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]

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