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Mind The Gap

More women than men tend to be involved in volunteering, church activities and school programs. So what?

Gender roles — the concept of how men and women differ (beyond the obvious biology, that is) and, concomitantly, what their roles in church life, the office, and the home should be — have been debated for decades by Christians and non-Christians alike.

But when we talk about gender and leadership, we may have been leaving out one crucial fact of contemporary life: Regardless of what we say we think about women and leadership, when it comes to college-aged and 20-somethings, women are leading in all sorts of areas.

Let me offer two examples — one anecdotal and one backed up by hard research.

The Female Faithful

The anecdotal example comes from just about every church I’ve visited in the last year. Ask church staff, especially staff in charge of young adult ministries, who steps up to the plate when something needs doing, and you are likely to get the answer, “women.”

“I have a really hard time recruiting male volunteers to do anything in church,” said a male friend of mine who is a paid staff person at a large suburban church. “Men will show up for events, but when it comes to any of the work of actually putting the event together, be it publicity or setting up chairs, the men won’t budge.”

Another minister told me that she and her colleagues have a hard time finding men to lead small groups or Bible studies. At an Anglican church I attended recently, the rector mentioned that almost all the people who volunteer to serve communion or read Scripture in the service are women.

What’s going on? A generation ago, it might have been taken for granted that women did more of the volunteering in church, because women did most of the volunteering in society, period. Middle-class and wealthy women who did not hold paying jobs often made a career of volunteering. (My mother was, for a season, one such woman; in fact, she went into labor with me just two hours after making a big presentation at the monthly Junior League meeting.) Plus, then as now, women outnumbered men in the churches.

But that snapshot of the past doesn’t explain what’s going on today, because many of the women volunteering in churches aren’t professional volunteers. They are young women holding down demanding jobs in the worlds of finance, law, teaching, medicine, and non-profit service, or they are busy college students carrying full course-loads — and still they make time to serve their church.

“What’s going on here,” one of my friends tells me, “is not just volunteering or service, but real lay leadership. I’m thrilled to have so many active, vibrant women working with me, but I do wonder why the guys are so slack — why men who regularly attend Sunday worship and come to all our single’s group social events can never be counted on to help out with anything. And I probably perpetuate things, because now, when I really need something done, I often don’t even think to ask any guys. I go to the women who I know can get things done.”

Well, that’s my anecdote. Now for the hard research.

The Games They Play

It’s not just in the ranks of church volunteers that women are outshining men. According to a recent cover story in The Chronicle of Higher Education, women are outpacing men on college campuses, too.”The New Gender Divide” by Robin Wilson, The Chronicle of Higher Education (January 26, 2007). More women than men are attending college, and once they get there, women get better grades and devote more time to civic activities and serving in leadership positions in campus organizations. At graduation time, women also bring home more awards and honors than men.

What are the guys doing while women are studying, running the sorority charity drive, leading a Bible study and heading up the school debate team? Playing Lost Planet and The Legend of Zelda. Seriously. According to the Chronicle article, that’s one area in which male students do significantly best women: Men devote far more time than women to playing computer games. Men also exercise more and watch more TV, and are more likely to oversleep and miss class.


Is the Gender Gap Good News?

I wasn’t terribly surprised when I first read the Chronicle article — it confirmed my own sense of how things were when I was in college a decade ago, and it confirmed my sense of how things are at the college where I teach.

I found the article to be both encouraging and depressing: I think it’s good news for women, who, studies show, were being edged out by men in college classrooms as recently as 15 years ago. And I think it’s good news that female high school students are excelling, taking college prep classes, going to college and doing well once they get there.

But it’s not such great news for society that so many in college take video games more seriously than studying.

Experts have been scratching their heads about this trend, but no one seems to have any solutions. Should colleges accept male students with lower GPAs, with the aim of having a student body that is roughly half men and half women? Should classroom standards be radically retooled and made more “boy friendly”? For example, should teachers accommodate students’ differing learning styles by no longer asking them to sit still?

(Again, I’m not making this up. As strange as it may sound, a colleague recently suggested to me, in all seriousness, that the real problems begin in the fourth and fifth grade when boys were forced to “act like girls” by sitting still to learn.)

I was discussing the college gender gap with a group of honors college students at a Christian college a few weeks ago (and, notably, this honors class had far more female students than males). The students agreed that student leaders on campus tended to be women, and that women applied themselves more enthusiastically to their studies.

“You know what’s really lousy about this?” said one gal. “There’s no one to date. I mean, I want to date someone who is my equal, who challenges me, and who likes to spend his time doing some of the same things I do. I want to date someone who values the same things I value.”

So maybe that’s the way to get men to take their studies more seriously — by pointing out that if they don’t, they’ll have a hard time catching the eye of an accomplished and interesting woman.

The Bottom Line

Are the two trends — the slack computer-gaming of male college students, and the seeming dearth of male volunteer leaders at churches — related?

I’m guessing they are. After all, college is a formative period, and (as your parents are endlessly telling you) “the habits you establish now will be with you for a lifetime.”

So, if more women are getting into the habit of working hard, volunteering and leading civic activities, and more men are getting into the habit of applying themselves to Wii, then it’s really no surprise that out there in the real world, the grown-up church world, it’s women who seem more willing to shoulder responsibility.

What should the church’s response to this be? Well, I hope it’s two-fold: First, women should get some applause for the wise way they’re stewarding time and all the contributions they make to church and civic life. At the same time, we all need to encourage even young boys to devote more time to civic engagement and less to computer gaming.

What we should not do is buy into a discourse that pits men against women, takes competition for granted, and tacitly assumes that only one group — men or women, but never both — can excel in college or take responsibility in church life.

All too often, discussions of any kind of “gender gap” polarize conversation. That is, people respond to the news that women outnumber men in college classrooms with panic and decide they need to devote all their attention to helping men out.

I’m not sure that any strategies cobbled together in the heat of anxiety, though, will get us very far. Perhaps the church needs to pause and notice the gendered leadership dynamics in colleges and in young adult ministries, and — rather than panic — prayerfully consider how we can affirm and encourage the contributions, leadership and gifts of both men and women.

This isn’t, after all, a debate about what’s good for men versus what’s good for women. Instead, it ought to be a conversation about how to create communities, and opportunities for leadership and learning that are life-giving to all of us.

Copyright 2007 Lauren F. Winner. All rights reserved.

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About the Author

Lauren Winner

Lauren F. Winner is the author of numerous books, including Girl Meets God and Mudhouse Sabbath. Her study A Cheerful & Comfortable Faith: Anglican Religious Practice in the Elite Households of Eighteenth-Century Virginia will be published in the fall of 2010 from Yale University Press. She has appeared on PBS’s Religion & Ethics Newsweekly and has written for The New York Times Book Review, The Washington Post Book World, Publishers Weekly, Books and Culture, and Christianity Today. Winner has degrees from Duke, Columbia, and Cambridge universities, and holds a Ph.D. in history. The former book editor for Beliefnet, Lauren teaches at Duke Divinity School, and lives in Durham, North Carolina. Lauren travels extensively to lecture and teach. During the academic year of 2007-2008, she was a visiting fellow at the Center for the Study of Religion at Princeton University, and during the academic year of 2010-2011, she was a visiting fellow at the Institute of Sacred Music at Yale University. When she’s home, you can usually find her curled up, on her couch or screen porch, with a good novel.


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