Leading Like A Woman, Church of England Newspaper article, July 2017

by Jody Stowell

I recently heard someone say that they had never met a woman who could lead a church (cue an interesting conversation…)

It made me realise that this view is probably as much a part of the conversation on the ordination of women, as whether women ‘should’ lead a church. And this view is why women who lead churches have an extra layer of hard work to do.

It is true that some of the most frustrating comments I’ve heard about why someone doesn’t think women should be priests are more about peripheral fripperies or personal preferences, than theology. I have heard that our voices are annoying, we wear dangly earrings that are distracting, we are not authoritative enough, we are too bossy (authoritative?). And according to a recent blog (though not from an anti WO perspective), women even look ‘more’ silly than men when wearing a mitre.

The truth of course is this: that women lead in as many myriad ways as there are number of women leading. That for every crumpled checked shirt or T-shirt that a male Vicar is wearing, there is a blouse or dress that will annoy you. For every man who is bad at pastoral visiting there is a woman who prefers preaching too. And for every woman who wears her pastoral heart on her sleeve, there is a man who blubs at the drop of a hat. Gender is much less likely to affect the way we lead than our upbringing, our social experiences, our class, our education.

In fact evidence suggests that the most significant impact on the person we turn out to be, is our sibling position – whether we are only child, eldest, middle child or the ‘baby’. This may be a more helpful conversation at interview than whether you are planning on having any more children (an illegal question that women are still asked)

Am I suggesting that gender has no bearing on our particular style of leadership? Well, no, but perhaps not in the way you think. The stereotype that is often heard is that women will be more pastoral. We are envisaged to be ‘softer’ and so there are many projections about how much pastoral visiting we will do, what kind of authority we will have and whether we’ll be able to bring vision and lead.

The reality that I have found (and other women will have found different realities, because as I’ve mentioned, we’re not a monolithic group), regarding the way in which being a woman affects my leading, is that I ‘notice’ stuff.

I notice when I’m the only female voice in the room, I notice when I’m the only woman speaking at an event, I notice when there is no voice from a BAME background, or other lack of diversity, I notice when it is the women clergy who tidy up after a deanery lunch, I notice when something I say is dismissed only to be said again later by a man – and accepted, I notice when my opinion is grating – and wonder if I should try to say it in a ‘more acceptable’ way knowing that a man wouldn’t have that inner monologue, I notice when others are talked over, silent or invisible in a conversation.

Leading like a woman is often about having a set of ‘lenses’ which others don’t have, yes, because I’m a woman. Because I’ve had particular experiences. It is less about what I wear, the tone of my voice and the type of authority I inhabit.

Leading women will often be a jarring note, where the focus of a church community has been towards those with most visibility in our world.

She is a symbol for those with less visibility, she annoys us because her very presence is a question to our status quo.