Taking a seat at the table marks a breakthrough moment especially if you’re the first woman to be there. Believing you belong at the table is a huge step forward, in any workplace.
But what happens next?
Issues Sheryl Sandberg poses in her book about what it means to Lean In at the table carry deeper implications and raise more unsettling questions for the Christian community—especially when the proverbial “table” in question is housed in a church or Christian ministry organization.
Discussions about women in leadership often leave the impression that breaking through that glass or stained glass ceiling—just getting a woman to the table—is the ultimate goal and the solution to the “gender problem.” Open the door to a woman. Fist bump! “Gender problem solved.”
It’s easy for both men and women to assume that’s all it takes. If only it were that easy!
Adding a woman is an important advance for women. Significant as that is, however, we’re missing something vitally important if we don’t have a greater vision for opening doors than simply to do it for women.
If we stop there, we haven’t gone nearly far enough.
The truth is I keep hearing stories of casualties and setbacks because deeper issues aren’t addressed inside that door. New problems surface that blindside both women and men.
One of the most common mistakes is when men carry on with business as usual after adding a woman to the team. They talk over her in meetings (as they often do with each other). Her ideas are sometimes overlooked and only gain merit if and when a man repeats them as his own. The men have private sometimes impromptu meetings as before, network on the golf course, and make decisions that impact but exclude her. Sometimes in meetings she has trouble fighting back the tears, which we’re told is an absolute “no-no”, although afterwards it’s not unheard of for one of the men at the table to confide to his teary colleague that he knows exactly how she feels. She exists outside their all-male network and feels less valued, marginalized, and increasingly frustrated.
Men think she’s just impossible to please.
By adding a woman, the whole team has a marvelous opportunity to discover a whole new way of working that yields better decisions and strengthens the team, if they are willing to make the effort, learn to value, listen, and learn from one another, and live out the gospel around that table. That’s what this change requires. That table presents the context in which the men discover they actually need her to be there with her ideas, honest feedback, and initiatives—that offering a seat to her was as much for them as it was for her.
Getting to that point of discovery can be challenging, even messy. There’s a learning curve to this for everyone at the table. But if the strategy God unveiled in Genesis 1 for his male and female image bearers to do his work on earth is truly the way things are meant to work best, the effort will be well worth it for everyone—resulting in detecting blind spots, making better decisions, and both men and women being able to rattle off ways they’ve changed for the better by working together.
It should not go unnoticed that the central image we’re discussing is a table—an object that for those who follow Jesus carries profound and sacred significance. Jesus’ table is a place of welcome and belonging, where divisions cease and oneness flourishes. His table reminds us that Jesus calls us to lean in to a different way of living that is nothing like the way we’ve always done things.
A Blessed Alliance between his sons and daughters may make us uncomfortable at first. It takes hard work, humility, and sacrifice. But without it everyone loses. We become less than we were created to be. The Blessed Alliance brings out the best in women and men. And when that happens, God smiles and the world can see hard evidence that Jesus has come.
The transformation required to recover that Blessed male/female Alliance takes more than making space for another chair at the table. But it must begin there.
So what does happen after you sit at the table?
You learn to play golf.
Seriously, I don't know what you do about the golf problem, which hits non-golf-playing men as well. I know a church where many important discussions among the leadership took place on the golf course — and anyone who did not play golf (which happened to be all the women) was excluded. I also have one brother whose (secular) job requires interfacing with others on the golf course; fortunately, he loves the game.
I have a particular problem with a golf culture in churches because it suggests a “country club mentality.” That may be unreasonable prejudice on my part, but I'm not the only one to whom it makes that suggestion.
It's not always golf: I know another company where the key to advancement was going out drinking with the right people after work. That's not good for men either, but I can see how women — especially mothers — would have a very hard time fitting in with that culture.
So what's the solution? It has to be at least as bad in the world as in the church. How have women overcome the apparent requirement for overtime activities that are expensive and unrelated to the work itself?
I am very grateful that my pastor (and two associates) have given me a place at the staff table. We are attempting to function as a Blessed Alliance. As such I think that we have come up with better ideas and strategies because we have different voices (not only gender but personality, gifting and interests). It is not perfect but we are all trying hard.
Linda, your comments underscore the fact that when someone new joins the table—a woman, non-golfer, someone who can't afford the established networking venue in a particular work place, or who makes a bee-line home to family after work—other changes are required to include and benefit from what that person will contribute.
Eva, your story is what we long to hear. Not that things are perfect, but that there's an intentional effort to collaborate and that you're already seeing how things can change for the better.
What a thought, Carolyn: to be so valued at the table that others will bend their culture to make sure your input is fully included. It made me realize how much women (and others who don't fit the mold) are merely tolerated, forced to conform to the status quo culture. In the process, surely some of the value of our perspectives and experience is lost.