On a day when female bishops are denied their desire to serve in the church of England and Aussie businesswoman Carolyn Cresswell takes out the Telstra business woman of the year award, I once again marvel at the irony. Even though I think that in general it is difficult for women to thrive in upper levels of leadership, the church is an institution where this is more difficult. There are so many things that we can do in order to change this reality in the church  and broader context however one simple thing that I think that has been overlooked is that women need to encourage women.  Why is this so important? Here are a few reasons.

Women often reveal an insecurity due to their persistent marginalization

I’ll always remember a meeting that I was at a few years ago. There were leaders from every state in Australia and these weren’t just your ordinary leaders but leaders that were being innovative in their respective areas within the church and outside. We had to go around the table and introduce ourselves and it was interesting to compare the male introductions to the female introductions. The men introduced themselves quite confidently however the women showed insecurity. The men started off speaking with the assumption that it was inevitable that they should be invited to such an illustrious meeting yet the women started off with the assumption that they really must have been invited to the meeting by accident. So the men went straight into their introductions whereas most of the women started off with something like ‘ well I’m not quite sure what I’m doing here’ or jokingly ‘ they must have made a mistake when they asked me to come to this’. Since that meeting I have often noticed that women speak in this way which reveals a kind of insecurity. Of course it could be a sign of humility but I don’t know why women would be more humble than men in general. When Carolyn Cresswell was interviewed this morning she fumbled and stammered when she stated that she had won the business woman of the year award. Don’t get me wrong she comes across as a very confident woman and I’m sure she is. However a lot of women who make it to high levels of leadership and success betray a wonderment at being in their position. I don’t know if many people also discern that insecurity but I have often heard men say that women sometimes sound ‘not as confident’ which leads men to be ambivalent about supporting her or following her as a leader. Sadly I sometimes see this emerging in young women. When they are very young I notice that they have a ‘the world is before me’ attitude to life. Then as they get older and teenage insecurity surfaces, young women begin to hide behind the more vocal men who may also be insecure teens yet the difference is that the culture permits them to thrive whereas it trains women to hide, follow and stop pursuing bold goals. Women can encourage younger women once they discern that inevitable insecurity in order to bring out boldness in these emerging young women. It gives younger women incredible confidence when older women speak words of power into their lives.

Women are sometimes ‘invisible’

Unless there is an intentional strategy in a workplace or a church environment where it is publicly  stated or affirmed that women are equal with men or valued and then these plans are made a reality, women in general become invisible. By that I mean that a women may initially cause some interest in the organization due to skill, talent, intelligence, creativity or even looks, however eventually as patterns settle back into the usual routine it will be men who will be sought for promotions and upper levels of leadership. Usually people say about this observation that it is skill that matters and performance and that if a woman has the talent and resources she can do anything. That is partly true and we see it with the many women who have risen above the culture and have been successful. However this is the exception not the rule and for women to make a greater real impact in churches and other organizations, cultures need to change and this must be an intentional process that a leader of an organization would need to implement. When women come together to encourage one another they become less invisible, more bold and get the courage from those encounters to thrive in their contexts.

Women often need to conform to men’s paradigms in order to succeed

When I watched the movie ‘The Iron Lady the other day I had to laugh at the transformation of Maggie Thatcher. I’m not sure if this is true to reality or not however  there is a scene where two men in the Tory party see potential in Thatcher as a leader of that party. However there are a few problems. One is her voice and another is her hair. Her voice is found to be too ‘screechy’ and her hair is said to be to ‘mumsy’. Men apparently could not cope with her voice and she was trained to lower it so that she sounded more authoritative. Her hair apparently reminded men of their mothers and they could not see her as a leader and so voila, the sculpted Maggie ‘do’ emerges! Even though this probably is not true to what actually happened many women would identify with that tension that they feel in their workplace and especially in church if they are leaders, that they need to accommodate to the male paradigms or culture in existence. This happens in so many ways that sometimes as women we don’t even notice. Sometimes it comes down to what we wear, other times the manner in which  we speak, other times it is about the choices we make regarding our families, sometimes it is about thinking through how to cope and thrive in a paternalistic culture or despite a patronizing male leader in the environment. When women are moulded by men as in the classic tale of Pygmalion, the message sent is that a male paradigm is the only option and so women are rendered powerless. However when women find their identity, comfort and strength in their own gender they are more likely to contribute from a female perspective to our world. The world misses out when its paradigms predominantly come from men. This paradigm shift comes as women connect and affirm each other as women who have something important to contribute to our world as expressed through their gender.

Many environments have a climate of criticism

I am constantly amazed at how encouragement is equated with silliness in some places. Particularly in some fields like academia, it sometimes seems like encouraging someone is a sign of weakness or faulty thinking. In some environments there is a culture of constant critique and especially in the area of academia I understand that. People are taught not to merely accept what they hear but to question everything- I like that! However what would be wrong with a good dose of encouragement working alongside of that? Especially in tough fields like academia and I am sure many others, women need to be encouraged at a job well done so that they pursue their calling. Of course everyone needs to be encouraged without being patronized but women who find it hard to fit into certain male dominated cultures more so I think. Especially if we are working from a Christian paradigm and we model ourselves on a God who is a serious encourager rather than a nit picker, more so do we need to speak life words into each other and regularly.

Do women need more encouragement? I think they do and while it is deeply impactful to have men encouraging us I also think that women need to encourage each other more. There is a rich strength in that. There is a myth in our society that says that women are jealous and competitive of one another however I don’t believe that. I think women want to see women rise up to be successful and be in upper levels of leadership in order our change our world. So today if you can, men and women encourage a woman, particularly a young woman who is hiding her light so that she can be helped to stand strong in the world today and impact its future.