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Some Thoughts on Empowering Evangelical Women

By October 19, 20119 Comments

As you can probably tell, it’s been one of those weeks! Sorry I haven’t been on here since last week–life has been busy, but busy with good things.

This week I want to share an interesting tidbit from my academic research that may have implications for evangelical women. I say “may” because more research is needed, but it gives us some really interesting ideas to think about when it comes to empowering evangelical women and raising them up as thinkers and leaders.

In recent months I have studied a phenomenon called stereotype threat. This term refers to the pressure individuals feel in the classroom or workplace due to perceived stereotypes about themselves. For instance, women are sometimes stereotyped as being less capable at math, which can influence the way young girls perform in their math classes. If they believe they are worse at math, they are likely to perform worse regardless of natural ability.

Numerous studies have shown that the simple presence of a stereotype can inhibit academic performance, but it also creates an additional obstacle. If a student or employee anticipates being stereotyped, some will actively try to undermine the stereotype. For example, a businesswoman may fear being perceived as overly emotional by her male colleagues, so she intentionally minimizes her emotions and conducts herself stoically. Unfortunately, the cognitive energy she puts into combating the stereotype also inhibits her performance. Likewise, students who find themselves resisting a stereotype in a classroom setting are less able to learn and engage the subject matter.

It is remarkable and troubling that a stereotype can be so powerful. Fortunately, researchers have also looked into the best methods for breaking the power of stereotype threat, and they have discovered two primary options:

1. An authority figure publicly debunks the stereotype. In a study at Stanford, a group of men and women were administered a math test and their performances were recorded (Spencer and Steele, 1999). Then, the same math test was administered to a different group of men and women, but with one small change. This time, before the students began, the test administrator told the group that there was no previous gender discrepancy in performance on this test.  This simple statement debunking the stereotype about women and math made all the difference. The women in the second group tested better.

2. In-group role models. It is also helpful for victims of stereotype threat to see individuals from their own group (ie. women or minorities) functioning competently outside the stereotype (McIntyre, Paulson, Taylor, Morin and Lord, 2011). Having a talented female math teacher, for instance, can help dispel the myth that women are not good at math.

This research is fascinating, and it has led me to wonder about its application to evangelical women. There are many stereotypes out there about women that are both sociological and psychological, so the cycle can be tough to break. If women believe they are not capable of thinking theologically, or leading and teaching in the church effectively, then that stereotype perpetuates an unfortunate cycle in which women are hesitant to even try.

That said, there are two applications that evangelicals can take from the above research. The first applies to men. In the same way that authority figures have the power to break stereotypes with a simple word, men in the evangelical church have that power as well. That is not to say that women should not also speak out against unbiblical stereotypes, but research seems to indicate that the power group–the group that is stereotyped as being naturally gifted or authoritative in a certain area–has particular influence in this regard. If men were to tell their wives, daughters, mothers, and sisters that women can think theologically, that women should be important voices in the church, and that the church needs the contributions of these women, that message would have a tremendous, positive impact.

I should add that this influence is evident in my own life. I have a strong and brilliant dad who has always been unconditionally supportive. Although both my parents believe in me (sometimes more than they should!) my dad would seriously fight anyone who tried to stand in my way. I am no doubt the woman I am today because my dad wanted a strong daughter.

In short, men, we need you! Challenge your wives and raise strong daughters!

The second application from the above research concerns us ladies. If we want to see younger generations of women pushing themselves and using their gifts for the Kingdom of God, then we need to be doing that ourselves. Change can be slow and discouraging at times, but the more women who are out there studying, growing and leading, the more we can expect younger women to follow our example. Change begins with us.

Scholars are still exploring solutions to stereotype threat, and there are more solutions than I have mentioned here. What I especially appreciate about this research is its helpfulness in separating out truth from cultural constructions. If we are confident that all truth is God’s truth, then these studies are surely an asset to the church. As the data reveals, our assumptions about one another are sometimes based more on society than they are on God’s design for His creation.


  • Tim says:

    “If we are confident that all truth is God’s truth, then these studies are surely an asset to the church.” I hope the church chooses to use this asset as well, Sharon.

    It grieves me that the church often chooses to waste – or perhaps I should say destroy – an even greater asset, and that is the collective gifts and insights that women can bring to understanding God and his Word. I get a lot out of what my wife and other women tell me about scripture, for example, yet there are some who would say that I am not allowed to learn these things because the person I am learning them from is a woman. (Sometimes I am then directed to read the offerings at some website like “The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood” so I can better understand the supposed error of my doctrinal ways. Not that I think the folks there are not pursuing God, but I do think that they are the ones who are in doctrinal error on that point.)

    Thank you for using your gifts and allowing all of us to learn from you and your insights.


  • This is SUCH important information, particularly since the majority of Christian books written on gender nowadays seem to be affirming and extolling stereotypes. I heard Dr. Mimi Haddad speak once, and she mentioned in passing how the Bible doesn’t tend to magnify the differences between men and women–it deals more with the sameness, the oneness, the “flesh of my flesh and bone of my bone” reality of human existence. Why do we glorify the differences, I wonder?

  • Helen Lee says:

    Yes, yes, yes! I completely agree with you: evangelical men, especially those in positions of power and influence, have such tremendous potential to help break stereotypes as they publicly affirm and support the work of their sisters. Some do this, often and regularly, but I find they are in the minority. And as much as I wish it were as simple as more women recognizing their voices and raising their voices more frequently (which is also needed), without the support of our brothers in Christ, our voices can sadly only go so far. Thanks so much for raising these important issues! Critical ones for the church–particularly those with power in the church–to be aware of.

  • amy says:

    I love your call to fathers to raise strong daughters. I, too, have an unconditionally supportive dad who helped me find my voice and that has had such a positive and powerful impact on my life. Great post!

  • Carol says:

    Right on Sharon! I have just finished writing my thesis on women in the Evangelical Free Church. The heritage we have is so rich and deep, yet many do not know about the tremendous contribution women have made in the work of God’s kingdom. Today young evangelical women need to be encouraged-as you say- to think and act theologically. We are to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength. I am committed to encouraging this in my church and family.
    As director of Women in Ministry at my own church I chose the theme Loving God with Your Mind for this year. I hope that this opens a door to this deeper walk with the Lord. We older women need to model boldness with sensitivity, truth with love and commitment with strength.
    Men need not fear strong women. We should be building each other up according to the giftedness that God has endowed. Then we will all be stronger as the body of Christ. Soli Deo gloria!

  • Thank you so much for this. It was a great encouragement to me today. I have passed it along to some of the young male leaders at my church who are on board theologically but not always the strong advocates that they might be. I cannot stress enough how important this article is. This has been at the root of my pushing my church leaders on the issue of women elders and teachers. I ache for the young girls in our midst who are growing up in the evangelical church where the subtle message they are receiving is the insidious belief that they cannot use their full gifts in the church — it isn’t everywhere and it isn’t everyone. But it is there. Men likely have no idea what an important role they have for the next generation of girls and women.

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