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International Women’s Day: Let’s Do More Than Just Celebrate

Proposals to advance greater gender equity and equality are often written off by conservatives as a “liberal” thing. But why? Respected scholar makes the case for a broader view on International Women’s Day.

March 8th is the day each year that we celebrate the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women around the world. International Women’s Day is also associated with a call-to-action for individuals, communities, organizations, and countries to hasten efforts around women’s equity and equality. Because of International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month each March, I often hear people mention that March is the time to focus on “women’s topics” and “women’s issues.” Yet, Hillary Clinton’s famous words, spoken decades ago at the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, often come to my mind: “If there is one message that echoes forth from this conference, let it be that human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights, once and for all.” Indeed, women’s rights, topics, and issues are human rights, topics, and issues. So even though March is the month to remember, celebrate, and discuss topics deeply connected to women, it is important to remember that these dialogues impact all of us. And elements of this celebration and call-to-action may look different for women of faith and their faith-based communities. 

Celebration

In terms of celebration, the past quarter-century has brought some social, economic, cultural, and political progress for women around the world. In my two decades of work on global women’s leadership, I have seen women of faith in the Middle East as they have flocked to institutions of higher education to complete certificates and undergraduate and graduate degrees. I have met women of faith from over a dozen African countries who have led economic efforts to empower women through public policy changes related to labor force participation, entrepreneurship, healthcare access, safety and security, and infrastructure challenges. 

I have worked with women of faith from the Asia-Pacific region who have felt compelled to take on country-level cultural change projects. For example, they have led efforts to stop the common practice of men beating their wives with no negative repercussions (Papa New Guinea), decrease the number of parents who sell their daughters to human traffickers (Indonesia), rebuild women’s colleges that were destroyed during war (Afghanistan), and reduce the number of girls and women who are raped (Pakistan). And even though numbers are still low, overall, we have seen some progress in terms of women serving in political positions of influence at local, state, regional, and country levels. On a global scale, there is progress in some areas, but staggering inequities still exist (see the WomanStats Project). The bottom line is that there is much more work to be done. Frankly, to me, the “call-to-action” piece of International Women’s Day is much more important than the celebration. 

Underlying Challenges

To set the stage for a “call-to-action” discussion, let me tell you a little about myself and provide some details about underlying challenges in faith-based settings. I am a woman of faith, which is critical to my identity. In fact, I am a women’s leadership scholar and advocate because I am a woman of faith. I was raised in a traditional, conservative family, where my mother never worked outside the home and where there was a clear divide between the roles of men and women. Yet, I was taught to treat all individuals with compassion, kindness, and love. I was taught that I should try not to judge and that I should serve and respect all people no matter their beliefs and values. These teachings are also common to other Christians and people of other spiritual traditions as well. To me, these beliefs are deeply connected to the themes and efforts of diversity, inclusion, and equity. Yet, we do not often see relevant discussions of any depth occur within many (and some would argue “most”) faith-based communities.   

In my work with women around the world, I have found that most communities of faith steer clear of directly addressing the topics of gender equity or any number of related topics. Why is this the case? I will highlight three reasons that could be a helpful foundation for those interested in engaging in an International Women’s Day call-to-action.

Leaders of various communities of faith often lack an in-depth understanding of how our brains process unconscious bias.

First, the topics of inclusion and equity are still largely viewed as liberal topics instead of conservative or moderate topics. In fact, some believe that these topics have been hijacked by liberals. Yet, based on my upbringing, I believe that we should all love our neighbors as ourselves (see Mark 12:30-31), support efforts that will lift marginalized populations, and create conditions that will encourage justice for all. I think most people of faith would agree, yet there is a critical difference between doing shallow versus deep work in this area. Saying that we love and support all people does not mean that the practices, policies, or systems we utilize are aligned with that statement (words versus actions). In fact, there is often a deep, invisible masculine culture that subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) disadvantages women—even with well-intentioned individuals at the helm.  

Second, leaders of various communities of faith often lack an in-depth understanding of how our brains process unconscious bias. Everything we think and do in life is impacted by the millions of biases our minds have formed throughout our lives—and nearly all are unconscious. Unless each of us does deep work on our own biases, our decisions and actions will reflect those invisible stereotypes that we believe are reality for everyone. Unconscious biases around gender and race, for instance, are constantly present, and these impact nearly all our thoughts and actions in profound ways.  

Finally, researchers have found that women of faith are most often acknowledged in religious settings for their feminine qualities and their work in traditional domains and roles. This includes words that sometimes put them “on a pedestal” for being a mother or applauds them for only certain elements of their full identities. This has been found to potentially disadvantage women in certain ways, particularly in efforts to enhance women’s identity as leaders. It often creates a culture of “covering,” as women only feel comfortable sharing or “uncovering” elements of themselves that align with what they are recognized for being and doing (i.e.,  domestic and traditional female roles). Although these are important elements of many women’s identities, such acknowledgements, although they often come from a place of kindness and concern, can have unintended consequences related to what is called

“benevolent sexism.” In fact, research has found that communities, states, and countries that are more religious have fewer women in political power and wider pay gaps between men and women. 

Call-to-Action

As committed people of faith, I believe there is much we can do to take action that will hasten efforts around women’s equity in ways that align with our spiritual traditions. We have the opportunity to let our religious doctrines, spiritual leanings, and personal beliefs and values propel us forward in new ways that directly align with inclusion, equity, and belonging. Here are four suggestions:

  1. Shift thinking patterns: We can start by abandoning the widely held “zero-sum mentality” that whispers the message that if we lift women, we will take away from men. We can lift girls and women, while also lifting boys, men, families, and communities. It is not “either/or”; it is “and.” The principles of equality, fairness, justice, and inclusion should and must be upheld by all of us.
  2. Learn, grow, and change. By becoming less defensive and more open to learning about diversity, equity, inclusion, sexism, racism, unconscious bias, and related complex concepts, we will in turn become less judgmental, more accepting of other’s differences, and better equipped to develop practices and processes that will bring advantages to everyone. 
  3. Analyze gendered practices. You may have traditional gendered practices in your own life and in your congregations that may disadvantage some members. Many of these remain in place because of traditions and are not necessarily aligned with religious doctrine. 
  4. Participate in and lead efforts to support social change. People of faith can also become powerful advocates for needed societal changes such as decreasing domestic violence, sexual assault, sexual objectification/other body image challenges, eating disorders, sexual harassment, postpartum depression, breast cancer, and the gender pay gap. Efforts could also focus on increasing support for child rearing education, family health issues, mental health services, and women’s representation in government and politics, to name a few.

    The pathway forward will be much brighter if men and women work together to address these challenges.

Conclusion

We are living in an unprecedented era, replete with unique challenges. Yet the pathway forward will be much brighter if men and women work together to address these challenges. Research clearly shows that under diverse leadership, problem solving is better, decision making is richer, and innovation and creativity are expanded, to the benefit of all. I believe it is time for communities of faith to embrace the work of diversity, equity, and inclusion as an integral part of the work they are called to do. Now, more than ever, we also need both men and women of faith to step forward and lead in politics and government; nonprofit and charitable organizations; churches and congregations; schools, colleges, and universities; and in businesses of all sectors, sizes, and scopes. I also believe that God is calling all of us to work and lead in new, inclusive ways that are desperately needed in the world today. Progress toward

gender equity can lift everyone, and if we can truly unleash the positive impact of women of faith in equal partnership with men, miracles will happen. 

This year, as we think about women all over the world on International Women’s Day, let us both celebrate and consider a call-to-action we might be willing to accept. Let us also explore how more women of faith can bring their positive influence and leadership to the world. Honestly, at times it feels like moving mountains to make any progress toward a more equitable society. Yet, as the books of Mark and Matthew both attest, all things are possible with God. 

About the author

Susan Madsen

Susan Madsen is the founding director of the Utah Women & Leadership Project and a professor of leadership at Utah State University. She has published in the Atlantic, New York Times, and many others, and is a sought after speaker. She has a Ph.D in human resource development from the University of Minnesota.
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