Tuesday, 8 November 2005

Not sure if I'm simply opening up a can of worms with what I'm going to say, but what happened yesterday got me thinking.

Was at Bible study yesterday evening and since it was my first time, I was naturally introduced to everybody. What was interesting was a conversation I had with one of the guys at the end.

There were the usual get to know you questions, and I was asked what I did for a living, to which I replied, "I work with Letrica at the church office."

"Oh, so you're a secretary then."

"Er, actually, no. I'm involved in public relations."

And I could immediately see that I had thrown him off-balance. There was a look of slight incomprehension in his eyes, but he quickly recovered and continued the conversation with a "you must be a real people-person then".

It's actually not the first time I've been mistaken for a secretary after telling someone where I work, and it only ever happens if I talk to a church member. (That is, unless they recognise my name, with which I get a completely different response along the lines of "Oh, so you're the Melody Tan!" that is followed by a very embarrassed murmur of acknowledgement from me.)

Why do people immediately assume if you're female and working for the church, you've got to be in secretarial work?

Then again, I guess it doesn't really help that it is the reality, at least within the Seventh-day Adventist Church in the South Pacific. There are more females working in the office than males, but the proportion of females in high-level decision-making positions are few and far between. Of the females working here, I think about two thirds of them are secretaries, or in some kind of support work or other.

Why are there so few females involved in non-secretarial work within the church?

Is it because such positions don't exist?

Is it because women are simply not good enough?

Is it because we're not interested in working for the church?

Is this happening only just within the Seventh-day Adventist Church?

Disclaimer: I'm not saying that being a secretary is not a proper job or anything like that. I'm just wondering why women in the church have become so typecast - they're either secretaries, nurses or teachers. Can't they be anything else?


Della said...

I think you make an interesting and important point here.

There does seem to be a pervasive sexist attitude in the church, which is unfortunate. This can most readily be seen by the way in which the church consistently refuses to allow female ordination!

Heck, we were basically founded by a woman, but to have one as a church leader? Golly gosh! That'd be revolutionary!

Although there are more females doing theology courses, it doesn't seem like they're taken seriously - it seems like they're perceived by some church members as just playing at doing theology until they settle down, find a husband and a "real" job.

It's unfortunate to see people and their talents being so marginalised, especially when we say that all people are equal. Obviously it's still the case that there are some who are more equal than others!

Rant aside, I don't think that people in the church are naturally sexist. It's just that it does seem like it's expected that women won't be working in the more high-end jobs.

The glass ceiling does still exist, and people seem comfortable with it... perhaps until they start working for the church...


Mansfield said...

Believe it or not, it's still not that different in the corporate world.

Having said that though, most of the middle management in the company I work for are women...

I think that such attitudes simply take generations to change?

kris said...

could it also be that when you identify yourself as working with a secretary, there is an assumption that you must be one too?

Melody said...

della - it's true people in church don't seem naturally sexist. I don't think I've particularly felt oppressed or anything as a woman in church..actually, I feel more marginalised because people tend to look at me as a kid and fail to take me seriously. Maybe I should stop skipping up and down the hallway singing nursery rhymes...

Sadly though, I think the glass ceiling exists more in church than anywhere else. Or at least from what I've experienced. Working in the corporate world last year, the number of women who were in charge was phenomenal!

Maybe women are more interested in making it in the corporate world?? Hmmm....

Melody said...

mansfield: like i mentioned to della, there seems to be more women in higher positions out in the corporate world though.

It just feels like the corporate world is more willing to take people on their qualifications and ability than what their gender happens to be.

And yeah, attitudes certainly take generations to change, but the guy I talked to was actually around my age and so came as a double shock coz I thought people from my generation would know better!

Melody said...

kris - that's possible I guess.....although I did mention that I worked in the Communication Department with Trish...why would a department have TWO secretaries??

Then again...why not eh?

Della said...

I agree that the church seems to have more of a glass ceiling than the average corporation. Perhaps that's because corporations are more scared of anti-discrimination stuff? Who knows? Equal opportunity commissions and whatnot... hate to think what could happen if the church got hauled up before that...

But yes, the age thing! UGH! I know what you mean. That is something that seems to be problematic (and you only need to read some letters to the editor lately about how some people don't think young people should be involved in doing things for the church *lol*).

Female + young = an unusual sort of working situation. Some variety of limbo... In a holding pattern until we get married and settle down or can be put out to pasture.

I wonder what the comparison is for women and men leaving church employment, and what their main reasons for doing so were?

Mansfield said...

I agree that the corporate world is more influenced by equality laws and PC-ness in general.

I guess in the case with churches, some leaders are still implicitly under the shadow of wrongful interpretation of Paul's paragraphs about women in church... and it gets passed down :(

Kel said...

Young AND female IS to be disadvantged in the church

heck I was in my mid-30s while working for 'em and the number of people who treated me like a young lass just out of her teens - well, let's just say I lost count

Perhaps I could share some comments from women who participated in an art project I facilitated last year? It explored the experience of 12 women who worship and work in the Adventist church within the South Pacific Division. Participants included members and leaders from the local church level through to conference, union and division employees.

Each woman prepared 2-dimensional art works to depict their journey and wrote a summary reflection and interpretation of their visual expression. Knowing their work would be kept anonymous enabled participants to fully engage and express their experience in an honest and insightful way.

Here's what some of them had to say:

“Bound and Gagged.” The body is of a doll because of the barbed wire. If it wasn’t bound the body would be alive and human. The head is alive—the eyes can see and understand. Church leadership have bound and gagged me so I can’t move in mission or speak.

"Outside the box". I love creativity and passion and have a hunger to catch my God, bask in His love and walk into the destiny He has for me. This journey is abundant, exciting and outside the box. The Adventist church is a fine vessel from the outside. But in my experience to be confined and defined by it is limiting. I know my identity and who I am in God. I am defined by Him and not the church.

"Storm clouds". The clouds represent church administration—the higher up you go, the harder it gets and the heavier the politics. I feel as though I’m getting smaller and more insignificant. Support systems that seem to be there are really non-existent. It’s a hard journey that has taken me to this realization: I love my church less and I love my God more.

"Men in Suits". My experience as a woman in leadership in the church is of overwhelming “aloneness.” I work in trepidation of what some dominant males in the corporate church will do to me—they are already proving to me that they will. Most males in church employ seem threatened by female co-workers. There are the refreshing exceptions. I have experienced a serious lack of recognition of what I am able to accomplish and what I have already done—but maybe, that’s not gender specific.

"Swimming UPstream". My experience as a woman in leadership in the church is full of highs and lows. Challenging tradition is like swimming upstream. It challenges my confidence, energy and patience. My perspective in a man’s world adds colour to decision making. Helping shape the future of my church is a lonely journey sometimes—I’m glad Jesus understands. Knowing that God loves colourful, creative and enthusiastic women keeps me inspired. I want to make a difference and I celebrate those differences.

"Faceless Woman." While my experience as a woman in leadership in the church has been peppered with moments of deep fulfillment and encouragement, it is sadly being increasingly characterized by a benign attitude of lip service. It is a journey of “not being taken really seriously.” While this attitude is largely covert, is has direct implications on my attitude and has a slow leaching effect on one’s enthusiasm and drive. I have worthwhile ideas to offer the church, not because I’m female, but because I’m a human being who is passionate about her church. At times I feel like those ideas are not acknowledged with the same credibility as they would have been if coming from a man. I am a faceless contributor and see in attitudes a subtle expression that I am like a “child,” having something only superficial, immature, or lacking in theological depth to offer.

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