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Books for those in ministry organizations who desire to take their leadership, teams, governance, and ministry effectiveness to the next level.

26 Sep '08

Subtle Disempowerment

Contributing Writer
Lindsay Norman, ReachGlobal

I have heard it said, “We want you at the table.” I have heard it said, “Your voice and input are significant here.” I have heard it said, “We can’t move forward here without you.” I have heard it said, “Stick with us Lindsay. You are key to helping us make necessary changes.”

Yet some of those same good-hearted, well-intentioned leaders don’t realize that while their words say one thing, their actions say another. As a female in a ministry setting, I am frequently taken aback with how male leaders in the organization do not see, hear or understand how they subtly disempower women, minorities or young, up and coming leaders.

I recently read an organizational communication piece by a leader in a Christian organization. This leader is a dear friend and advocates hard for minority and women’s voices to be heard in our ministry setting. However, this leader was about to send out a piece of communication that reinforced men as leaders and women as cooks and mom’s, largely significant for the food dishes they prepare for male leaders. With some suggestions by coworkers, changes were made and it read much better. In the initial draft, there was subtle disempowerment.

I have been in situations time after time when I am one of a hand full of females during ministry seminars, meetings and prayer times. As men pray, they pray for all the “guys” in the room. References such as these are often defended by male leaders as references to the whole group. However, in my experience as a woman and in my education in social sciences, I can attest that language supports the kind of culture and ethos that is instilled. If language remains the same, culture remains the same. Every time I am referenced as a “guy,” I feel subtly disempowered.

I have been invited to the table at significant meetings in my organization. Many times I am the only one, or one in a handful of women, who can speak into issues. However, I often feel guilty if I speak too much or offer too strong of an opinion. Here are the words of another young, female leader from a Christian organization: “There needs to be freedom for women to be the dominant voice and/or face in a meeting. That experience is very rare in our culture. More often we are strong influencers, before and after the meeting, but rarely at the table itself.” When I feel guilty for being a dominant voice, when I feel pressure to give input before or after a meeting instead of in the meeting itself, I feel subtly disempowered.

This post is not meant to put down men (since I know the audience on this blog is largely male J), but to educate, inform and remind people of the subtle ways sexism (and racism as well) can be embedded in our culture, attitudes and organizations. I am, once again, deeply grateful for T.J. Addington who cares about my voice, deems it significant and allows me to use it to reinforce positive change.