I slid my hand across my behavioral assessment packet so the results were hidden from my closely seated coworkers. I had taken the DISC (for Dominance / Influence / Submission / Compliance) assessment and, unsurprisingly, was placed in the Dominant category. As a man, Dominant meant being groomed for future leadership. As a woman, Dominant meant cementing a perception of bossiness and aggression. It was possibly detrimental to my career to acknowledge my results, so I sat silently as others discussed their results.
In her new book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, Sheryl Sandberg laments the stereotypes that women are saddled with. She recalls being called “bossy” as a child, having colleagues attribute her promotions to “being a woman,” and receiving performance reviews urging her to cool her assertiveness. Sounds like a Dominant woman to me. Along with her anecdotal evidence, she cites multiple studies showing preferences for high-achieving men over high-achieving women. However, Sandberg doesn’t focus on how to change these stereotypes or break down institutional biases; she instead focuses on what women can do to work within the current system and how they are consciously and unconsciously holding themselves back. She likely would have told me to speak up, unashamedly discuss my Dominant results, and to do it in a way that didn’t cater to preconceived notions.
Sandberg’s own professional success gives credence to her advice: Harvard MBA, Treasury Department, Google, Facebook. She’s a powerhouse brimming with discipline, intelligence, and drive. Her book reads as less of an alpha female diatribe and more of a gentle nudge for women to go for it, to dream big on their careers. She states her goal clearly: that 50% of those leading countries and companies are women.
She avoids finger pointing at women who have made different choices than her, graciously acknowledging that moms who work exclusively inside the home are doing “real work.” She laments the fact that her own mother, who spent years caring for her children and doing advocacy work, was dismissed as not having a “real job.” Wisely, Sandberg goes out of her way to validate different choices women make.
Sandberg has been widely criticized for her decision to focus exclusively on women’s role in holding themselves back and not on the institutional structures that discriminate against them – what she calls the chicken and egg problem. One anecdote goes that after sprinting across Google’s parking lot while heavily pregnant, she asked for reserved parking for expectant mothers and immediately got it. This illustrated her point that women-friendly structural changes are most likely once women have reached the top in critical mass, as she had at Google.
Christian women have an even larger support structure than the partners Sandberg emphasizes. Outside of husbands, extended family, and friends, we also have the church. The church cares for her members, mourning with those who mourn, and rejoicing with those who rejoice. This should translate into celebrating the women who faithfully serve in different capacities – career-minded women whose tithes fund big projects, women who tirelessly care for their children (and often other women’s children), single moms who do it all alone, and poor women who juggle multiple jobs to pay the bills.
But could the church do more for working women? I think yes. Like the institutions that have neglected to respond to the changing realities of the American family and workplace, many churches have been slow to recognize the changing dynamic of its membership. Many focus on stay-at-home moms, treating them as the pinnacle of female Christianity. Many women I’ve spoken to, including those who stay home with children, say they recognize this bias taking place in their churches.
But, when 58.6% of women are in the workforce, churches are missing an opportunity. They are missing out on a chance to more effectively serve and love their members. When sermons nearly always characterize women as mothers who have sacrificed career for family, when Christian websites are eerily silent about women who work, and when a small but loud minority suggest working women are sinful, the church suffers.
The church can and should lead the way by recognizing that the majority of women are in the workplace and then responding accordingly. It should consider these women, just as much as it considers the women who stay home with their children.