentor that had already travelled the same path she was on and

2. How to get the president to meet with her one-on-one about the ins-and-outs of running her department.

Barrier #1: Lack of Female Mentors

In the first post in the Women in Leadership series, I shared how there appears to be ample opportunities for women to lead at the first-level and mid-level management in ministries associated with the Christian Leadership Alliance, but those opportunities drastically slim down in the upper echelons, with only 8% of all women being vice-presidents, 2% presidents, and 6% in a C-Suite level position. Given the rarity of women in upper leadership positions, it should come as no surprise that women cited “lack of a female mentor” as the biggest barrier preventing them from growing as a leader.

Mentors are important in our leadership journey because they open our eyes to what is possible and they guide us along a journey they have already travelled. They give us roadmaps to follow and help us to develop the skills we need to navigate our way through various leadership challenges. The shortage of female mentors leads to a permanent phase of pioneering, where women meet the same organizational and structural challenges over and over.

Barrier #2: Exclusion from Informal Networks

The second biggest barrier for women leaders was exclusion from informal networks. Like closing deals on a golf course, the most important business decisions are made in informal settings—settings where women aren’t typically welcome. Whether these decisions are made over golf, lunch dates (as in Amy’s case), or as one woman told me, the men’s bathroom, women’s progress in the company stalls because intentional or not, she’s excluded from these informal settings.

The lack of female mentors and the problem of female exclusion reaches beyond the Christian faith and beyond American borders as well—surfacing in every country where women have positions of influence. Though our Christian identity adds another dimension to the difficulty in forging collegial, platonic relationships between men and women, it doesn’t have to be negative. Christians can lead the way, rather than fall behind, on how men and women can relate to one another in the workplace by intentionally implement certain policies to ensure women are not penalized due to issues related to gender.

3 strategies to break down these barriers

1. Create a mentoring culture by establishing a formal mentoring program within the organization or through an outside organization like the Christian Leadership Alliance. Design a system to pair senior members with junior members, a formal professional development plan to set goals for the mentoring relationship, and a method to monitor the program.

2. Since “lack of a sponsor” was the third most often-cited barrier, recognize the value of sponsorship programs and actively encourage male and female sponsors to take on female protégés. Research indicates that both mentors and sponsors are critical to the development of a leader. Mentors are senior colleagues that provide advice and feedback, while sponsors are active advocates promoting you and your skills within the organization.

3. Find ways to integrate women into informal networks. Evaluate where the bulk of the decisions are made within the organization—are they at lunch, over coffee, at the golf course? Find ways to include female leaders. This helps to forge relational bonds needed in the workplace and ensures that female leaders are present when important business decisions are made.

Are there other barriers? Share your thoughts with us.

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 Dr. Halee Scott is an author and independent social researcher who focuses on issues related to leadership and spiritual formation. She teaches seminary courses in spiritual formation, theology, and leadership in seminaries across the country. Her  next book, Dare Mighty Things: Mapping the Challenges of Leadership for Christian Women (Zondervan) releases spring in 2014.

Check out all the posts in this series on Christian women in leadership by Dr. Scott:

CLA.ProfPicW.flame_ Be sure to register for the 2014 CLA National Conference in Dallas, April 14-16, and save your spot for the Christian Women in Leadership Forum scheduled for April 16.  Not a woman? Then invest in one and make this experience possible for her! Great price savings now through October 31, 2013.

Comments

One response to “Moving Mountains: Barriers for Christian Women Leaders”

  1. Karen Heetderks Strong says:

    Thanks for this series. It’s encouraging. I spent a decade on the leadership team of a national Christian organization and I affirm what you’ve identified as needs and possible solutions. One piece of the “exclusion from informal networks” barrier is another type of exclusion that may be largely unconscious, but has ramifications. That’s communication patterns: “insider guy talk”– war stories and metaphors, language and jokes that minimize women, and a kind of functional deafness that doesn’t “hear” the woman’s input until it’s been validated by a man. I don’t know what can be done about this–particularly because it’s often (not always) not intentional. My strategies were to have a thick skin and a sense of humor, and to work harder at being credible and being “heard.” But that’s an individual approach.

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