Where are all the women?


I was recently the respondent to a presentation by Dr Mathew Guest of the findings of his recent co-authored report (with Sonya Sharma and Robert Song) on gender and career progression in Theology and Religious Studies departments in the UK (Spoiler: it’s not good); he asked me to make my response available online, and so I’m posting it here in the hope that it might spark some useful discussions.

The presentation I was responding to was at the 2014 meeting of the Society for the Study of Theology in Durham, UK. I was asked to be the respondent at the last minute, the day before the seminar, because when the programme was released, Kate Tomas pointed out that the session looked like this:


So I was there as a token woman: not because I was particularly qualified to talk about the issues, but as a less-than-ideal attempt to solve a problem that wasn’t even noticed by any of the conference organisers until someone else pointed it out to them. It turns out that the question of women and our absence from the academy is a problem at conferences, too. And it wasn’t just this particular session. A brief and not-very-scientific survey of the gender of presenters at the conference suggested that the ratios were roughly as follows: short paper presenters were 75% men and 25% women; plenary paper presenters were 80% men and 20% women. This is, impressively, even worse than the ratios of men to women in theology and religious studies in the UK more generally, where 40% of postgraduates are women, dropping to 29% of academic staff (37% of early career academics and lecturers, 34% of senior lecturers, and only 16% of professors). It’s really something for representation of women at conferences to be worse than representation of women in postgraduate and staff positions within the discipline. Why might this be?

It’s probably in part because the focus of SST is systematic theology. I don’t have the numbers, but I’m happy to go out on a limb and suggest that systematic theology tends to be where theology and religious studies is at its most kyriarchal – in part because of its deep links to the church, and in part because of the pernicious distinction we have somehow started making between ‘systematic’ and ‘contextual’ theology. This means that systematic theologians find it all too easy to dismiss questions of gender (not to mention race, class, sexuality, colonialism, and so on and so on) as somebody else’s problem.

And there is another problem with Christian academic culture: its tendency to value niceness and getting along, which in turn tends to privilege people who are happy with the way things are. It’s easy to be nice if the existing order of things is designed to make life easy for you. It’s easy to be polite and gentle in conversation when it is not your survival or your sense of self that is at stake. The report quotes Sara Ahmed, and I think what she says is worth repeating here:

To be recognised as a feminist is to be assigned to a difficult category and a category of difficulty. You are “already read” as “not easy to get along with” when you name yourself as a feminist. You have to show you are not difficult through displaying signs of good will and happiness.

I have often felt that subtle pressure to play nice in both academic and Christian contexts; and I have felt it at SST specifically. If we actually care about change, we have to realise that all of us, as individuals as well as institutions, are formed by a culture that is not only male-dominated but deeply patriarchal. And we also have to realise that many of us, whether we realise it or not, have a very deep investment in maintaining the status quo. We are all complicit, and the more we cling to our desire for innocence, our need to be the good guys, the harder it is to confront and to begin to pick apart that investment. What would it mean to take seriously both our own entanglement and also the complicity of Christian theology and culture in the ongoing exclusion of women?

Finally, I don’t think we can talk about gender in academic contexts without also talking about the other forms of oppression that gender intersects with; and we can’t talk about those without talking about academia more broadly. No one with any experience of the academic job market at the moment needs to be told that it is bad. Jobs are increasingly scarce and increasingly precarious, and although it’s bad for everyone, it is worse for those who are already struggling in a culture which is inhospitable to us. It is worse for women; but it is also worse for people of colour, for queer people, for trans people, for working class people, for disabled people (to name but a few of the many struggles going on). And the more of those intersecting oppressions a person is dealing with, the harder it is to survive, let alone to make it up the career ladder. So if we want to talk about gender and the academy, we also need to talk about broader questions about the way that academic work and academic labour are changing, and the way that historically oppressive structures are increasingly joined by new sorts of oppression, by the erosion of pay and security and academic freedom. What sort of university would be better for women, and for everybody else as well, and how do we get there?

2 thoughts on “Where are all the women?

  1. Marika, thank you for sharing this. I’m sorry I wasn’t able to be present to take part in the discussions in person. I wanted to respond – as the person who convened the seminar and as a current SST committee member – to share how we’re trying to implement some of the much-needed changes the report identifies, and how the session you discuss came about. My response turned into something much too long to be a comment here – but please see my blog post at http://susannahcornwall.blogspot.co.uk/2014/06/gender-and-diversity-at-society-for.html

  2. Marika, thanks for sharing this. I hope it will open up a good conversation, not just among women and those who were present at the SST session. Most of what you say is so obviously right that I think no further comment is necessary. I wonder, though, if further thought would be helpful about the fact that both presenters planned for that session were men. First, I agree that it would have been much better if Sonya could have been there as well. And given that she couldn’t be, it would have been better if a respondent had been invited with particular expertise without the sense that she was invited as a ‘token’.But I hope your comments don’t imply any unhappiness that two male researchers should present their own findings, whatever the topinc. Having said that, I think the fact that two male researchers find this important enough to have engaged in the study is significant. I was also heartened that there were at least a few men who chose to attend the session, and I hope that signals the possibility that the concerns of feminism (as well as other issues you named) can be heard more broadly. I think it’s really important to acknowledge the need for men as well as women to recognise the structural problems if we are to see any change. It would be a deep irony as well as unjust if those of us who care deeply about these issues are sexist in our treatment of our male colleagues.

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