On the reception of the 2014 gender stats for Christian conferences

In reviewing last year, I looked at a list of everything I had ‘delivered’: writing sent off for publication; teaching done; students submitted; talks given; … I find it helpful: it is too easy to remember the stuff I didn’t manage to do, of which there is always much, and focus on that. (For the first time I also had a heading for things I had intentionally stopped doing, which wasn’t a long list, but is something at which I intend to work harder.) One of the things that gave me most satisfaction to note was the public launch of Project 3:28, a small collective of people working towards gender justice in the church, who have come together to do some specific things.

It came out of Natalie Collins‘s collation of statistics on the gender of speakers on UK conference platforms in 2013, which I blogged about here; a group of us got together to talk about whether we could do anything; Project 3:28 is the result. We’re working on several strands, but the first one went live yesterday: gender statistics for UK conference platforms in 2o14, again compiled by Natalie. The headline number was encouraging: in 2013, of the 431 speakers at conferences we counted, 24% were female; in 2014, we counted 1081 speakers, and 34% were female. Natalie tweeted from the project account (@project328) through the morning, posting award certificates for the five conferences with the best gender balance and the five with the most improved gender balance.

We’ve not yet reviewed the reception as a team, but I think when we do we will be pleased. There was media coverage from Premier and Christian Today - hopefully the print sources will also notice us - and a fair amount of buzz on social media, most of it positive and encouraging. Of course there were a few negative lines, some of them rather silly. ‘Didn’t we know that already?’ some asked. No, we didn’t, not the precise numbers, or the year-on-year change, or the conferences that were doing better than most. ‘What a waste of money!’ opined several; I think it has cost us, between us, nearly £250 so far – a fair chunk of that the price of the meal where we first got together to plan, which was generously paid for by an all-male conference (via a speaker’s fee they gave to one of us…). Then we had the classic spurious alternative – ‘shouldn’t you be concentrating on … instead?’ Hey, we saw an issue that we thought we could do something about; that doesn’t mean we don’t care about other issues – and in every case I’ve so far seen mentioned, at least two of us have been actively & publicly involved in addressing the issue elsewhere (unlike, generally, the complainant). Finally – my favourite –  ‘A much simpler way would have just to read [sic] any literature advertising the event and play spot the female photo & name’; What did you think our research method was? Stealth photography in green rooms? DNA testing of skin residues left on microphones? Compulsory urine samples as speakers left the platforms?!

One comment keeps coming back though: ‘don’t we want the best speakers?’ Yes. Yes we do; that’s most of the point. On the assumption (and it is an assumption, but it is one I believe to be well founded in Scripture) that God gives gifts to people regardless of gender, roughly half the ‘best’ speakers should be female, where ‘best’ = ‘most gifted’; if our platforms are 75% or 66% male, then we are not getting the ‘best’ speakers.

The problem is, though, that ‘best’ means more than ‘most gifted’; it means also ‘most experienced’, and so we get a vicious feedback loop: we want the same names and faces on every platform, because they have learnt through long experience how to do it well, and because they are famous names and so draw the (paying) crowds. I’ve organised conferences; I can write that list in the UK evangelical scene – and it is indeed 70% male. But I can write another list of speakers who are just as – or even more – gifted, in many cases who I would much rather hear, who are slightly rawer, for lack of experience, and much less famous – and that list is majority female.

We came together in the Project 3:28 collective knowing this; round the table when we first discussed ideas were some veterans of the UK conference scene: Wendy Beech-Ward, Paula Gooder, Krish Kandiah, Rachel Jordan, me, … This is why intentional action is needed. The conference circuit operates as its own breeding ground: you get brought in to assist at a side-show because someone has heard that you might have what it takes; succeeding there, you get more and more invites to bigger and bigger platforms. At every point on the way up, though, the process is gendered. Young men are more likely to be given a chance than young women, unless someone is very intentional about it. Women are more likely to doubt their own competence and say no; the hard yards on this road come when, if you have family, your children are young, and it is generally harder for a mother than a father to accept invitations to be away from home. These latter two comments reflect current sociological realities which are not the fault of conference organisers – but if we are serious about wanting the ‘best’ speakers, we need to be working at overcoming such social barriers in order to make sure that those with the most potential, male or female, are given the chance to gain experience and so to develop into the ministry for which God has gifted them.

7 Comments

  1. Andy Goodliff
    Jan 7, 2015

    “The conference circuit operates as its own breeding ground … succeeding there, you get more and more invites to bigger and bigger platforms.”

    Steve would you agree that separately there needs to be a critique of the whole conference rationale, indicative of the language of ‘circuit’ you use here … especially the fact that there is at least a group of speakers who seem to make a living from conferences/events. It becomes a very small world, and as a you suggest a predominately male world … often with the same collection of stories, jokes and talks.

    • steve
      Jan 7, 2015

      Yes – although I’d be surprised if anyone is making a living from this business, other than (properly) the administrators &c. paid year round to make it happen.

  2. Bev Murrill
    Jan 8, 2015

    I’m excited to hear about Project 3:28, knowing that Natalie Collins has done a fantastic job of researching and categorising what would be a formidable list of UK conferences. I had someone talk to me about this in Australia, not realising that I knew Natalie. Good news travels fast.

    I agree wholeheartedly that it stands to reason that at least half of the population of each gender should be able to give a good message from the platform and that often the reason they do not is because they lack training and confidence. The other reason is that there is always, God forbid but it’s true, a resistance to stronger women preachers for that very reason, they’re offensive in their strength.

    While conference organisers don’t want simpering sweethearts on the platform, they also do not want women with loud voices or easy communication skills, in general (unless they’re already famous, of course).

    I have recently written a (long) article for CBE which will be published later in the year about the former point. Women aren’t trained to speak all that often, and therefore when they are on the platform, they often do not have the confidence to get on with it. They know that they are often ‘the exception to the rule’ … no pressure then…

    It’s very encouraging that in the last year or two, women are standing up in numbers previously not seen, and so, gradually, are the men who seek justice for women. You are one of those men, Steve, and we thank you for your faithful determination to take the stand onside with your female colleagues and peers.

  3. Kay
    Jan 9, 2015

    Thanks for writing this Steve. I agree!

    Can I add another element?

    With approx 11% of the population being disabled, a similar problem can be seen. We don’t see many people with disabilities on our platforms.

    If you’re female AND disabled…. give up now….

    • steve
      Jan 9, 2015

      Kay, thanks for this. And, yes, you are right. It happens I was reflecting earlier today on why I’ve got involved in gender justice more than in other areas (I was thinking at the time about ethnicity, but it could have been disability…). I happen to fall on the privileged side of every divide I can think of: white, male, able-bodied, straight, middle-class, … – as I comment sometimes, I can check my privilege, but I need a week off to do it! So why pick gender?
      There is some personal history here, of course, but I think also that there is more directly theological baggage in the area of gender than in other areas, and such gifts as I have lie in theological argument, so this is probably where I can make most difference.
      But the fact that I’m giving what time and strength I can to kicking down this particular locked door does not mean that I am not very aware of other locked doors that need a good kicking too…

      • Kay
        Jan 9, 2015

        Thanks Steve
        From experience, I know you can’t fight every battle that comes your way – there’s not enough hours in the day!
        My comment was made in the hope that others would see it when reading your blog.
        A few of us are trying to kick this door. The issues surrounding it are exactly the same, but our voice is much smaller.
        I am more fortunate than most, in that I’ve had good mentors to guide me in my ministry – vital for anyone embarking on a full time ministry. But it has been noticeable that the few speaking bookings I did have almost dried up since becoming disabled.
        Be blessed and keep kicking!

  4. Andrew Kleissner
    Jan 29, 2015

    I attended the General Assembly of another denomination a few years ago, and was very struck both by the number of women who were in various leadership roles and the way in which the delegates made no distinction as they spoke of them and related to them. At a local level I have found the same thing to be true, certainly more than amongst our Baptist ministers who are still disproportionately male and seem to have a somewhat “blokeish” culture.

    It strikes me that, while the number of female speakers at conference &c. is important, there is still the more subtle issue of the way they are responded to and treated. I can’t speak from experience, as I don’t “do” the conference “circuit”; but I think I would be very sensitive at the slightest hint of anyone either hinting that a speaker was “good, considering she is a woman” or expecting a female speaker to be less theologically rigorous or more “popular” in their approach than a male.

    In other words, I don’t think that there is any room for complacency, although I agree that progress has been made. (Last October’s “Baptist Quarterly” has an interesting article by Paul Goodliff which suggests that covert gender discrimination is still a live issue in BUGB).

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