Jesus Creed

Jesus Creed

Why So Few? (RJS)

There are many reasons why women are underrepresented in a variety of fields – from ministry, theology, and evangelicals and the early church,, to science and engineering. While men and women often have different goals, values and abilities, these factors alone are not enough to account for the differences, or for the hurdles perceived by women who aspire to positions in these fields.

The AAUW recently put out a study Why So Few? exploring reasons for the lack of women in STEM fields (STEM = science, technology, engineering, and mathematics).This study pointed to a few factors that will apply to women in ministry or any other male dominated field. These factors include stereotype threat, self assessment, external perception, competence evaluation, and the perception of learned vs. inate skills. There is much in this report – but I will consider only a few issues.


What role do you think these factors might play in our church? In the acceptance of women as scholars and teachers within evangelicalism?

Stereotype threat arises in situations where a negative stereotype is relevant to evaluating performance. It was first identified for minority students, specifically African American students, and academic performance, but also applies to a female student taking a math or science test There is an extra cognitive and emotional burden of worry related to the stereotype that women are
not good at math.

In one of the earliest experiments looking specifically at women, Spencer et al. (1999) recruited 30 female and 24 male first-year University of Michigan psychology students with strong math backgrounds and similar math abilities as measured by grades and test scores. All students strongly identified with math. The students were divided into two groups, and the researchers administered a math test on computers using items from the math section of the Graduate Record Exam. One group was told that men performed better than women on the test (the threat condition), and the other group was told that there were no gender differences in test performance (the nonthreat condition). (p. 39)


Under the threat condition men averaged 25 while women averaged 5 on the test. Under the neutral nonthreat condition men averaged 19 and women averaged 17 on the test. This trend has been confirmed other studies. Under this threat condition men did better and women did (much) worse.

Self assessment is another interesting factor – in a study measuring a fictious ability subjects were divided into two groups. One group was told that there was a male advantage (MA) in this ability and the other group was led to believe that it was gender dissociated (GD) – men and women show comparable ability. Every subject received exactly the same score on the test – but when the ability was “MA” men thought a score of 79 was excellent, while women felt they need to score 89 to show excellence. When the ability was “GD” both men and women thought that ca. 83 was excellent. If an ability is expected to have a male advantage men will set a lower bar for themselves and women will set a higher bar for themselves.


Although it is possible to attribute this trend to a psychological stumbling block in women – it is also possible that it reflects a learned reality. In order to be judged as equally competent women have learned that they must perform better. This is because of another social factor that plays into the picture – implicit bias and workplace bias. Implicit bias is a problem even when people view themselves as unbiased and equal opportunity. One study looked at the way people evaluated two male (one a constant control) and one female professional in a stereotypically male profession (p. 83-84). If the subjects were told that both candidates were successful they rated male and female professionals as equally competent (men 8.2, women 8.0 on a 9 point scale). If they were given an ambiguous message and asked to evaluate the candidates, the woman was rated significantly less competent than the man (men 7.1; women 5.5). This is only the start though – when performance was ambiguous both male and female candidates were rated as “likable,” but …


but when success was clear, participants overwhelmingly indicated that the man was more likable than the woman, with 19 of the 23 subjects choosing the successful man as more likable than the successful woman. Additionally, the woman was rated significantly more interpersonally hostile than the man when she was described as clearly successful, but the woman was rated significantly less interpersonally hostile than the man when performance was unclear.

The successful men rated 7.1 and successful women 5.5 on a 9 point “likability” scale; the employees with ambiguous performance rated 6.9 (women) and 6.8 (men). Women were viewed as equally competent but less likable or equally likable but less competent.


(Now I know why I like the blog format – I can be competent without worrying about likability.)


Although these studies looked at STEM fields and skills, I expect that there are similar factors at play within the evangelical academy and the church – even in groups that support the idea of women in ministry. The last study – looking at competence and likability is particularly pertinent. Church ministry is a field where likability and perceived competence are both essential.


There is much more to consider here – but this is enough for now. What do you think?

Do these claims surprise you? Do you think they ring true – or not? Do you think they play a role within our church?

If you wish to contact me directly, you may do so at rjs4mail[at]

Comments read comments(17)
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posted April 1, 2010 at 7:27 am

This is purely anecdotal, but it might add some data to the discussion.
My friend is from an all girls school in Germany. In her cohort, there was the usual % split of students accross all subjects (say arts v sciences). However, at nearby Co-ed schools, while the same % of students seemed to be spread accross these subjects (relative to other subjects), the gender proportions in the technical subjects heavily favoured boys over girls (more boys did technical subjects, more girls did arts subjects).
So when girls study without boys, does this mean they feel more comfortable in the subjects traditionally attributed to boys? Or is something more complex at play? for example, do teachers, in a girls only environment, encourage girls to take the technical classes more, because they only have girls to teach, and can’t rely on their classes being taken up by boys?

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J. K. Gayle

posted April 1, 2010 at 7:29 am

Thanks for making the connections between the AAUW’s compelling findings in “Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics” and what may be going on in the church. Undoubtedly, there’s “learned reality” and “implicit bias” as there is “workplace bias.” Any wonder that Jesus had to confront such stuff by saying (maybe admitting his bias – as in Mt. 15:28) – “Dear woman your faith is great. Your request is granted.”

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Michael W. Kruse

posted April 1, 2010 at 7:54 am

I think one thing at work here is career path assessment an individual makes. I think one of the factors we consider about a business or an entire profession is asking ourselves if we “fit in” with that community. A self-fulfilling prophecy sets in that has “chicken or the egg” feel. The primary way to get women into science is to have an atmospheres where a woman looks at the environment and says that would be a welcoming place. But the primary way to have a welcoming place is for a woman to see there are others like her already present in the environment. The inability to recruit qualified women feeds the view there are fewer women who would be interested (and the various theories that explain the difference) and the absence of women feeds the reaction among women that they would be happier elsewhere. Only those who are truly passionate about the work are going to make the leap.
I think the same is true in many Evangelical circles as well.

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posted April 1, 2010 at 8:43 am

The career path assessment though is fed in part by these issues in youth. In STEM there are influence from the general culture and influences from the classroom setting that feed into this assessment.
In church settings there are some influences from the general culture – but then youth group influences that recognize “potential leadership” in boys, play up superiority (often in subtle ways), and discourage girls from exhibiting or cultivating the same God-given abilities.

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posted April 1, 2010 at 9:11 am

I just recently started following your blog a few weeks ago after reading the blue parakeet. I am a woman in ministry and from my experience the self-assessment part rings the most true to me.
This quote ” If an ability is expected to have a male advantage men will set a lower bar for themselves and women will set a higher bar for themselves” simply made my jaw drop… I do think this happens, not all the time, but for me- YES!
I am not quite sure what to do about this, but just want to say thanks for getting us thinking. It is freeing to me to remember that even if there are social/church/cultural systems that tell me there is a male advantage, the truth is that the only advantage we ALL have comes through Christ and his spirit living inside of us. This is the same spirit in men and women.

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Laura Flanders

posted April 1, 2010 at 9:40 am

Do these claims surprise you? Do you think they ring true – or not? Do you think they play a role within our church?
My answers: No, not at all. Yes. Yes, and in the seminary setting as well.
I was in church ministry, with my husband, for 23 years. I now serve as an adjunct in a seminary. My husband is in nonprofit work in the city. I have strong leadership skills that my egalitarian husband loved, but my church denomonation, not so much. That is one reason, of many, we no longer serve as pastors in a church.
My biggest takeaway is the same as Traci’s above. I highly relate to the quote she does: “If an ability is expected to have a male advantage men will set a lower bar for themselves and women will set a higher bar for themselves.”
I was with a group of 45-55 year old evangelical women leaders (most not pastors)in a social setting. Some of us expressed that we are getting tired. I think it is because we have consistently “set a higher bar” for ourselves. And yet, for many of us, we are still not invited to sit around the table. I’m about 50. I work in a great place where women are encouraged and trained. Yet we still have to deal with stereotypes. And to be honest, it’s exhausting me.

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John D'Elia

posted April 1, 2010 at 11:13 am

I went to Fuller Seminary during an era when there were still heated debates there about the role of women in church leadership. Fuller represented a pretty unique mix back then of being conservative in theology but progressive in practice. That meant that there were a lot of male students who didn?t think that the women should train there. It also meant that a lot of the women who did come to seminary had to struggle for acceptance either from their churches or their fellow students. The president of the seminary used to say that everyone who came to Fuller came over someone else?s objections. That was certainly true for most of the women I knew.
But it led to a different kind of inequality back then. Guys could decide to go to seminary and no one would bat an eye. If they said they wanted to go, their churches would usually send them. But in a lot of traditions, when a woman said she wanted to go to seminary and into ministry, she had to prove herself to her church and to everyone else.
Here?s the inequality that led to. I knew a lot of guys in seminary who were destined to be average or below average ministers, and some of them didn?t belong there at all. But the women I knew during those years were some of the most intelligent, dynamic, effective minister-leaders I?ve ever seen. When I taught preaching at Fuller, the women students regularly did better than the guys?they?d overcome too much not to do their very best work.
That’s pretty anecdotal, I know, but it was the first thing I thought of as I read this post.

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posted April 1, 2010 at 11:26 am

Does anybody know if this study included what happens when there is a Female Advantage? I noticed that all the studies where Male Advantage vs. Neutral. I wonder if men tend to take more “advantage” of Male Advantage or not, i.e. if the magnitude of the difference between MA and Neutral would be the same as FA and Neutral.

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Michael W. Kruse

posted April 1, 2010 at 12:24 pm

RJS #4
I didn’t mean to suggest that what I was describing explains everything but I do question to some degree how much of the education program steers girls away from science and math in 2010. Most of the evidence I’m hearing comes from women who are our age … late 40’s and older … about their experiences. Has anything changed? From 2009 SAT report from the College Board come these observations:
1. The average number of years of math study for boys and girls in high school is almost identical: 3.9 years for boys and 3.8 years for girls.
2. The average number of years of science study for girls (3.5 years) in high school is almost the same as for boys (3.6 years).
3. High school girls had exactly the same math GPA as boys of 3.14, and a slightly higher average GPA for science (3.27) than boys (3.23).
4. More girls take biology and chemistry (55%) in high school than boys (45%), i.e. 122 girls per 100 boys.
5. There are 127 girls taking high school AP/Honors science classes for every 100 boys.
6. For high school students reporting more than four years of math study, the percentages are equal by gender: 50% of boys and 50% of girls take more than four years of math.
7. Both 50% of boys and 50% of girls in high school report that calculus is the highest level of high school mathematics taken.
8. More high school girls than boys took AP Honors math courses, by a ratio of 117 girls for every 100 boys.
I perceive that educational steering has become less of a factor and the sociological dynamics of overcoming historically entrenched patterns is the becoming the more significant obstacle.

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posted April 1, 2010 at 12:49 pm

The report agrees with you – and I didn’t say anything about steering in this particular post. The problem is not really explicit bias or steering for the most part. It is far more subtle and insidious. These studies are all from the late 90’s (97-99) and the 2000’s – this isn’t old data.
In fact one of the interesting factors is why grades and rates are similar – but test scores and follow through are not. I don’t think it will ever be 50-50, because of family, child-rearing issues. But the issues described in the report are another real and unnecessary obstacle.

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James-Michael Smith

posted April 1, 2010 at 1:50 pm

Check out this post by my friend (and up-and-coming NT scholar!) Carmen Imes on this very topic:

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posted April 1, 2010 at 3:23 pm

I am a little afraid to comment, lest i am considered a complainer. But, i feel the pressure to prove myself and it leaves me with significant amounts of anxiety that have to be surrendered daily to God. the jobs in ministry for women are less desireable, have fewer resources to work with and are often short on mentors. Success is more difficult and proving oneself more difficult.

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Your Name

posted April 1, 2010 at 3:25 pm

I resonate greatly with this post.
In response to your queries: Do these claims surprise you? Do you think they ring true – or not? Do you think they play a role within our church?
These claims don?t surprise me a bit- they absolutely ring true. Sadly, they do play a role within our church and para-church ministries. In fact, within those groups, there are even more ?psychological stumbling blocks? than you have mentioned aside from the very obvious ones that you pointed out (e.g. women needing to ?set the bar higher for themselves?; and women having concerns about the perceptions of others with regard to the relationship between their ?likeability? and their success?) I can think of another glaring one?appearance.
I wrote about this and my experience in seminary recently here:

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Justin Topp

posted April 1, 2010 at 4:13 pm

good post RJS. as a science professor, i think (or hope) that the best thing that i can do is to actually forget about the sex of my students. i treat everyone the same and really don’t even realize that, hey, all of my TAs are female… or 3 out of my 4 research students are female too. i guess i do my best to both treat female and male the sane AND remind the female student that she has what it takes. but the positive role models that exist (including my postdoc mentor) are certainly essential in paving the way for the future.

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posted April 1, 2010 at 7:04 pm

I rather expect there is female advantage in places – although our culture probably minimizes this.
Most of the studies here will also show significant effects for minority groups – any place where there is a negative stereotype. I expect minority could be defined by poverty or class, not just by race and similar effects will be observed. These stereotypes become self-fulfilling. None of us are isolated from our surroundings.
This isn’t to deny very real differences in individual abilities, just a realization that these abilities are not tightly attached to gender, race, or class as a matter of ontology.

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Julie Clawson

posted April 1, 2010 at 10:53 pm

I do have to wonder with Michael Kruse if things are changing. I’ve read reports that say things are equalizing for younger students. But the fact remains, that most women I know have had to deal with being told at some point in their life that they couldn’t or shouldn’t do something because they are a woman. Hearing that message even once is demoralizing, and makes us have to decide if it is worth our energy to fight for something guys can just waltz into. So even if the classes are equalizing out, there are still girls who are having to fight harder for that than the guys. I think its great that things like calculus classes are more equal. When I was in AP calculus, there were 4 girls in the class. The teacher refused to acknowledge us, never answered our questions, and wasn’t quiet about how he didn’t think we should be in his class. I was good at calculus, but not better that the smartest guys in the class (though I was close) – so I was a worthless seatwarmer to him. I was great at math, and loved science, but had zero desire to be a part of that world (I also loved the humanities more). What women face is always a harder struggle than what most guys deal with. What really gets me is the guys that then think it is unfair to men to given women a break and reduce that struggle…

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posted April 2, 2010 at 2:15 pm

Thanks Julie and others… It’s harder if a different way I think. The struggle is often wondering if it is my own fault or something I did or something I lack that is why there is unwelcome or dissmissiveness or discounting. The message that is hard to fight is that somehow I need to fix myself to I can compete.
It’s hard to separate or distinguish what is really sexism and what I need to change or where I need to grow. Some things arn’t about me but the way things are. It’s very messy, that’s what makes it so difficult.

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