Being Honest about Inequality

Last week, my daughter brought home a class worksheet where she had noted that Barack Obama was colorblind.  “What does that mean?” I asked her, only to be informed that it meant he thought people were equal, regardless of the color of their skin.  I told her that’s not exactly what being colorblind meant: that seeing people as equal does not mean ignoring race.  The topic then shifted to soccer and birthday parties.

Yesterday morning we had another interesting exchange before school, continuing on with this idea of people being treated equally, regardless of gender or race. She was making a statement regarding the past when people were not treated equally.

“People are still not treated equally.  Many people still treat boys better than girls, and white people better than black people.” I decided to limit some of the specifics, such as differential conviction rates, job call-backs, media portrayals, or pay inequality.

“But in North America, we treat one another equally?”

I shook my head no.

“In Illinois?” No.
In Wheaton?” No.
“On our street?” Sad laugh.

I suspect this moment was similar to those that many sociologists (and others) have had with their children, where they feel a responsibility to discuss things as they really are, despite a sort of innocence that seems to be destroyed. But we have to admit and teach our children that in the United States, people are not treated equally. Not simply in spite of the fact that such a reality is awful, but precisely because it is awful.  Pretending that we are viewing and treating each other equally only makes the situation worse.

As a Christian, I yearn to see the Church standing out for our opposition to the sexism and racism in our society.  However, given the fact I study issues of gender and religion, I’m almost reminded daily that my hopes don’t match reality.

Let me just note two recent statistics on gendered realities in the Christian community, recognizing that it’s not a monolithic community.

  • Within colleges that are members of the CCCU (Christian Coalition of Colleges and Universities), 6 out of 111 college presidents are female.  The data for this chart comes from recent efforts & research of the CCCU examining these gender discrepancies.







  • A blog post yesterday on Patheos listed the top 50 influential pastors on twitter.  While I won’t argue it should be the key measure of who holds influence in the Christian community, it’s still an interesting list.  (Impossible) Challenge: Find one female on the list.  (The author, Adrian Warnock, followed up the list with the top 20 female Christian bloggers, but none of these were senior pastors).

If we aren’t honest with our children, we do more harm than good. When my daughter (or someone’s son) sees the chart above, or hears her friends talking about those influential blogging pastors, it communicates something.  She sees that those with the most power, those leading and making decisions, and those heralded for their wisdom are predominantly male and white.  If she and other children believe in a meritocracy, such information suggests that men must be smarter or better at these things that women, or that white people are more competent and qualified than non-whites. That’s not true.

Some days it’s hard to move from one disappointing fact to another.  This morning, I followed the discussion with my daughter to one where we talked about abuse in families during my morning class, and the failure of churches to engage in structural justice efforts in my afternoon class.  Students probably left both of those feeling a bit deflated, much like my daughter appeared as she ate her cheerios.  I agree with Margarita Mooney’s blog post noting that sociologists can often concentrate on the negative, and that “describing social problems is not the equivalent of describing the conditions that promote human flourishing or foster the common good.”  Clearly, most of my day was not engaged in such a project.

But to move towards change, we have to be aware of what’s wrong.  And it’s never too early to help kids to see it. I believe that many in the world, and within the evangelical community, can often undervalue women for the ways that they might be involved in God’s radical mission for the world. But this is not the end of the story. As my daughter looked at me sadly when I explained the prevalence of inequality today, I did engage in some positive perspective.  I reminded her that God doesn’t view us that way.  Thanks to a class I took as an undergraduate with Dr. Robert Kiely on early Christian literature, I was also able to tell her that some of the earliest Christians drew the attention of others as they broke gendered norms in worship, following messages of gender equality that Christ preached.  As I saw her eyes twinkle, I smiled. I witnessed her hope for a broken world, a hope much more valuable than a childish innocence of sin.

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  • Lala Suarez

    Hi Dr. Reynolds. there are times that I feel the need to haave women equal men in all jobs and all positions is somewhat overdone. Recently, I had a friend who is an EOE officer for the federal government complain tht the Secret Service should have more women and that they have been discrimianted. However, I thought if I wanted someone to protect me, Imight prefer a man, who is physically stronger and can defend me better. My take, Lala

    • Amy Reynolds

      Lala – Thanks for these comments. I don’t think I want to argue that our highest goal has to make sure that every occupation has equal gender balance. But when across occupations, leadership roles are very disproportionately held by men, that is problematic, and it conveys all sorts of messages about who is best able to lead. Wisdom and leadership are not “male” qualities. Per the secret service example, I would say we don’t want to equate averages in gender differences with absolute gender differences. That is, even if men on average are stronger than women, not all men are stronger than all women. But your point is taken.

      • matt

        Some people would indeed argue that leadership is a male quality, at least as far as church structure goes — this in no way suggests that women are inferior ontologically, only that they have different giftings.

        Equating influence/power/visibility with “importance” or “value” is a very individualistic, Western motif. In the global South, there is much more acceptance having positions of pastor/leader/chief. We should respect those outside of the democratic, individualistic West and not jump to the conclusion that women are disvalued until they have equal leadership influence as men. That’s a trap — a recipe for low self esteem for women and a tool of guilt to undermine men.

        • Amy Reynolds

          Thanks, Matt, for the comments. As you might suspect, I disagree with you on several levels. This isn’t the place for theological debate, but I don’t read the Bible to say leadership is a male trait. I also did not claim leaders are of more value. But in our society, they do make more decisions and shape institutional decisions. Women and men see men leading, teaching, and shaping institutions more than women, and that has negative impacts — both for the institutions, and for how women can feel their gender restricting their use of their talents. As for your comment about Dr. Ryken, I will not speak for him. Wheaton, as an institution, supports men and women in ministry and leadership positions.

      • There may be other factors involved. Among Christian schools, some will be Catholic; and among Catholic schools, some will be run by an order of sisters, and others by an order of brothers. I would expect a school run by a religious order to have one of its own members as president, and to be over-represented in senior administrative positions. This has the accidental side-effect of skewing the gender-balance in those institutions. Moreover, in Catholic schools which are not run by an order, especially in Theology departments, there is often a value to having a priest in leadership positions, which again has a side-effect of skewing the gender-balance to the male side.

        I speak of Catholic institutions because I am familiar with them, and with the theology that underlies the structures of religious life and the priesthood. I’m convinced (though I know others are not) that these Catholic institutions are not sexist or prejudicial in their structure.

        I know that some Protestant and Evangelical denominations have a preference for males in pastor positions, but I don’t know the theology that underlies that, or the structural implications. I think it’s worth exploring the factors beyond wisdom and leadership that are valued in certain institutions. Then, one can evaluate the reasoning for those additional values, and whether they amount to inequity or injustice.

        • Amy Reynolds

          Robert – Thank you for this thoughtful response. The sample of colleges I looked at are mostly all Protestant (you can check out the official list on the CCCU website), so I don’t think I’m seeing that Catholic bias you mention here. As for evangelical institutions, some are part of denominations that do not ordain women, and underlining theologies would make it hard to see women in top leadership positions. My premise – and one I’m currently studying – is that both theology and structural issues are accounting for the dearth of female leaders in the church and evangelical Protestant colleges.

  • matt

    by the way, perhaps you could speak about gender inequality in your own institution. Your president, Dr. Ryken, has some particular views about women and men’s roles in church structures. Does that get reflected at Wheaton?

  • StraightGrandmother

    Did you discuss the inequality of sexual minorities with your daughter? Just curious.
    Illinois will soon have a final vote on Civil Marriage for Sexual Minorities. It passed the Senate and the Executive Committee of the Assembly pushed it out of Committee for a floor vote.
    That right there would be a good conversation starter, it is an issue of inequality right there on your street.

    • StraightGrandmother

      I just thought of something to use in your discussion about the discrimination that sexual minorities receive, here the American Sociological Association issued an Amicus Brief in the Supreme Court cases. This is also topical.
      The Press release
      The Brief

    • Amy Reynolds

      Thank you for these comments and articles. No, I didn’t discuss that with my daughter – yet. I realize that many of the comments here ended up being about how people thought about gender and gender inequality (and we could talk about how people also think about and disagree regarding sexuality and discrimination based on sexual orientation). Discrimination and inequality regarding sexual orientation is definitely an important topic that must be discussed with children, I agree. It’s a bit more complex than race and gender (as ascribed identities), and perhaps moreso than issues of gender, brings up a range of theological responses from our readers here that are also part of the equation.

      • StraightGrandmother

        “Discrimination and inequality regarding sexual orientation is definitely an important topic that must be discussed with children, I agree.”

        Maybe I can help you get sensitized to the discrimination. I think this is really going to open your eyes and that you will reflect on this. There is a website that somehow scrolls all the Tweets on just Twitter and it counts up how many times *just today* sexual minority pejoratives are used in a tweet. You can even pause the tweets and read them. I think it would be good for you to do this for a few days, just during the day check this website.!/today/