A group of professors at Biola University recently released a report called “Women Faculty at an Evangelical University: The Paradox of Religiously Driven Gender Inequalities and High Job Satisfaction.” The report shows that women faculty at an evangelical college face “benevolent sexism,” resulting in fewer opportunities for advancement than their male colleagues, yet overall, they report higher job satisfaction than women at a secular research university in the same region. The authors conclude this “paradox” results from the evangelical institution’s relational emphasis, which provides women with high job satisfaction, even though their career advancement is limited by a variety of factors.
In an interview with Christianity Today, the researchers reported that “Many women faculty … reported feeling undermined at work by implicit assumptions that they should be home with their children, or that the qualities that are valued in academia—intelligence, assertiveness, and confidence—are not traits appropriate for Christian women.”
Further, evangelical ideas about appropriate relationships between women and men limit the transfer of information about opportunities. According to the authors, “women faculty at this university are being excluded from important job-related information because of their exclusion from male social groups.”
This is at least in part because “Personal choices with regards to sexual ethics are seen as of particular importance in the evangelical subculture … guarding against sexual temptation seems to trump concerns about any gender inequality that results from avoiding too much contact with the opposite sex at work.”
Ultimately, this problem arises because “we are not taught how to have appropriate professional relationships with the opposite sex.” Women in the study reported observing “male colleagues going out together for coffee or meals, or seeing the male chair of department invite a young male colleague out. These descriptions suggest that the males do, in fact, have great access to opportunities for socialization.”
Further contributing to this pattern is “a dominant theology of gender hierarchy in evangelicalism, which does not necessitate, but in practice results in, limiting the professional advancement of women.”
But despite experiencing “benevolent sexism,” women at the evangelical school “paradoxically” reported higher job satisfaction than women at the secular university. This is probably explained by the fact that “close, warm, personal relationships with students and colleagues are one of the primary reasons these faculty chose to work at an evangelical institution as opposed to a secular university.”
This news is disappointing but unsurprising, and it probably reflects a general trend among evangelical colleges beyond just this particular case study. Sexism is wrong no matter what adjective you put in front of it. But because this “benevolent sexism” results from relational patterns, assumptions about gender roles, and theological beliefs often expressed in “informal information sharing networks,” it is difficult and probably unhelpful to prescribe a solution. It is an issue to be aware of, but perhaps one that must be resolved with time as the number of women in academics increases and shifts the relational dynamics and assumptions at evangelical colleges.