Celebrating and Pushing for Women’s Equality and Leadership
On August 26, we have the opportunity to celebrate Women’s Equality Day. While we can applaud the strides women have made, we still have a ways to go.
Women, for the first time in recent history, are the majority of workers and college students in the US. Women go to school, raise families, work and lead in their churches and organizations. Our foremothers, Christian women, were among the activists who helped achieve this parity.
One of our greatest Methodist foremothers was Sojourner Truth, an abolitionist, speaker and advocate for freedom, racial justice and equality. In 1851, she gave an inspiring speech, often dubbed, “Ain’t I a woman?” Truth said:
I am a woman's rights. I have as much muscle as any man, and can do as much work as any man. I have plowed and reaped and husked and chopped and mowed, and can any man do more than that? I have heard much about the sexes being equal. I can carry as much as any man, and can eat as much too, if I can get it. I am as strong as any man that is now.
Truth was one of the early Christian feminists who set the U.S. on a path towards justice, a highlight of which was the passage of the 19th Amendment, a law enacted on August 26, 1920, giving women the right to vote.
We can imagine Truth and the suffragettes would be pleased with the gains towards equality that women have achieved. Yet women are still struggling to seize their rightful place as leaders in private, public and church sectors.
In United Methodist churches, according to statistics on the website for the Commission on the Status and Role of Women, women make up 60 percent of the denomination’s membership, yet “hold one-fifth of the top leadership positions in U.S. annual conferences.”
At the end of 2011, when Virginia Rometty was promoted to the top position at I.B.M., the highest number of Fortune 500 companies ever, was headed by a woman. Out of 500? A whopping 18 are led by women.
We still have a ways to go in the private sector. Government leadership is equally dismal. In the US Senate, 17 out of 100 senators are women. In journalism, my profession, a field that could easily be gender-neutral, men dominate the bylines. At a ratio of more than two to one, the majority of articles in literary magazines, like the New Yorker, are written by men.
The White House Project notes that women make up 22 percent of the leaders in journalism, and 15 percent in religion. While 89 percent of the public is reportedly comfortable with women as leaders (And who, may I ask, are those 11 percent who are not?), only 18 percent of all industries have women at their top. Check out how your industry fares. (PDF)
The Bottom Line
Women’s leadership is good for the bottom line of churches and companies. In corporate settings, companies that embrace female leaders tend to earn more than firms with men at the helm. “Significant studies show that companies with a higher proportion of women on their management committees are also the companies that have the best (financial) performance.” (From the report, Women Matter, put out by the McKinsey Foundation.)
Especially profitable are companies that emphasize creativity and collaboration – key elements for innovation in a digital age. United Methodist Women’s long-standing purpose stands strong: to be an organization that develops leaders through a “creative, supportive fellowship.”
Women lead at all levels of United Methodist Women. Once empowered through the organization, members often go on to share their gifts and lead in settings outside of the church.
As United Methodist Women joins in the nation-wide celebration of our feminist heritage on Women’s Equality Day, we follow in the footsteps of our ancestors such as Sojourner Truth. We must continue to make strides for the women who come after us, to continue the struggle for equality and to advocate for women leaders in all sectors and levels of society.
Mary Beth Coudal is staff writer for United Methodist Women.